Home to South America’s only desert oasis, the charming, pocket-sized Huacachina has become an essential stop for backpackers along the Gringo Trail— framed by towering sand dunes, offering plenty of adventurous activities, and bathed in nearly perpetual sunshine, it’s incredibly easy to see why. For the full desert experience, most travellers take to the dunes on a buggy or a board, soaring over the golden waves amidst screams of delight/terror. Wary though I am of all types of boarding and possibly against my better judgement, I signed up for a tour into the desert that would incorporate both a wild dune buggy ride and a chance to cruise down the sand on a board. It was every bit as fun as promised— but I can only say that because I wasn’t one of the ones left bleeding at the bottom of the dunes.
All the details: Sandboarding in Huacachina
Cost: Heaps of companies offer sand boarding in Huacachina, but I went with Arenas for S/50. You can join on the day or pay in advance through Find Local Trips.
Getting there: Until recently, the only way to reach Huacachina was by taking a bus to the nearby town of Ica from either Lima (4-5hrs) or Paracas (1-2hrs) and then grabbing a taxi up the road to Huacachina (15min). Thankfully, Peru Hop now offers a direct tourist bus to Huacachina on their passes, which is a great way to save time and get straight to the oasis. The Peru Hop bus from Paracas arrives into Huacachina in the afternoon and departs for Nazca the following afternoon (every day), which leaves plenty of time to go sandboarding, climb the dunes for sunrise, walk around town, and relax in the hostel pool. Check out all of their passes here or read my comprehensive review of Peru Hop.
Where to stay: I stayed at Wild Rover in Huacachina, which is a raucous party hostel aimed primarily at people who want to spend every day hungover and every night back on the sauce. I didn’t care for the loud noise until 4am or the smell of my dorm-mates literally vomiting in their beds, but I loved the large pool, the great on-site bar and restaurant, and the pod-style dorm rooms. If you can put up with the craziness, it’s a good choice for just one night at S/26. And who knows, maybe you’ll be the one vomiting…
Top tips: It doesn’t much matter what shoes you wear for sandboarding (although I was happy to be in sandals), but consider wearing a long sleeve to avoid sand burns on your arms, a scarf/buff to keep sand out of your face, and sunnies. If you’re bringing a nice camera, either shove it in a ziplock bag or bring a dry bag that will keep sand far away from your expensive lens.
Travelling with Peru Hop, an excellent hop on/hop off service with direct routes to many of Peru’s popular destinations, comes with a variety of perks, including the opportunity to book discounted tours on the bus as you travel to your next stop. So, after making friends with a lovely German couple, a Spanish/Argentinian couple, and a girl from Puerto Rico, I was talked into booking a spot on this afternoon’s sandboarding tour. Cue the sweaty palms.
Due to some minor delays on our journey from Paracas, we arrive in Huacachina slightly later than anticipated and rush to find our rooms and unpack before our 3.30pm tour. Initially thinking I have heaps of time, I get into swimmers and walk to the incredibly enticing pool in the middle of our hostel before realising I have about 5 minutes until I’m meant to be meeting people outside. Sweaty and a bit sour over missing a chance to swim, I end up frantically throwing some essentials (like my camera, GoPro, buff) into a dry bag, but still leaving out a number of other essential (like water and money).
Thankfully, I make it to the meeting spot just in time to rendezvous with my friends before we are divided into buggies. Attentive guides that they are, the Peru Hop staff who are travelling with us have already sorted most of our little group into one vehicle, so we walk a short distance up the sand and then strap ourselves in for what’s been promised to be a wild ride.
Dune buggy rides in Huacachina
Our group zipping along in the dune buggy
Me and Inka in the sand dunes around Huacachina
Our dune buggy is actually just a modified car, and judging by the sounds it’s making as we climb increasingly larger mounds of sand, an absolute relic. Still, we are all laughing and taking videos as we fly through the dunes out towards our first sandboarding hill.
As we are passed by buggy after buggy, though, it soon becomes apparent that we are travelling a fair bit slower than everyone else. I pull my buff down to request más rapido, por favour, but our driver says something about the engine and waives me away. I’m not overly impressed by this response (um, what is wrong with the engine?!), but we soon arrive at the first sandboarding spot and are instantly distracted by waxing our boards and watching a few brave souls take the first plunge down the sand. Pretty much everyone is on their bellies, which makes me feel far less lame— probably most of these people would happily stand up if not for the higher cost of renting a snowboard or skis, but I am way too uncoordinated when it comes to either activity to even consider it, irrespective of cost. Belly it is.
Laying on the board proves to be incredibly thrilling as it is, but surprisingly less frightening than I imagined. Aside from careening into one of the Germans on the way down (a narrowly avoided tibial fracture, I’m sure), I’ve quickly gotten the hang of how to keep myself on the board and maintain a relatively straight trajectory. Watching other people roll off their board and skid down the hill makes me really appreciate the importance of these newfound skills.
Climbing back up the dune after a long ride down
AJ sliding down the dune
Arriving at the last sand dune
Sandboarding in Huacachina
After a series of hills and more fun on the board, the drivers all loop around to meet their passengers and load them back in for the journey to a larger hill. Our driver is the very last to arrive, which I suppose is due to the fact that he’s traveling at 2km/hr, but he does eventually zip us off to our own private dune, which later proves incredibly fortuitous (our hill is slightly less vertical than the standard spot and when we eventually rejoin all of the other travellers for sunrise, several people are visibly bleeding and one has even broken his only pair of prescription glasses— I feel really thankful for our driver in this moment).
And then again, slightly less-so when he squeezes us for tips in order to drive faster… but I don’t mind giving him S/5 for a great afternoon (an amount that somehow magically rectifies all of the “engine problems” and allows us to travel at a normal speed).
The whole experience lasts 2hrs and concludes with an absolutely beautiful view of the sun descending over the dunes. Now confident that I’ve escaped injury-free, I can definitely see why sandboarding is so incredibly popular and I’m happy I gave it a crack (particularly after squirming out of the activity in Namibia last year).
Watching the sunset over the dunes in Huacachina
Wonderful new friends
Huacachina just after sunset
Looking down at Huacachina from the sand dunes
As if the afternoon could get any better, our group hikes up one of the dunes over the oasis for a view of the nighttime lights. Surrounded by new friends that already feel like old ones, I am reminded of why I love travelling in the first place— connecting with people from all over the world, discovering beautiful places, getting outside of my comfort zone… I can’t help but smile into the darkness. It’s going to be a good trip.
A big thank you to Peru Hop for providing me with a bus pass in exchange for an honest review of their service (which I absolutely loved— read the full review here).