Perhaps the last thing you’d expect to find in the bone-dry dusty Peruvian desert is a picturesque lagoon surrounded by palm trees and lush foliage, highly reminiscent of those seen in the Sahara. But this isn’t a mirage, it’s Huacachina, one of the last remaining natural oases in the Americas and a designated national cultural heritage site that’s a firm favorite on Peru’s tourist trail.
This small resort town built around a desert oasis and towering surrounding sand dunes has a resident population of only 100, but attracts local families and a great deal of foreign tourists, meaning there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, cafes and tour services on offer, as well as souvenir shops, a library and even a nightclub. The town first began to attract visitors during the 1940s when it functioned as a popular beauty spa for wealthy Peruvians from Lima with the oasis’ waters being thought to have soothing and curative properties. Nowadays, it’s a well-established spot on Peru’s backpacker trail, attracting sightseers and adventure-seekers eager to witness the beauty and thrills of this unique desert environment.
Whether you’re craving adrenaline-fuelled adventure or simply prefer to take it easy and soak in the serene setting, here’s all the information you need to plan a trip to this remarkable desert oasis and a list of the top things to do in Huacachina.
Nestled amid a vast desert landscape and surrounded by towering dunes reaching up to 90 metres high, it’s hard to imagine a more aesthetically-pleasing and photogenic location. One of the most popular activities is to climb to the top of the nearest and tallest sand dune (a hike of about 20 minutes), for stunning views over the oasis resort and surrounding dunes. Hike up at sunset for the most stunning perspective, when the landscape is bathed in a palette of rich red and golden hues. Then as night falls, watch as the glistening yellow lights of Huacachina switch on against the sharp contrast of the black desert night. Don’t forget to bring your camera to snap the sunset!
Most of the hotels in Huacachina offer adventure tours into the surrounding desert (a couple of hours for around 45 Soles). Most popular of all is a thrilling sand-boarding excursion where you’ll be provided a well-waxed snowboard to cruise down the gigantic dunes. Admittedly, it can be quite hard to stay balanced on the board, so most first-timers end up sliding down face-down on their stomachs – which is certainly no less fun! A word of warning – hitting sand is much more painful than wiping out in snow, so please be careful. Of course, this excursion also provides the perfect opportunity to appreciate the surreal beauty of the dunes themselves and the jaw-dropping vistas from the top. An afternoon tour is recommended as the sand will be less scorching and you’ll also be treated to a gorgeous sunset at the end of the day.
Often in combination with sandboarding, you can embark on a bone-rattling buggy ride over the desert landscape. The drivers know the area like the back of their hands and will negotiate the tricky terrain like pros, cruising the highs, lows and steep curves at breakneck speeds. You’ll feel much like you’re on a rollercoaster so come prepared with hat and sunglasses to protect against the wind and sand. If you want to slow down the pace, there are also more leisurely rides available with a focus on admiring the scenery, snapping photographs and even enjoying a romantic bottle of champagne.
With all the adrenaline activities on offer, you may find yourself craving a spot of rest and relaxation during your stay. Spend an afternoon hanging out under a shady palm on the sandy banks of Huacachina’s lagoon. Take to the water itself to cool off or rent a paddle boat to soak up the sun. Alternatively, simply chill with a cold beer or refreshing fruit juice at your hotel’s pool or exotic garden.
The nearby city of Ica is peppered with wineries producing sweet red wine and the famous Peruvian pisco, with operations ranging from the industrial to artisanal family-run establishments. Tours are available to enable you to learn more about the production process, see it in action and best of all to sample the finished product.
Ica is also home to some fascinating museums, including an archaeology museum filled with remarkably well-preserved pottery, textiles and mummies excavated from the wider Ica region.
Huacachina is located in the desert of southwestern Peru, just a few kilometers from the bustling coastal city of Ica and roughly five hours south of Lima. There are no flights to Ica, so to get there you’ll need to take a bus from Peru’s capital. The journey takes between 4.5 to 6 hours. The local bus company Cruz del Sur is highly recommended as unlike other companies there’s no need to purchase tickets in advance (although this is recommended). You can then take a short taxi ride from Ica to Huacachina.
For such a small settlement, Huacachina boasts plentiful accommodation options. Most are rustic, yet comfortable and cater to budget travellers. Huacachina attracts a young backpacker crowd, so you can expect dorm-style rooms, plenty of late-night entertainment and a distinctly international feel. Some of the most popular hostels include Desert Nights, Casa de Arena and Salvatierra, each boasting swimming pools, great food, bars, cheap rates and a fun-filled laid-back vibe.
There are also some more upscale options available, including El Huacachinero which offers private rooms, an elegant pool and more peace and quiet than many of the hostels. A few minutes outside Huacachina, Las Dunas Hotel is easily the most exclusive place to stay in the area, with comfortable rooms, quality facilities, a large pool, manicured lawns and even its own resident alpacas roaming the grounds.
Huacachina is the perfect jumping off point for a visit to the famous Nazca lines, located roughly 2 hours away. The Pacific Coast is also easily accessible, as is the town of Paracas from which you can visit the wildlife haven of the Ballestas Islands. In short, if you’re exploring Southern Peru, Huacachina fits easily into any itinerary and is certainly not one to miss.
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