Huacachina, A Peruvian Desert Oasis

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I had lingered too long in Montañita, cutting deeply into my time in Peru. Anthony was well ahead of me now- he ended up heading down to Lima to get the rabies vaccine as he found out the one in Ecuador isn’t reliable. I was hoping I would be able to catch up to him eventually, but I had to move fast. I bid a sad farewell to Montañita and hopped on the evening bus to Guayaquil. I had plans to jump on another bus right away to head straight down to Lima, a good 30+ hour trip. I got on the bus in Guayaquil after only an hour layover and was feeling awful. I didn’t like the bus, nor the energy around me and the idea of spending 30 hours on it made me anxious.

I had to get off in some town I’d never heard of to transfer buses and had no idea how many hours layover I would have. I met a girl on the bus named Sally, from Australia, who was heading to Mancora. We talked quite a bit and I expressed my doubts about staying on this bus. I found out I had only paid two more dollars for my ticket than Sally had and she convinced me to hop off with her in Mancora instead and spend a day there. She was planning on heading to Lima after a day in Mancora so we could then travel down together. I was sold. I was so relieved to be getting off in a few hours in Mancora and breaking up the ludicrously long journey to Lima. And even better, I now had a travel buddy!

Sally and I arrived in Mancora at the ungodly hour of 5am. We got ripped off by our tuk tuk driver, who dropped us off at our hostel, The Point. The hostel was amazing and actually let us check into our room right away (even though check in wasn’t until 1pm) so we could crash and get some much needed sleep. We slept a few hours and then rolled out of bed to head into town and check out what Mancora had to offer.  The coast of Peru is much more rugged than Ecuador, and the waves much calmer here. We walked along the beach and felt like it stretched on for ever, a barren, desolate beach that didn’t entice you into it’s waters the way it did in Montañita. I touched my toes to the water and gasped – the change in temperature from Montanita was shocking- it was cold here!

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Sally and I in our tuk tuk, happy to be off the bus at last

Mancora is nothing like Montañita though they are often compared. They say if you hit Mancora first you’ll enjoy it and love Montañita even more, but if you start in Montañita, Mancora has a hard time living up to it. Mancora was beautiful and laid back and didn’t have the hoards of tourists that Montañita had. Everything moved at a slower pace here. The town was bigger and more spread out than Montañita, with surf schools scattered around and loads of shops and places to eat. We wandered the streets, bought our bus tickets to Lima for in the evening of the next day, I booked a surf lesson and then we grabbed a late lunch. I would have loved to spend a couple of days here in Mancora, the lazy and sluggish pace of the town was appealing to me after the bustle of Montañita. But time was something I didn’t have much of as I was trying to catch Anthony .

My surf lesson the next morning was nothing like in Montañita. The waves here are small, slow and few and far between. My instructor looked like he had just smoked a joint and wasn’t impressed at being awoken from his nap to teach a lesson. He spoke english well but hardly spoke a word to me.  I put my wet suit on and we headed out. I got up on the waves each time, and he told me to relax and slow down- I was so used to the insane pace of the waves in Montañita, that my reactions were to jump up quickly on my board.  Here you could simply push yourself up slowly to your knees and then stand up! I couldn’t shake the lessons I had learned in Montañita however, and kept standing up quickly. Sometimes I would be out there ten minutes laying on my board waiting for a wave, they were so slow and far between. I rode a couple waves in and even turned the board a couple of times. But all in all I left disappointed in the lesson, as it didn’t feel like a lesson, but simply having someone stand in the water and give my board a little push from time to time. But I was happy nonetheless to have gotten out into the waves again.

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Bus snacks! (We shared with out buddy in the back)

Sally and I stocked up on bus snacks and began our 20 hour bus ride down to Lima the next evening. I was getting to know Sally over the last day and realized I found myself a real gem. She was loud and hilarious and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. She constantly had me in stitches and was always up for adventure. I knew we’d be fast friends when she offered to comb out the unintentional dreadlock that had formed in my hair at the base of my hair wrap. That’s love. We kept each other entertained on the bus playing heads up, snacking, sharing music with each other and snoozing when we could. Sally had a giant army-green mens jacket she had picked up in a flea market that was three times too big and made her look like a homeless person. She stumbled off the bus at one of our stops with her baggy coat hanging off of her, looking slightly stupefied, sleep still in her eyes and asked where we were. I laughed at how ludicrous she looked and told her she slightly resembled a crazed murderer. We had a laugh and grabbed some snacks (mmm chocolate Tentacion cookies!) and wandered around the grounds to stretch our legs until it was time to leave.

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Sleepy kitty at our bus stop.

Peru was a strange surprise to my eyes. My visions of Peru had consisted mostly of Machu Picchu, lush green mountains and ancient ruins, ladies in traditional dress, and llamas running around in the wild. So far what I had seen of Peru on our cruise down the coast was a desolate land of angry ocean on my right and a dreary expanse of desert on my left. The sky was an eternal shade of grey, reflecting it’s dismal colour into the ocean to match their moods. The few houses and towns we passed through were filthy- covered in a layer of dust and grime from the unrelenting gusts that carried the sand from the desert and grimly deposited it on every surface in its way. Everything looked poor and in absolute disrepair.

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The colourless landscape that filled my eyes for hours on end…

The bus sped along a highway that cut into the side of a massive sand dune that fell straight into the ocean. Sally was in utter disbelief and began recalling her Navy Seals Survival guide on how to survive anything in preparation for the bus falling down the side of the sand dune cliff that we clung so precariously to. I was having doubts myself, but assumed there must be rock under the sand dune that they built the road into, but your eyes only saw a a mountain of unstable sand that would surely crumble away at any second and drop you into the sea hundreds of feet below. It was a stressful ride and we were both relieved to finally turn off to the left away from the ocean and head into the hills.

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The rugged Peruvian coast that our bus clung to…

I couldn’t help but feel like I was on some other planet, the forlorn Peruvian  landscape was so alien. The grey colour was only interrupted by the rusty rocks and hills. The sky was grey, the sand looked grey, the flatlands were grey; only those strange maroon slopes penetrated the sea of grey. The occasional wooden building leaning perilously to the side, surely pushed over by years of relentless wind, would appear, a lonesome sentinel in an expanse of nothingness. Did someone live here? How could they possibly live here? I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that Peru was ugly. It sounds terrible to say, but Sally confirmed my thoughts when she spoke them aloud in her audacious Australian accent- “Peru is so ugly!!!” I laughed and said I had just been thinking the same. The cold desolation of the last several hours of the drive had left us mostly in silence, the appearance of the landscape penetrating into us and leaving us without words to describe what we were seeing. We were both surprised and had no idea that this is what Peru looked like. From Mancora all the way down to Lima, nearly 20 hours and 1100km, and this was all we saw mile after mile after mile.

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Strange gravestones on the side of the road

As the bus cruised into the outskirts of Lima, the unsightliness of the country only increased as ramshackle buildings covered in grime and filth began to pop up like weeds out of control. They toppled over each other, climbing as if to escape the reach of the clawing arms of the dirty sand.  I now understood why everyone had been saying that Lima was not a pretty city and not one you would care to spend much time in. I was so happy with our decision to stay in Montañita for Anthony’s birthday instead of rushing down to dusty Lima. As we slowly cruised further into the city, it began to change and the filth seemed to have a harder time reaching the innards of the city. I was relieved; I was feeling guilty for thinking so negatively about the appearance of Lima and hoped the whole city wouldn’t be in such rough condition. We made our way to our hostel which was in a really posh neighbourhood called Barranco. There was a park just out front filled with German expats and their dogs in sweaters on leashes and parents watching their children play. Just beyond the park was a stunning view as the ground fell away into cliffs and we could see surfers clad in wetsuits in the frigid waters below trying to catch a wave. The waves here looked large and ominous compared to Ecuador.  So Lima wasn’t all that ugly in the end. Every city has is dark spots and its gems.

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Unfortunately we had decided to stay only that evening and head out on a bus the next afternoon to make our way into Huacachina, the desert oasis. I didn’t have the time to give Lima a chance, but I have no doubt that the city had plenty to offer, especially in terms of gastronomy. Peru is widely known for it’s cuisine around the world, refuted to be the best in South America. We wandered around our neighbourhood to get at least a taste of Lima – the architecture was pretty and the streets lively. It was obviously one of the nicest areas in the city however, so we didn’t get to experience the grittier side of Lima, the side we saw on our bus ride in. We went for dinner that night to a seafood joint where I ordered ceviche- Peru is known to have the best ceviche so I was excited. I had tried it up North in Mancora but wasn’t impressed at all.

The ceviche in Peru is very different from Ecuador, and I was a die hard fan of Ecuadorian Ceviche. In Ecuador they marinated their small chopped fish pieces in lime juice, then added finely chopped tomato, red onion, a dash of pepper, another freshly squeezed lime and a tiny touch of mustard atop, and came sided with plantain chips called chifles. It was exquisite. Peruvian ceviche was marinated in lemon juice and the fish pieces were large, so large that I had to use my fork and knife to sometimes break them apart to fit in my mouth. It came accompanied only with long slices of red onion, also too large to fit in my mouth in one bite. It had maiz tostado (toasted corn) piled atop it and had a spicy flavour in the marinade that I was uncertain of. It was tasty, but I felt it absolutely paled in comparison to the ceviche in Ecuador and it was the last time I tried it in Peru. I would give it another chance from a fancy restaurant to redeem itself, but I didn’t even finish my plate the second time because it just didn’t do it for me.

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standing atop a sand dune, staring out at an endless expanse of desert.

After dinner we ended up going to bed pretty early, woke up the next morning and had breakfast at the hostel – Shakshuka -the best Israeli breakfast – making up for last nights lacklustre ceviche. We packed our bags, and made our way to the bus station to catch our bus to Huacachina, a cheap $7 ride a few hours East. This drive improved only slightly, and I think it was mostly due to the occasional appearance of the sun, adding a touch of colour to the drab world around us. We passed some vineyards, some alive, some at the end of their cycle, and could see mountains off in the far distance. As we crept closer to our destination, the desert expanded and grew like something alive- huge sand dunes exploded out of the ground and filled our vision. Finally, a break from the monotony of bareness. We began to get excited to reach our little desert oasis at last. We got dropped off in Ica and hailed a cab in the bus station who stuffed us into his tiny Yaris. We used our broken Spanish to explain what we were planning- two days in Huacachina and then heading to Cusco. He told us about a great bus line with good prices and said he could stop along the way to buy our tickets- perfect! We got our tickets for a great price to catch a night bus in two days time and then took the 10 minute drive out to Huacachina.

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Hellllloooo Oasis!

We were in awe as the sand dunes climbed loftily around us. We were nearly giddy by the time he dropped us off and we unloaded our bags into the hostel. Huacachina is tiny! It’s hardly even a town- it really is just an oasis- a manmade one, but a brilliant little spot nonetheless. A little lagoon of olive hued water sat snuggled in the centre of the oasis surrounded by buildings on all sides, small stout ones, nothing but hotels, hostels, restaurants and shops. The little village itself is nothing special, the whole place can be walked in less than a half hour. The lagoon is the central attraction with statues and flowers abound around it, and boats to paddle on it, but the towering sand dunes that spread out like angled walls on all sides of the lagoon are the true treasure. We arrived just past sunset, so all we could do was wander the entire town, find a place to eat and then get some sleep for our day of adventure that would follow in the morning. We woke up, took breakfast (shakshuka again, but it dulled in comparison to the one in Lima) and then booked our dune buggy tour. It wasn’t until 4pm so we had the whole to day to explore. We filled our water bottles, donned our flip flops, packed our cameras and brought along some socks. We were summiting the sand dunes this day!

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The socks were to keep your bare feet from burning on the fiery sand, heated by the strong morning sun. We didn’t want to wear shoes and have them fill with sand constantly, nor did we think the flip flops would serve to protect our feet from the hot sand (but rather only kick more of it up our legs) so we threw the flip flops into our bag, put on our socks and began the trek. We were advised to take the quasi-path that cut sideways and then follow the sand ridge up- trying to walk straight up would prove impossibly hard. I was glad we took the advice and found it wasn’t too strenuous a trek. We made it to the top and took in the staggering views all around us. We could see another small town, behind us, the sprawl of Ica to our left, a massive wall of the opposing sand dune in front of us and an endless expanse of desert dunes on our right, with a steady stream of dune buggies heading into the abyss, their engines spitting guttural howls into the hillsides.

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Sally and I had a blast up there, taking photos and watching a crazy man run straight up the hillsides, run back down and do it all over again. He came to chat with us and explained he did it four times. He called it training, I called it loco. We gave the poor bugger the rest of our water, since I had dropped the lid and watched it roll all the way to the bottom of the dune, and didn’t want it attempt to carry it down lidless. He thanked us and continued on his running way. Sally and I decided to run/roll/fall down the dune when we were ready to descend- I mean how else would you get down? We skipped, we tumbled, we somersaulted and we got completely, utterly carpeted in sand.

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Taking a break and crawling up the dune instead of walking!

Half way down we decided to stop and play our theme song of our time together thus far: “Cant Feel My Face With You”. We decided a music video would best document our time on the dunes and so set up her phone on her purse, placed my phone next to it blasting the song and hit record. What ensued is surely one of the greatest videos ever made. If it were on youtube it would go viral, I have no doubts. Perhaps 90% of the views would be Sally and I, but who’s keeping count? We howled with laughter as Sally tackled me mid video and sent us tumbling down the sandy hillside. We blew the sand as best we could from our phones, tucked them away and continued running/falling down to the bottom.

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After lunch we got ready for our dune buggy adventure. We ensured we had handkerchiefs tied around our mouths and sunglasses to protect ourselves from the ensuing sand storm that our buggy kicked up. We dressed somewhat warm as we knew we would be ending our tour in the dark. We opted for the 4pm late start because it meant we got to watch the sunset from atop the dunes out there, a brilliant choice on our parts- high five Sally! The buggy ride was a blast- sometimes calm, sometimes slightly terrifying as I wondered if we were going to topple sideways as the sand gave way when we crested a dune and went over at an awkward angle.

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Channeling our inner Mad Max

Before we started out I asked our driver in Spanish if he was the best driver in Huacachina. He said ‘no’ with far too much certainty for my liking. I put it aside as modesty and tried to pretend I was in great hands.  Luckily the buggy was equipped with sturdy looking roll bars and I figured we would be fine. Our driver would distract me and point out the city in the distance and when he had my interest he would crest a huge dune and fly over it eliciting a scream from me. He got me twice and was about to get me a third time when sally screamed “NO IT’S A TRICK!” and saved me – thanks Sal!

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After cruising around the dunes, we parked for a spectacular sunset and some photo opportunities. We wrapped ourselves up as the sun set and briskly took the warmth of the day with it. We huddled together on the sand and watched that big ball of fire sink away behind the dunes. Now it was time to try our hands at boarding, before darkness took us all. I strapped one foot into the board on a baby hill to see what it would be like to snowboard down and actually made it down 20 feet before toppling onto my behind at the bottom. It was fun, but scary and I made the smart decision to ride down on my ass instead as everyone else did. The first hill was a smaller hill- a tester, meaning it was only slightly scary. We moved quickly to the next hill- a beast in comparison to the last one.

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This asana is called “awkward desert sunset pose”

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Our driver advised us we now had to go down on our stomachs- what???!!! It sounded ludicrous, but he explained in Spanish to us this was actually the safest and that we would hurt our bottoms quite badly if we went down on them. Everyone was terrified and no one wanted to go first. Some crazy girl strapped the board on her feet and went down like a snowboard (even though she didn’t know how to snowboard) and went straight down without carving. After gaining an alarming amount of speed she tumbled head over heels about 10 times before coming to a stop. She claimed she didn’t get hurt at all, and we all told her she was loca and no one else dared attempt a suicide run like her.

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My anxiety was creeping up, and I had a hard time putting it to rest. It looked fun, but from up here it was awful scary and steep. After half the group went I finally just swallowed my fears, got on my tummy and flew down the hill after watching everyone and trying to learn from their mistakes. I flew down at top speed trying my best not to drag my feet as our driver advised us not to do, to slow me down. What a RUSH! I screamed back up at Sally to come down, that it wasn’t nearly as scary as it seemed and she followed suit, screaming the whole way as I did. We moved on to the last hill which was the steepest and longest of them all.  Even though we had a little practice, this one still seemed too daunting and no one wanted to be the first. Sally demanded that we simply went in order of the line we were standing in as we straddled the ridge. I was 3rd in line and was actually happy to get it over with. I went as fast as I could, screaming in exhilaration the whole way. What a blast!!! We were finishing up our sand boarding just as the stars were appearing in the purple twilight sky. We all piled back into the buggy and went for a night time cruise through the dunes (okay our driver seemed slightly lost, but we will just call it a detour) and headed back into town as night descended. 

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We switched hostels that evening and met the delicious owner of our new hostel, Gino, who we drooled over and tried our best to flirt with every time we saw him, and swooned whenever he walked past and paid us any attention. That night we got dressed up and went to a little bar called Huacafuckingchina and hung out with two Americans, our waiter and a local guy from Lima who was selling his jewelry in the street. It was a great way to end our time in this little sandy paradise.

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We packed up the next day and bid a sad farewell to this perfect little oasis tucked away like a secret in the thus far homely folds of Peru. A new adventure awaited us and we boarded our bus, ready to climb deep into the Andes.

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