Huacachina, Peru- Climbing up & falling down sand dunes in the world's driest desert

Plus two days in Ica and Paracas


After recouping from the jungle for two days in Lima, Jesse and I headed to Ica where we would be based for the next few days. We found a beautiful little Air BnB that was slightly on the outskirts of town, but so worth it. (In case you are interested, it was called Ica Adventures.) After not having a hot shower in the jungle for a few days (let’s be honest – we didn’t have a shower at all since we certainly weren’t showering in the river water on the slow boat and the shower in our room didn’t work at the jungle lodge) it was so nice to be in a house instead of a hostel. Granted, we have been lucky enough to snag private rooms at every hostel so far, but there is something more comforting about a home. And boy did we luck out with this Air BnB. Most comfortable bed in Peru. Softest pillows in Peru. Best shower in Peru. Huge TV with Netflix logged in? Check. Delicious first morning breakfast? Yep. And only $10 a night!


We were beyond grateful for some creature comforts for a few nights. It may not seem like a huge deal, but to lay in bed and watch an episode of anything without the internet freezing up or a download refusing to cooperate after a hot shower was a luxury we were beyond grateful for while it lasted.


Our first day was split between wine tasting and exploring the desert. We rented bikes from our Air BnB host (who doubles as a private tour agent) and rode to the first vineyard, Bodega Vista Alegre, which was about 10 minutes away. We were the only ones there so the group tour became private for only 5 soles, or $1.50 a person. Jesse is always much more into the technical part of wine tours since he understands much more about the chemical processes, but we both agreed this was the best wine tour we’ve ever experienced. This vineyard has been around for 161 years, sits on 180 acres and currently grows 14 grapes for their various wines. The tasting was the best part (obviously.) When you think about South America wines, you think about the Malbecs and Syrahs of Chile and Argentina, but this vineyard’s wine was damn good.


After we finished our wine and pisco tasting, we rode on about another 35 minutes to another little strip that hosted 4 or 5 vineyards. We went to El Catador vineyard first and took a free tour which showed all of the original ceramics that were once used to harvest wine in the traditional Peruvian manner. The ceramic process is too archaic now, but the Incas once used these containers and carried them around without much technology to help. The vineyard still harvests wine in the traditional way, but now they use large vats to ferment the wine instead of the ceramics. We did our free tasting with El Catador then wandered to the other vineyards on the strip for more free tastings. We quickly realized that we liked the wine from the first vineyard much better, so we bought some sandwiches to go, peddled back to Bodega Vista Alegre and were very alegre (cheerful or happy in Spanish) to buy a few bottles and head back to enjoy at our Air BnB.


The second half of the day was spent exploring the sand dunes of Huacachina, which is a HUGE desert. And according to Jesse, boasts much MUCH bigger and more beautiful sand dunes than those in Jordan in the Middle East.



Huacachina really is a little oasis. It’s a tiny tiny little town situated on a small lake and surrounded by the desert.



And some before and after shots; RIP Jesse's sunglasses. One of the lens was already loose, but it fell out and once something gets rolling down the dunes, you let it roll on (or do you? insert foreshadowing here.)



Flashback to breakfast that morning.


Mom and dad, close your eyes, block your ears, and just skip forward a few paragraphs.


Our Air BnB host was helping us figure out what tours we wanted to do and what would work best for each day. The top of our list was to go dune buggying and sand boarding through the sand dunes at Huacachina. Well, about 4 or 5 days before we arrived one of the dune buggies had flipped over causing several serious injuries and one death. Our guy explained that this wasn’t the first death from sand dune activities by a long shot, but this was the first one that the police found out about in a very long time. The driver wasn’t insured and didn’t even have a license. The police shut down all dune buggy tour operators until further notice. (It's been almost 3 weeks and we heard they are still shut down.)

BUT HAVE NO FEAR. Our Air BnB host had a special dune buggy vehicle that was safer than the rest. He was the only operator allowed to venture into the dunes. So what did we do? Ignore the fact that someone just died and said yes to being the only vehicle in the desert for the evening when there are normally 300+ buggies shuffling tourists around the sand dunes.


While maybe not the safest thing in the world, it was magical. We had the desert completely to ourselves and rode in the back of the buggy with the wind blowing in our faces and the sun setting slowly, then all of a sudden in the blink of an eye over the dunes.


Perhaps the decision that was more foolish was the one I made about sand boarding. We started on a baby hill. He suggested we go without the board wax first since it makes you go faster. Good idea. Jesse went down easy enough, but when it was my turn, the combination of my light body, dull decline, and lack of wax made it nearly impossible to go down. Not kidding. They both tried to even push me to give me a start, but the board didn’t seem to want to go, so I had to add wax. We both quickly conquered the small hill and had a blast, so when he asked if we wanted to up our game on a steeper hill, of course we said yes.


What goes up must come down.


This hill was quite a bit steeper, but what the heck. The first time down was fantastic and we both made it all the way without falling. Okay, I may have fallen a little at the end once it was flat, but that was only because I was going so fast and got scared on flat land, not knowing how to stop. The fall was barely a fall and I was ready for more. On the next run, Jesse did a complete front flip down the hill (not intentional) but still managed to keep going somehow. I have this on video and will upload later. It was actually pretty impressive.


It came to my turn and again; I flew down the hill in perfect form, but even faster this time because I added some wax to the board. When the flat land came however I got a bit more nervous and managed to take a pretty hard fall. I also did a front flip, but unfortunately did not manage to keep going. It hurt. A lot. If you ever go sand boarding, I highly suggest that you stick to the baby slopes or lay on your stomach instead of standing up.


Why? Not only did the fall hurt in the moment, but it’s been three weeks and I am still suffering. I also may or may not have had to go to the ER since I was in pain still two weeks after the incident, gotten an ultrasound, had a big pocket of blood and plasma fluid removed from my spine, and I am still recovering from the injury. My back hurts daily, but I suppose it is getting better. I’m taking it easy and we both hope that the rest, stretching, back brace, and lots of muscle relaxers (you don’t even need a prescription here for them!) will help speed along my recovery.



So yes, it was exhilarating to fly down the dunes, but not worth the pain from my injury. Oh well!


Okay mom and dad, you can keep reading now =)


After we were done sand boarding, our guide brought us back to the highest point of the dunes where we were able to watch the sunset, completely enveloped by sand dunes and without the sound or sight of any other tourists.



Huacachina

The next day we ventured to Islas Balletas and the Reserva Nacional in Paracas, which was about an hour drive from downtown Ica. The island tour is for budget backpackers who don’t have the dough to go to the Galapagos Island, just like us. Now, I may never see the fancy Gallapagos islands, but Islas Balletas was poppin with wildlife EVERYWHERE. I’ve never seen so many birds at once. The huge island rocks in the water are so completely covered with birds that it looked like a dark black layer over the rocks until you got closer and realized that it was actually just a layer of birds.


We saw penguins, sea lions, pelicans, and more different species of birds than I could quickly type in my notes app.




We also got to see some ancient lines “drawn” into the sand dunes along the coast. The lines weren’t nearly as impressive as the Nazca lines which are another hour away from Ica in the opposite direction, but were still pretty neat to see.


Pre-Inca Ancient Lines in Islas Balletas

After we de-boarded the boat, we grabbed some street tamales with whatever local spicy salsa was being served, coffee, and headed to the National Reserves.


The first stop was the gathering point for the pink flamingos. There weren’t many though and they were pretty hard to see in the distance. Most of the flamingos were currently in Bolivia and Chile where they will remain for a few months until it's migration season. We didn’t mind that we couldn’t see them though because we will get to see them in abundance in Bolivia, and we are from Baton Rouge where Spanish Town is where all the cool flamingos hangout.


We had a few more stops along the way at various points in the Reserve.



We continued further into the Atacama Desert, which by the way is the driest desert in the world. We came upon a beach that was far from glamorous. Everywhere there were carcasses of pelicans and sea lions. I felt like I was walking along death beach and I imagine that I felt like Jonas in The Giver when he experienced the memory of war and carnage for the very first time. The abundance of dead animals is caused by illegal fishing, pollution, and dynamite fishing that is all the rage in some areas of South America. The current just happens to be situated to carry all of these bodies to the shore where we walked in the Reserve.


Warning, some of the images are pretty graphic. They do show you though just how devastating human action can be on wildlife and our planet.



To finish off our tour on a more positive note, we visited a red sand beach, which is only one of five in the world. The others rest on the coasts of Morocco, Greece, and Hawaii. Sand isn’t quite the term I would use here for the beach though. The shore was filled with a substance that seemed to much more closely resemble rocks than sand.



From here, we spent our third day in Ica relaxing and being lazy in the Air BnB. We had planned to take a plane tour over the Nazca lines before our overnight bus to Cusco, but enjoyed a lazy day instead.


Our time in Ica was much better than expected. We even climbed up to the dunes in Huacachina a second time to watch the sunset on our final evening. This is a place where I would love to revisit in the future.

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