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Not Hawaii for waves, or Dubai for dunes: try Peru instead!

Updated on March 25, 2016
Huacachina, an oasis in the Peruvian desert
Huacachina, an oasis in the Peruvian desert

Visit Huacachina – Peru’s desert oasis

Huacachina is a village in southwestern Peru, near the city of Ica. One has to remember that the Peruvian coast is mainly a dessert, so it is not surprising to find an oasis there and Huacachina happens to be one of them! 

Reverse of the Nuevo Sol, 50 bank note with a picture of Huacachina
Reverse of the Nuevo Sol, 50 bank note with a picture of Huacachina
Sand boarding
Sand boarding
Sand buggy
Sand buggy

Huacachina sand boarding and dune bugging

Take a look at the back of the 50 Nuevo Sol note and you will find a picture of that oasis. Huacachina is built around a small natural lake in the Ica sand dunes.  It is the place where local families from nearby Ica go for relaxation, and increasingly tourists who are attracted by the sports of sand boarding and dune buggy riding along the sand dunes that stretch several hundred feet high.

Unlike snowboarding, where ski lifts take you up to the top of the hill after every ride, with sand boarding you have to walk back up yourself, which is not only time consuming, but also a very exhausting activity. If you take a combined sandboarding/buggy tour, the drivers will take you to the top of the dunes, let you sandboard down and then pick you up at the bottom.

dune buggy is a vehicle with large wheels, and wide tires, designed for use on sand dunes and beaches. The big advantage of sand boarding and dune buggy riding is that both are exhilarating sports and that they are available the whole year round, so you don’t have to go to a winter location to wait for the snow to arrive!

The dune buggy ride is much like a rollercoaster, as it is driven at high speeds up and down the dunes, while people shriek with delight (or fear). Although many tourists come to Huacachina to try sandboarding, others say they preferred the adrenaline of the dune buggy ride instead.

If you are not into adrenaline producing rides, then a slow, relaxing exploration of the dunes would be more suitable for you! With its sensual curves of fine sand, and its playful fusion of light and shadow, the desert can be a surprisingly beautiful place. If you would like to explore the dunes around Huacachina but are not interested in raising your adrenaline levels or your blood pressure, then a relaxing tour would be ideal for you. For about 50 minutes, a dune buggy drives you at a slow pace around the sand dunes to see the beauty of the desert and watch the sun set. This relaxing tour is also perfect for young children, who might be scared of a fast ride, photographers who want to take some desert photos, as well as older people who no longer see the appeal of a white-knuckle ride flying at breakneck speeds up and down dunes.


The Cathedral formation
The Cathedral formation
Wind surfing in Paracas
Wind surfing in Paracas
Nazca pottery
Nazca pottery
The Candelabrum figure on the side of a sandy hill.
The Candelabrum figure on the side of a sandy hill.
Red and white flamingos that gave inspiration for the colors of the Peruvian flag.
Red and white flamingos that gave inspiration for the colors of the Peruvian flag.
Peruvian flag
Peruvian flag
Sea lions in the Ballestas Islands
Sea lions in the Ballestas Islands
Cormoran birds in the Ballestas Islands.
Cormoran birds in the Ballestas Islands.

Paracas

Paracas is a peninsula, a bay, pre-Inca Culture and a National Reserve too. The area is also amazing for birdwatchers and for going on hikes.

About an hour north of Ica is the Paracas National Reserve, and it houses the famous Ballestas Islands, which are a marine wildlife sanctuary. The islands and the reserve constitute one of the 10 most popular destinations in Peru for tourists.

Nature and ecology lovers will find the only marine reservation of Peru here.  It is dedicated to the protection and conservation of marine ecosystems, as well as the preservation of the cultural and historical patrimony of the pre-Inca Paracas culture. It is considered one of the richest ecosystems in the world and UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Natural Site.

Sometimes called the Poor Man's Galapagos because of the cheap price to visit them, the Islas Ballestas are full of wild animals such as sea lions, starfish, terns, zarcillos, and endangered Humboldt penguins. Occasionally, acquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins can be seen too. In addition to the animal life, the islands and the Paracas coastline feature strange and beautiful rock formations, as well as El Candelabro (chandelier), an enigmatic figure carved into a sandy hillside centuries ago for reasons unknown. One theory states that this mysterious form was used as a nautical guide, to help ships either find or avoid the bay.

The Ballestas Islands are perfect for backpackers, nature and wildlife fans and marine enthusiasts. Due to environmental laws, it is not permitted to actually step onto the islands –so tours are conducted entirely on the boat, although it does come very close to the animals. Sea lions don't mind being photographed, so they just sit on the rocks a few feet away, ignore the tourists and are content to bask in the sunlight and hunt for fish.

The Bay of Paracas has special historical significance for Peruvians, as it was here that José de San Martín landed with liberation forces to end the Spanish viceroyalty. On the beaches of this bay, it is frequent to find Andean parihuanas (flamingos), of beautiful red and white plumage, which inspired San Martín for the design of the Peruvian flag.

The Paracas culture was characterized by their big, underground necropolis where bodies were preserved as mummies wrapped in luxurious cloths and mantles, forming conical bales that were conserved under excellent conditions by the desert conditions of the area. Their knowledge of medicine was advanced, as was demonstrated by patients surviving cranial trepanations.

Their textile art is considered the best of all ancient cultures.  They used vicuña wool or cotton and made use of many colours, animal designs, geometric shapes and they also added feathers. Their economic activity was based on agriculture and fishing.

Not far from this area are also to be found the famous Nazca lines. Archaeologist and German scientist Maria Reiche, devoted her life to the study of the mysterious lines and she believed that they were a great astronomical calendar and a series of observatories of astronomical cycles. She wrote many articles about her scientific studies and it was her invaluable work that allowed the Nazca Lines to be declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In 1993 she was honoured by the Peruvian government with the Orden delSol.

Nazca is today a small, quiet, dusty town in the desert, about 2 hours south of Ica. However, it is one of the favorite tourist locations in Peru and the big attraction are the Nazca Lines. These ancient figures, were carved into the desert sand in the form of whales, hummingbirds, dogs, and other animals and the best way to see them is by flying on a small plane.


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