Peru is generally associated with the lush mountainous peaks of Machu Picchu, the cobblestoned streets of Cusco, the gastronomic delights of Lima, and the leafy heights of the humid rainforest. You probably don’t expect a country that is home to those climates to also host an expansive, dry desert but that’s what I was most excited to experience!
After a week and a half of 6am wake-up calls, never sleeping in the same hostel for more than 2 nights in a row, and a particularly heinous bout of altitude sickness endured during a 7-hour tour of the Sacred Valley, Janelle and I were ready to chase the damp of Cusco from our bones. Somehow we had even managed to get caught in a hailstorm in the cobbled stone city at the beginning of the Peruvian summer!
As amazing as the wondrous Incan ruins were, what I was looking forward to the most in Peru was dune buggying and sandboarding in Huacachina, a tiny oasis town just outside of the city of Ica.
Over the 5-hour bus journey from Lima to Ica, I watched in wonder as the city landscape gradually transformed, rows of buildings giving way to vast stretches of sand as far as the eye could see.
From the Ica bus terminal, we caught a 7 sole ($2.50) taxi to Banana’s Adventure Hostel in the heart of the sparsely populated (only 115 residents!) town surrounding a lagoon. We were now in a prime position to start our desert adventure!
Here are some tips and observations that will be useful if you want to add sandboarding and dune buggying in Peru to your bucket list:
1/ BOOKING DETAILS
Your best bet is to book your desert activities through your accommodations like we did. It’s easier and ends up being a better deal. Banana’s Adventure Hostel’s nightly stay is a little pricier than hostels nearby but that’s because it includes an activity like the dune bugging and sand boarding as well as a pisco winery tour or the weekly barbecue. You can sign up as late as the day of.
2/ DAY AND NIGHT (WHAT, WHAT)
Banana’s Adventure offered 2 departure times for dune buggying and sandboarding, 1pm and 4pm. We chose the later option because the desert sun is brutal midday. Plus, not only did we get to see the desert in the day when the sun wasn’t at full blast, but we got to witness the surreal landscape in the moonlight. It was an unforgettable experience, zooming down sand dunes as the sun set in gorgeous shades of purple and pinks.
3/ WEAR AND TEAR
People confident of their balancing abilities wore sporty tops, thin shorts, and secure footwear. Seeing as I fall walking down an evenly paved street in flats, I played it safe and wore long workout pants after seeing some people from the midday group return with less skin than they had left with. You may not think sand can inflict much damage but imagine hitting it at high speeds!
4/ RIDE AND/OR DIE
We were picked up at our hostel by a huge, open, Jurassic Park-like vehicle, framed in neon bars with several 3-seat rows. The dune buggy seamlessly transitioned from the paved oasis town streets to ascend the sandy hills till we teetered at the top of our first, steep dune. Our driver let us appreciate the view just long enough to lull us into a false sense of security and then plunged into a chaotic, roller-coaster like series of sharp turns, steep drops and sudden stops.
5/ LEAVE IT OR LOSE IT
Bring as little with you as possible. The dune buggy ride is so wild and crazy that you’ll be too preoccupied trying to hold on to your last meal and staying inside the vehicle without worrying about holding on to your clunky DSLR camera or your expensive shades. Plus you’re in and out of it so often as you venture from dune to dune that you don’t want to worry about your possessions being stolen.
6/ CLIMB TO THE TOP
Walking in the desert is hard! I’m not just referring to the uncomfortable heat but your feet sink in the sand as if it was water that you’re wading through. I had to stop every 5 minutes, calves seizing,on our way up. We ditched our flip flops and slip-ons as we attempted to claw our way up the steep dunes, tilting forwards, hands in the sand in front of us to keep from pitching backwards and tumbling to the bottom.
7/ SANDBOARDING STYLE
It is not ideal to pursue risky, adrenaline-pumping activities in foreign countries where the instructor’s grasp of English is tenuous. You’re likely to miss pertinent tips on how to avoid getting killed. Our instructor gestured for us to lie on our stomaches on the thin, narrow boards, and either wrap the velcro grips around our hands or wrap them around our feet if we had a death wish to ride down standing up, similar to snowboarding.
8/ TIME WILL TELL…(YOU NOT TO DO IT)
Like the prospect of pitching head-first down a precipitous peak wasn’t terrifying enough, but like rollercoasters, at least half of the fear comes from anticipation. The large group of us would line up along the edge of the dune at the ready with our boards, watching others as they gathered their courage to take the plunge, one at a time to avoid collisions. Nothing makes you regret agreeing to do a dangerous thing more than time.
^The guy sliding down the dune is for context ;P
9/ MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
When there is sand everywhere with nothing else for the eye to distinguish it from means your depth perception is severely compromised. Everything just looks flat! From the top of the dune, we can tell you’re high up because the wind is whipping around you but you don’t realize just how steep a sand dune is until you’re hurtling down, face first, at teeth-rattling speed.
10/ DARK SIDE OF THE DUNE
As impressive as the desert is during the day, with dunes stretching out into the distance, it’s even more majestic at night, bathed in the glow of the moon. Energized from the day’s events, our sand boarding group returned to the sand dune plateau with bottles of wine. Every sound is drowned out by the wind and the moon looms enormous overhead, as if you travelled to the planet next-door.
11/ PLACES SAND SHOULD NEVER BE
As you would imagine, you leave the desert with sand everywhere. In both socks, in your ears, eyes, every crevice. SAND! Some people would wear bandanas to cover the bottom half of their face to keep the sand out but if you don’t have one, keep your mouth closed! Unless you want a literal sand-wich (har har). Try shaking off most of it off before you go back to your room otherwise you’ll have mounds of sand in your sheets.
Bus Cruz Del Sur (Lima to Ica) $17-26
Approximately 5-6 hour trip
Taxi from Ica should be maximum 7-8 soles ($2-3CAD)
Banana’s Adventure Hostel
$50CAD/nt (Includes night stay, breakfast, and activity of choice)
- Boots, sneakers/tenis , trainers – >NO sandals or flip flops
- Long pants
- Plastic bag in ziplock / camera case
- Bring cash, preferably in small bills as the ATMs in Huacachina aren't reliable
- Bring a lot of sunscreen
- Ask for the daily meal special at Hospedaje MAYO. Delicious drink, soup and main for like 13 soles
- Go to the desert in the afternoon when the sun isn't as hot