Scenically Peru seems to have it all: an ocean on the doorstep, beaches with palm trees, an impressive mountain range with deep valleys and high plains, a jungle with lush vegetation, and an extremely dry desert with its very own oasis.
About 300 km (less than 200 miles) south of Lima and just a few kilometers from the regional capital Ica on the northern border of the Atacama Desert lies Huacachina. This small village with a permanent population of about 120 residents was built around a picture-postcard natural desert lake in the midst of up to 200 m high sand dunes and today is the destination in Peru for dune buggying and sand boarding.
The Huacachina legend
Even though the Huacachina lake formed naturally, there are a number of local legends surrounding this magical place. According to one a native princess mourned the death of a beloved warrior and walked into the desert, where she started to cry. Her tears dropped onto the sand and soon became of small puddle. When she noticed a hunter watching her, she fled, leaving the pool of water to become the lagoon.
According to another version a beautiful Incan princess was walking in the desert admiring herself in a handheld mirror, when her eyes caught the gaze of a hunter. Fleeing from him, she dropped the mirror which shattered into pieces and turned into a small lake amid the dessert.
Nearly all versions of the legend state that the folds of her cape, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. She however turned into a mermaid and is believed to still live in the oasis.
Huacachina – a popular adventure sports destination in Peru
Due to the supposed healing powers of the in a desert precious waters, Huacachina already in the 1940s was a popular spa resort for Lima’s rich. Even though the real boom only lasted a decade, Huacachina remained a tourist attraction especially for the locals. Since the turn of the millennium however, the so called “Oasis of America” developed into one of Peru’s hotspots for backpackers and adventure sport enthusiasts.
Today tens of thousands of tourists come to Huacachina each year to conquer the amazing dunes on sand boards, drive through a sea of sand in dune buggies, relax under the palm trees surrounding the lagoon and admire the surreal scenery at day, until the sun sets beautifully over the dunes and it’s time to have more fun in one of the bars and discotheques.
Being a national cultural heritage site unfortunately couldn't protect the small lagoon from environmental damages. An increasing demand for water for private and especially agricultural usage in the area, resulted in a drastic decline in the groundwater level and a shrinking of the already small lagoon. Therefore since 2015 regularly water is pumped into the lake to preserve the oasis and there are efforts underway to clean the polluted water.
What to do in Huacachina
Huacachina’s main attraction surely is the sand. Surrounded by some of the most impressive and beautiful dunes in South America, thrilling dune buggying and sand boarding are the reason the mostly younger crowds, adventure sport enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies come to this small oasis.
Hotels and hostel as well as local tour operators offer 1.5 to 2 hours dune buggy tours, if you wish combined with some sand boarding usually starting in the morning around 10.00 am or in the afternoon around 04.00 pm. Equipment can be rented on site. Prices vary depending on the operator you choose, the season, your negotiation skills and the number of people participating, but calculate with more or less US$ 25 to US$ 25 for a tour per person.
Most people prefer the afternoon tour, as the sand conditions seem to be better and you are rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets at the end of the day.
Be aware that the drivers of the dune buggies randomly drive up and down the dunes mostly at extremely high speeds; for some the rush of adrenaline they seek, for others a terrifying experience. For the latter: you can book special tours driving you through the dunes at a slower pace.
Those wanting to conquer the dunes by themselves can rent a 4x4 as well or just climb the dunes and enjoy the breathtaking views from the top.
One of the most amazing experiences in the desert is spending the night out in the open surrounded by nothing but sand watching the clear sky with thousands of sparkling stars. So, some tour operators offer a one night camping trip somewhere in the middle of the dunes including a campfire meal.
Other day activities in Huacachina include relaxing under palm trees on the shore of the little lagoon, paddling in the lake or, for the fierce ones, swimming in it like the locals do.
Where to stay and eat
Actually, the small lake is surrounded by numerous rustic hotels and hostel, restaurants and bars mostly catering for a younger audience and backpackers. Often recommended are El Huacachinera, a little bit more upscale and quieter, Hotel Curasi, a nice middle range hotel, Casa Bamboo, a comfy hotel with good food, and Desert Nights Ecocamp, to name just a few.
Recommended restaurants include La Casa de Bamboo for great international food (the Thai curry is to die for), Desert Nights for breakfast and good food until midnight, Mayo for Peruvian food and Nuna Cocina Bar for a decent cocktail.
As most places in the desert, Huacachina has a year-round dry climate with rarely any rain. The average temperature is 25°C (77°F). While January to March are the hottest months with temperatures well over 30 °C (over 90°F), May to August in Peruvian winter offer pleasant conditions, but it might get cool, so take a sweater with you.
How to get to Huacachina
Huacachina can easily be reach from Ica by taxi or mototaxi for about US$ 2 to US$ 3 within 10 minutes. Ica is located about 300km (less than 200 miles) south of Lima directly at the Southern Panamerican Highway. You can get to Ica either by bus or car. From Lima the trip by car or bus takes about 4 to 5 hours, from Arequipa about 10 to 11 hours and from Nasca just about 1.5hours.