The Huacachina Peru Oasis Experience
As the dune buggy hit another hillcrest at 40 mph, we had the now-familiar rush of almost falling out of our seats, followed by a vague idea that the shoulder harnesses would again catch us in time. Of course, they did. The buggy took a tight turn, and its large wheels spun, spraying sand in all directions. Our chests pressed against the harnesses and took some air out of our lungs, forcing a gasp from the young woman next to me. Then, for the first time in fifteen minutes, the buggy stopped.
We could see for miles around. The dunes went on forever, a sea of stagnant yellow waves staring at the cloudless blue sky above. There was no wind. One wondered if the dunes ever changed, or if they were the same a thousand years ago. The small buzzing of another buggy faintly sounded from a few hills away. We came to the oasis of Huacachina for the same reasons everyone does: sandboarding, dune buggies, and the freewheeling nature of backpacking that takes one to such a place. So we each jumped off the buggy and grabbed a sandboard and some wax.
The late afternoon sun was still strong. Now our mandatory wait for a tour until after 4 pm made sense. I took a quick look around me. Our driver had the same outfit as we did, shorts, a hat, and a t-shirt with sunglasses. But he had the bored look of someone who had done this a hundred times before. Supposedly these waxed boards, much like snowboards, would glide over the coarse grains of yellow sand to the bottom, where the buggy would pick us up. I sat down on the board and felt for my cloth headband, hoping it hadn’t fallen out and been consumed by the desert. A few beads of sand fell from my slightly tangled hair. Then I grabbed the sides of the board and asked for a push, staring at a blank slant of 100 feet of sand below.
Sandboards and backpackers have replaced high society at Huacachina. Decades ago, the spot was exclusively used by the Peruvian elite. It was their glamorous oasis, literally and figuratively, away from the rest of society. But that was many Peru’s ago. Social programs created to address extreme inequality (to various degrees of success), including land redistribution, and Peru’s rough-and-tumble road towards modernity from an apartheid-like system, changed what was considered off-limits to anyone not of direct Spanish descent.
Most of Huacachina’s buildings are historic markers of old Peru. But now, instead of vacation homes or hotels for the upper-class, they have become cafes, hostels, and restaurants. They cater to mostly young travelers from different classes and backgrounds. These visitors are on to bigger destinations or just weekend tripping from Lima. The 4.5 hour trip to the middle of pisco country, still recovering from the devastating 2007 earthquake, used to be a secret, yet today is found in any travel guide. Still, the dry desert air, sun-filled days and young energy provide for a scene that is slightly seductive and addicting.
Locals will tell you there is more to Huacachina than sandboarding. The oasis’ mud and water are used to treat conditions such as asthma and arthritis. And there is a dark side to the palm-ringed waters. It is said that once a year the “Sirena de Huacachina” (Mermaid of Huacachina) claims an unsuspecting man. But that’s the great part of exploring these corners of Peru: Whenever you think you know everything, there’s more to discover.
Recommended Huacachina Peru Itinerary
Huacachina is a great side trip option (ie, one night) if you are looking for something to do with your extra time in Lima. But it’s also close to Las Islas Ballestas (aka the “poor man’s Galapagos”), Ica and its wineries/distilleries, and even Nazca’s mysterious lines. So I’d recommend the following 3 day-itinerary to get the most out of your time:
Day 1 Morning: Boats Before Buggies
Hop on a bus (Cruz del Sur, Oltursa, or Soyuz) to Paracas, where you can take a tour of Las Islas Ballestas. The bus ride will take about 3.5 hours. Make sure to plan your time accordingly. There are only two boat tours a day; one starts at 8 am and the other at 10 am. If you’re not an early riser, you can visit from Ica the next day (only 1 hour away).
The tour is 2 hours long. You’ll be able to see Chilean flamingos, dolphins, Humboldt penguins, and even the candelabra sand line (a precursor to the famous Nazca lines!). Bring a hat for the sun and “guano” (fancy word for bird poop), sunblock, water (there is none available on the boat), and a snack in case of seasickness. The tour costs 45 Peruvian soles plus tax.
After the tour, you can take one of the above-mentioned bus companies to Ica, a trip of roughly 1 hour. Make sure you’ve bought tickets ahead of time. The cost is typically 12 to 50 soles. Once you get off the bus there will be taxis to Huacachina. You don’t have to search for them- these men have eagle eyes for tourists. There are lunch options in both Ica and Huacachina.
Day 1 Afternoon: Siesta in the Sun
Take the afternoon to relax. You can do this in your hotel in Huacachina or by exploring Ica’s famous licor scene at one of these:
- Tues-Fri from 9 am to 3 pm; Sat & Sun 9 am to noon. This is one of the oldest bodegas in Peru, founded in 1877. They have three levels of tours, the shortest of which is 45 minutes and includes the history of Queirolo and tastings. Book in advance.
- Open Tues-Sun, 9:30-4:30. The history of Tacama’s vineyards dates back to the 1500s. The traditional tour costs 20 soles and includes 4 tastings of their piscos and wines. It is 50 minutes long. There’s a restaurant on-premises and a horse show on weekends.
- Tres Generaciones
- 9 am to 6 pm. This is the famous distillery of Juanita Martinez, the “Queen of Pisco”. Tours are free but tastings are separate. There is a restaurant on-site, too.
Day 2: Huacachina Sandboarding!!!
Have breakfast at your hotel or a nearby cafe. Then decide if you want to go sandboarding on the Huacachina sand dunes in the morning or late afternoon (mid-day tours should be avoided since the sun and sand get hot). Since Huacachina is tiny, it’s incredibly easy to find an operator for the sandboarding/buggy tours. The experience is about 2 hours long. Make sure you wear sunblock, sandals (avoid socks), and sunglasses (as much for the sand as the sun). Also, bring water and avoid bringing anything that can be ruined by sand, like an expensive phone or camera! The cost is S/ 45 plus an S/ 3.60 tax per person.
*Experts have warned that excessive buggy tours are harming the waters of Huacachina because they lead to sediment buildup. If you’re looking for something more eco-friendly, you can rent a sandboard + wax for S/ 10 an hour and walk up the dunes to glide back down. The best time for this is after 5, as the darkening sun starts to set beneath the desert.
Day 3: Nazca Lines Option
Your third day will depend on how much time you have and what you want to see. Weekend trippers can go back to Lima today or the afternoon before. If you’re just starting your tour of Southern Peru, several bus companies go to Nazca 2.5 hours away. From there it is 9 hours to Arequipa and 14 to Cusco.
- Top Things to do in Nazca:
- Nazca Lines (obviously!): The Nazca Lines are perhaps the biggest mystery in Peru, where this is a lot of competition. The most famous explanations for these lines are that they were an astral calendar, served as a map to water channels, or were created by aliens. Some of the lines can be seen from two-story towers. However, the most famous figures, like the Spaceman, Monkey, and Condor, need to be seen from above. Flights can range from $50 to $200/person. If you can’t go to Nazca, there are also (more expensive) flights from Pisco and Lima.
- Sandboard the tallest sand dune on Earth! Cerro Blanco stands at a whopping 2,087 meters above sea level (6,847 feet). There is no dune buggies here so your only choice is to walk up the dune. Tour agencies in Nazca provide sandboards for this. You should consider taking a guide for this and Cahuachi.
- Cahuachi: They are still excavating this gigantic pre-Incan site. The Nazca culture reigned from 200 BC to 700 AD and Cahuachi was likely their most important ceremonial center. It is estimated to cover 24 square kilometers (15 square miles). The site is open from 9 am to 4 pm. The entrance is free.
Not all travelers stay in Nazca, because it is so close to Ica. However, there are several hotels and hostels in town. These are the most popular for backpackers:
Hospedaje Brabant Hostel
Nasca Travel One Hostel
Where to Stay for the Best Huacachina Hotels?
The population of about 100 in Huachachina relies extensively on tourism. So, there are lots of places to stay, and you often don’t need to book ahead of time. Here are a couple of popular options:
S/ 80 dorm
S/ 150 double
La Casa de Bamboo
S/ 30 dorm
S/ 90 double
How to Get from Lima to Huacachina and Ica Peru
You have to get to Ica in order to visit Huacachina. From there it is a quick taxi ride to the oasis. Cruz del Sur, Oltursa, Soyuz, and Peru Hop connect Ica with other destinations such as Lima, Paracas, Nazca, and Cusco.
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Note: The exchange rate tends to hover around 1 USD/3 sole.
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So are you looking to visit Huacachina and Nazca? Cachi Life can set you up to discover this exciting corner of Peru. We work to change and improve how travelers experience Peru, a goal we’ve had since visiting the country in 2013. Send us an email to book a trip to Huacachina or Nazca with us!
Guest post by Brad Goodman, the creator of Gringo Inca, a website designed for adventure travelers looking for the best experience in Peru. Gringo Inca also supports best practices in sustainable tourism.