I am a big proponent of extended travel. Staying anywhere for less than a week is pretty rare for me and staying for just one night is practically unheard of. That’s why it was so surprising when I agreed to travel to Huacachina for just one day on our way to Cusco. My travel partner insisted we had to make the stop, but we had heard from various sources that a night was all you needed in this desert oasis. I was skeptical, but nevertheless I boarded the bus and made my way to Huacachina.
What exactly is a desert oasis?
When I first saw Huacachina, it looked straight out of the movies. To be honest, I didn’t believe that such a picturesque oasis could actually exist in the real world.
We had to take a taxi into Huacachina and as we drove in we saw a circle of trees tucked between the towering mountains of sand. When we got closer we learned that Huacachina consisted of a small lake surrounded by one street and a few alleys off of the single pedestrian-only street. The whole place was home to 100 locals and about the same number of tourists.
After the cold mountains of Huaraz, we were thrilled that the sun was shining bright in Huacachina. We took advantage of the warm weather and started exploring our little oasis. It took less than an hour to see every shop, restaurant, and hostel in the city, and while seeing an oasis for the first time was cool, the town wasn’t much of anything. It wasn’t until that afternoon that we understood why so many people make an effort to stop in Huacachina.
The three-hour tour that made it all worthwhile
At three in the afternoon every tourist came out of their hostels and flocked to the edge of the city where a group of tour guides waited in front of their weather-worn buggies. We were quickly shown to our buggy and our driver took off. He raced through the dunes, speeding up and over and sideways across the dunes. We laughed and shrieked as he nose-dived off a particularly steep dune. It only took 20 minutes of driving for our adrenaline to be pumping. That’s when he pulled over to give us our first panoramic view of the dunes.
The oasis was nowhere to be seen. Mountainous dunes covered the view as far as the eye could see. They were tall, but we could see the peaks and after our time in Huaraz, their height didn’t seem too intimidating.
Maria and I, still high on the adrenaline, decided it would be no big thing to climb to the top of the one nearest us. We were energetic and eager so we took off at a run. Ten steps in we slowed to a crawl, panting and fighting against the sand to keep moving to the top. But our fellow buggy-riders were cheering from below and we were determined to show ourselves this really was no big thing, so we laughed at the unexpected difficulty and kept climbing. We reached the peak later than expected. Breathless, I realized I had never actually been to a desert and stood in awe and the dramatic environment.
Soon out entire tour had joined us at the top and after a few minutes of gazing in wonder, our driver started to call us back. It was time for sandboarding. My childish love of all things fun kicked in and I lay down on my back, closed my eyes and mouth tightly, crossed my arms across my chest, and started rolling. The dune was steep and I took off at a speed I had never achieved as a kid on even the biggest hills.
I could hear the wind rushing past me and feel my body flooding with endorphins. I could also feel myself getting dizzier than I had ever been. I stopped and sat up to see how far I’d come, but I immediately fell back down. For a minute the world was upside down. Then my brain started to figure out where the ground was and I was able to press myself onto my elbows and take it all in. I had only gone about a third of the way down the dune.
Just then I my fellow travelers took off down the dune, so I jumped up to join them. Still slightly dizzy, I sped beside them as we all fought against gravity and the sinking sand to keep our footing and stay in control of our momentum. Most of us fell multiple times along the way, but we all reached the bottom laughing and shaking sand out of our hair. I’d already had more fun than I could remember having in a while and we hadn’t even started sandboarding.
Throwing caution to the wind... all in the name of adventure
I had no idea how sandboarding worked and had no desire to go first, but I happened to be the first person to grab my board, so I was quickly called to the edge of the dune to start the adventure. Our driver waxed my board and, speaking little to no English, mimed that I was to lay across my belly on the board, hug my elbows in, lift my chest, and ride.
I looked skeptically down the dune. I’d been snowboarding and sledding many times, but this was crazy. I wouldn’t sled down a hill that steep and long unless I was determined to die. But my driver seemed unconcerned. I reminded myself that they did these tours every day and must know what they were doing. Then I lay across the board, hugged my arms in, and pulled my chest as high as I could.
The driver shoved my board and an involuntary scream erupted from me as I took off down the dune. Soon my scream had transformed into laugher and when the board finally came to a stop I rolled into the sand, unable to control the jittery, excited laughter that was pouring out of me. My whole body was shaking from the adrenaline and I could think nothing except, more, more, more!
Luckily, more came soon. It turned out the steep, soaring dune we had descended first was the mildest of the dunes we would ride, but I sailed from each successive peak with more bravado and joy than the one before. After we rode our fourth and final dune I could hardly sit still for the energy that was pulsing through me. But I was quickly quieted when the buggy came to a halt facing the stunning sunset.
We all poured out of the car and sat in silence watching the painted sky change colors as the sun dropped below the sandy horizon. Behind us you could see the lights of Huacachina coming on one at a time and the hazy oasis seemed to float peacefully between the mountains of sand. It seemed impossible that life could exist in such a barren place. And yet, as I lay down against the warm sand and watched the sky turn from pink to royal blue, I felt more alive than ever.