A 5km hop from the desert city of Ica, Peru lies Huacachina, an oasis village fully set up for fun times and tourists. Coming from the UK, Huacachina feels completely alien, fascinating me with its barren landscape and hot, dry temperatures. Such a change from the comfortable climate of Lima.
Gigantic dunes rise up directly behind buildings, steep, smooth slopes acting as a playground for sledging and sandboarding. Sand scatters across the roads during midday gusts. Most people shield from the sun during this time, emerging again late afternoon, ready to play and party. Families sit at the base of the slopes whilst kids run up as high as energy will allow before speeding back down. One boy is waving manically from the top. He´s made it. He looks like a little dot on a mass yellow landscape. He starts to descend – he´s standup boarding – and he takes a few tumbles, tumbles that fail to dampen his enthusiasm.
Maybe he had been inspired by the 2011 Open International Sandboarding contest going on in Huacachina that weekend? I was thinking about this little kid and the massive, steep dune and realised that if this were snowboarding, then there would be no way that he would be learning on this level of incline.
Sand, I discovered, is slow.
It´s late afternoon and I´m strapped into a nine seater dune buggy with roll bars; boards and wax are in the back. I hadn´t really expected anything other than to drive to a surfable dune and have a go at sandboarding, so when the driver hit the accelerator and we enter the desert reserve at breakneck speeds, I realise that there is more to this outing than just the boarding.
Imagine a rollercoaster with no set track, with near vertical drops and tilted descents, with steep climbs that require a powerful run-up in order to make the top, with the most open, awesome scenery of any other ride.
We played in this theme park for a good half hour. The dips and sudden rises jolted the buggy all over the place: we slipped, we bounced, but we didn´t roll. My skull shook and my head whipped back many times over.
Our guide told us, a smile on his face, that after seven years of taking out three groups per day, his back was pretty shot. His eyes still had the energy and attitude. Bad back or not, there was something keeping him from retreating to the cosier sides of the tourism and hospitality industry in Huacachina. Maybe buggying pays better than B&Bing, but I´m not convinced it was a money thing.
The sandboarding itself was a bit of a letdown if you tried it standing up (as in snowboarding). ´You no go straight, or hospital´said our guide, ´go side to side´. But side to side – or diagonally – was frustrating and the wax stripped from the board in moments and turning was difficult.
The other option? Belly down on your board, hold on to the straps, tuck in your elbows and meet the crazy descent head first. Amazing (amazingly scary).
After practising on a few smaller dunes we were ready for the big ones, 300m of ridiculously steep slope (think black runs on ski hills). If you chose not to use your feet as a breaking system, the guide insisted that you could reach speeds of 80 km per hour. Shooting down the hill, face first towards a mass of sand and nothing else at blistering speeds is difficult to explain… but it´s thrilling… and in the moment… and such an amazing rush. No additional stimulants needed.
The trip out finishes with a buggy ride to another high dune to watch sunset, which turns out to be something of an anticlimax. On this particular day, it´s quick and colourless but the backdrop is impressive nonetheless, dunes stretching into the far distance. A moment of collective calm and reflection.
A word of warning: before doing this trip I checked that my travel insurance covered me for sandboarding. A week previous to my arrival in to Huacachina a girl had overshot a run near the village and landed in a hostel swimming pool, smashing herself up in a serious way and breaking both arms; another guy fell wrong on a slope, breaking his collarbone.
Entry to the desert reserve in Huacachina is S/.3.60 per person. GoNomad and GloboTreks have further accounts of sandboarding in Huacachina. For more info on sandboarding in Peru, take a look at the How To Peru website. I stayed at La Casa de Bamboo, a lovely family home hostel and cafe serving the tastiest food in Huacachina.