On the morning we decided to escape Lima for the sandier pastures of Huacachina, the sandy oasis getaway in the Ica region, we arrived at the Cruz Del Sur (supposedly the safest company in Peru, given the average Peruvian bus record for crashes) bus station with our backpacks, our underslept, over-traveled bodies, ready for another 4 hours of sitting. The worst part of travel is, in fact, all the sitting. Everything else, take it and revel in it, but the tailbone can only take so much.
When my friends who had traveled to Peru beforehand told me that Peru’s bus system was superb, I really didn’t believe them (and recalled riding on buses with chickens in Cambodia). Til this. They took our bags, tagged them, loaded them on the bus, all-around uber efficent. The bus was clean, had comfortable seats that leaned back with the ease and shall I say, luxury, of a La-Z-Boy, and suddenly, everything my friends had told me was confirmed. I’m not sure how bus travel in a developing country ended up feeling far more first class than sitting in a Greyhound, which often feels something akin to riding on a dilapidated bus in an episode of The Walking Dead in a third world country, but I digress. We lined up, they checked our ID’s and tickets, etc. Finally, they sent someone with a video camera up and down the aisles, as a safety precaution. My guess is that in case anything happened (i.e. kidnapping, crashes, theft), they have you on video. Either that, or they were making the best home videos of us drinking Inca Kola (which looks like pee, but tastes an awful lot like liquid cake) and napping sitting up.
4 hours and a few movies later (American movies in Spanish, with English subtitles. Mind Blown.), we had left the smoggy, chilly climate of Lima and arrived in the cutest warm sandy oasis. It’s really amazing how varied Peru’s different regions are–you’ve got the Amazon, desert oasis, Machu Picchu mountain region, etc.
We were greeted by the most adorable dog in an Aloha shirt when we arrived at our hostel, aptly named Banana’s Adventures. When I asked the receptionist what his name was, she replied, “His name is Dog.” Maybe not the most creative name, but hey, he could rock that outfit like no other. Much like Prince, his cool factor is just understood by his devil may care ensemble. Which leads me to a random tangent…Please tell me Prince dresses his dogs in crushed velvet with ruffles, too.
We were aching to explore, so after a light lunch and crisp, local beer, so we decided to take a walk around the oasis, lined with palm trees, and packed with people in paddleboats, swimmers, and people selling local crafts — everything from jewelry to some girl who offered to put feathers and hair wraps in my tresses. Huacachina is a huge tourist attraction, attracting Peruvians and foreigners who want to relax, take a dip in the oasis, and ride dune buggies around the sand dunes.
At the edge of the lagoon, we found a statue of a mermaid, which apparently pays homage to the legend of the princess, turned mermaid, who created Huacachina. Clearly, even in its name –“Huacachina”, made up of two Quechua words — “Wakay”, meaning “to cry”, and “china”, meaning “young woman” — this legend of the princess is a lasting one. There seem to be a few variations of this story, depending on who you ask. The beauty of legends in Peru is that many are grounded in nature, gods, spirits, and royalty — all the makings of a tantalizing story.
In one version, a native prince and princess had once lived in the region. After the prince died, the princess, in her sadness, cried uncontrollably, creating the lagoon with her tears. One day, as the princess was at the edge of the lagoon, an evil spirit startled her and she dove into the lagoon to escape. However, unable to swim, she drowned. Swimmers are warned against swimming in the lagoon, as the princess, who lives on as a mermaid, supposedly lures people in, bringing them to their deaths by drowning.
Another version tells of how a princess was startled at the edge of her bath by a stranger. She jumped up, turning the pool of water that she had been bathing in, into the lagoon. As she fled, the folds of her robe became the towering sand dunes surrounding the lagoon.
The third version, and perhaps my favorite (due to the particularly dramatic Little Mermaid-esque, but gasp — darker — effect), describes a beautiful virgin maiden who had made a pact with a god that she would never fall in love with anyone, as he wanted her all to himself. As she was looking in her mirror one day, she saw a hunter in the mirror’s reflection and fell madly in love with him. The god, upon learning this, cast a spell on her that turned her into a mermaid, so she could never be with the hunter. As he did this, the mirror crashed to the ground and created the lagoon. The legend dictates that reveals herself at night, particularly during a full moon, to sing to the single men (watch out, young’ns, the siren’s coming for ya!) as they pass by, enticing them into the lagoon. Got goosebumps yet?
One quick loop around the oasis, which is really about the size of a small pond, and a few popsicles later, and we were headed back to our hostel to change for our big adventure: Dune buggy riding and boarding down some intensely steep sand dunes. I wasn’t really sure why they had insisted we wear long pants and shirts, but with desert-grade sun and riding down sand dunes at 60 mph, sunburned, sand-blistered skin was a definite reality (our friend Marco ended up with some pretty gnarly skinned forearms after wearing a T-shirt, yikes).
We hopped into the dune buggy with our hostel buds, strapped in, and off we went. Excited faces and all.
A short drive later, and we had arrived at our first stop, with quite possibly one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. It was a vast valley of mountainous sand dunes, perched against a blistering blue sky. Jaw-droppingly beautiful and incredibly humbling.
And here I thought a sand box was fun when I was a kid… Sand dunes appeal to your inner kid, your adventurous spirit, your roller coaster addiction, and everything in between. Our driver weaved up and down the dunes, steep enough to make your black diamonds feel like a mole hill. We screamed at the tops of our lungs at every descent, sand flying down our throats and into our nostrils, but not caring one bit. Our driver signaled us to put our hands up, roller coaster-style, before every descent, and little did we know, he decided to go hands-free too. I think our collective screams translated into, “Um, so nobody’s driving this thing right now going down a 65 degree incline?” When in Rome…or when in Huacachina, you’ve got to embrace your thrill-seeking side (beats peeing your pants in fear).
We played around for awhile, in between sandboarding sessions at a few dunes, which got steeper and steeper as the afternoon turned into evening. We lined up along the edge of the precipice, with our rickety boards — chipped, wooden boards that looked similar to snowboards, only with ghetto, loose, velcro straps for your feet instead of proper bindings, and prepared to slide down in all our glory. Our driver told us to wax our boards, and presented us with quite possibly the best piece of wax we could’ve imagined.
“Is that a candle?”, someone asked. Why, yes, it is exactly that…a stubby wax candle. Hey, wax is wax, right? Our driver didn’t speak English, and most of us only spoke pretty rudimental Spanish, but he signaled us to lie flat on our boards, hold the velcro straps, and tuck our arms in, and fly down the dunes. This was basically sledding face first into what looked like a scene from the movie, “The Mummy”, flying into the mouth of some sand god. At first, like a proper wuss, I stayed at the back of the line, hoping to go last, kind of wishing I had learned, “How do I not die?” beforehand. After a few breathtaking runs, though, I was pumped for the next big dip.
One of my favorite runs had us sliding down one dip, then hitting another bumpy ledge, sending us flying into an even deeper sand dune. Of course, this bruised the hell out of all of our pelvic bones (ok, probably…mostly…ok, just mine, but let’s make this a collective effort?), but hey, the things we do for the feeling of being free, right? Worth every scape and bruise:).
As our day wore to an end, we were driven to the perfect point to catch a view of the desert oasis at sunset — complete group romantical and all. We all stood there, after a day of bonding by watching each other eat sand, board down dunes messily, tumble down frequently, and laugh constantly. We were bruised, covered in sand, sunburnt, but completely fulfilled.
After all of us washed up, we told stories, ate barbeque, and hung out with some lovable hostel kittens aptly named “Hot” and “Wings”. Much like the inspiration behind naming the dog, “Dog”, I haven’t quite figured that one out yet…:)
Much like any trip where you’re thrust into interacting with people on a real level again (sans constant text messaging), we got the chance to meet people from all over the world, with some pretty incredible travel stories. One guy was on a trip that took him through Argentina and Brazil during the World Cup, the Bolivian salt flats, the Amazon jungle, Chile… Another had been traveling through South America with a friend he had met years ago on another backpacking trip. A German and a Malaysian, meeting up in South America. Then there was the Kiwi, traveling through South America with his girlfriend-turned fiancé (he had lovingly proposed somewhere between the World Cup in Brazil and sandboarding in Peru). No matter where you go in the world, if you just start up a conversation with a stranger, you’re bound to hear a fascinating story at some point. It may be this unique part of traveling that makes me feel the most excited: the random intersection of human connection.
24 hours in Huacachina, and we finally felt like we were absorbing the beauty of Peru, and getting into our travel rhythm (which, thankfully, ran on easygoing Peruvian time).