After Paracas, we took a short bus to Peru’s sandbox. Well, a sandbox is an understatement.

Huacachina is an urban oasis nestled in mountainous dunes of sand. The town is tiny, with only two circular streets that wrap around the lagoon. The buildings hug the edge of the water, radiating out in just two rows. You can walk its entire perimeter in ten minutes at a leisurely pace.

We got into town at noon, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then headed to a hostel a friend recommended us. On the way, we ducked into a few other establishments, just to compare prices and facilities. When we got to Bananas Adventure, we were impressed. It’s about the same price as its competition, but the premises is by far more welcoming. From the entrance, you walk in through a gravel path that winds its way past a pool, and over to the circular bar. Here you can order drinks and surprisingly good value food. Since Huacachina is in the middle of nowhere, food in general, though not terribly expensive, wasn’t cheap. Banana served food for the same price or even less than the surrounding restaurants; with mains from 18-25 soles.

We lugged our backpacks up the stars and checked into a small private room overlooking the yard. The close quarters and the windows surrounding the bed made it feel like a crows nest. After settling in, we made our way down to reception to pay.

Rather than paying per night, you purchase a package deal: 80 soles that include breakfast, bed, sandboarding, and Huacachina’s main attraction, the dune buggy.

The dune buggy is a contraption unique to the area. It’s a refurbished v8 engine thrown onto a souped-up raised contraption that resembles an overland military vehicle, complete with a rim you have to climb onto to get in. The whole car is open air, aside from a flimsy roof used for sun protection rather than safety. The only barrier that keeps you from getting crushed if the vehicle flips is a metal roll cage. In essence, it was awesome.

We got our first encounter with one of these monsters within our first 2 hours in the oasis. At 3 pm sharp, we gathered outside the hostel with about six other guests for our included “dune buggy tour.” Oscar and I swung ourselves into the back, each taking a seat at the far end of the four-seater row for the best view possible. After a few tries, the car spurted into life, flinging small droplets of oil back onto its passengers. We sprang forward and headed out of town and into the desert.

The landscape is different than any “desert view” I have ever known. When the term “desert” comes to mind, I usually think of a flat expanse of dry, arid land. The vista that greeted us as we crested the line of hills that surround the oasis is unlike any I have ever seen. It’s a rolling expanse of sand, with hills taller than a ten-story building. As far as the eye can see, the wind has been busy crafting a unique, almost Martian terrain, with towers and mounds, and cleverly shaped clefts and ridges. It’s a beautiful piece of natural artwork.

After about ten minutes into the ride, I was so encapsulated by the shapes around me, that I didn’t notice that we had reached the top of one of the ridges. My first clue came when the car suddenly pitched downwards at an unnatural angle, hoisting the back where I sat up and up. Then, without warning, we plunged downward at a 60-degree angle, racing an entire thirty feet at a breakneck pace before leveling off.

The ride after that got a lot more interesting. We sailed from hill to hill, diving down, swerving to the left, crashing We got our first encounter with one of these monsters within our first 2 hours in the oasis. At 3 pm sharp, we gathered outside the hostel with about six other guests for our included “dune buggy tour.” Oscar and I swung ourselves into the back, each taking a seat at the far end of the four-seater row for the best view possible. After a few tries, the car spurted into life, flinging small droplets of oil back onto its passengers. We sprang forward and headed out of town and into the desert.

The landscape is different than any “desert view” I have ever known. When the term “desert” comes to mind, I usually think of a flat expanse of dry, arid land. The vista that greeted us as we crested the line of hills that surround the oasis is unlike any I have ever seen. It’s a rolling expanse of sand, with hills taller than a ten-story building. As far as the eye can see, the wind has been busy crafting a unique, almost Martian terrain, with towers and mounds, and cleverly shaped clefts and ridges. It’s a beautiful piece of natural artwork.

After about ten minutes into the ride, I was so encapsulated by the shapes around me, that I didn’t notice that we had reached the top of one of the ridges. My first clue came when the car suddenly pitched downwards at an unnatural angle, hoisting the back where I sat up and up. Then, without warning, we plunged downward at a 60-degree angle, racing an entire thirty feet at a breakneck pace before leveling off.

to the right. It was an overland roller coaster and without a doubt highlight of our visit.

After about twenty minutes, the car slowed down. We started to climb a massive peak, easily over thirty meters, so that we could get an even better vantage point. I got a few butterflies in my stomach when the driver parked just a foot or two from the edge, but breathed a sigh of relief when he motioned us to get out. We spent a few minutes, snapping photos and taking in the incredible vista that surrounded us.

When it was time to go, the driver motioned us to climb back in. I vaguely wondered how he was going to back the car up. Apparently, he had no intention of backing up. He glanced back to make sure our seatbelts were on, and hit the gas, lurching forward for a brief moment, before plunging nose first down the cliff-like slope. A scream ripped from my lips as we dove, faster and faster down the dune. When we finally became horizontal again, my giddy relief quickly turned to an adrenaline thrill, and a broad smile burst across my face!

We traversed a few more dunes in a similar fashion, then parked off to the side of a particularly tall one, and clambered out. We grabbed ou “boards” from the back of the van (really more like crude pieces of wood that we strapped to our feet with velcro). We lingered on the edge of the dune, and then one by one sped down the hill. I’ve been sandboarding before on the Chilean border years ago, but we had to walk up as far as we wanted to come down. The best part of boarding in Huacachina is that the car takes you to the top, and comes to collect you at the bottom, before taking you to another peak.

We passed the rest of the afternoon, half riding, half falling down the dunes, accompanied by lots of laughter and jokes with the crew. As the sun began to set, we met up with the buggy and stood in awe from our vantage point. I’ve seen some gorgeous sunsets, but this one was particularly magical over the mountains of sand.

We arrived back at the hostel just as the sun disappeared. Pausing at the door, we all shook out our shoes, pockets, bras, and anything that could transport sand. The amount of sand that fell from us formed a mini version of the dunes at our feet.

Once sand free–or as much as can be expected–we reunited with some friends from Quito at the bar. The evening passed pleasantly chatting away, and the boiling heat of the day slipped away, replaced by a chilly night. We even had to bundle up before dinner.

The next day passed uneventfully. We lounged by the pool, walked around town, then retreated to the pool again to take refuge from the blistering heat. Though worth the trip, Huachachina doesn’t need more than one night, unless you wanted to stay longer and rent “real” snowboards to carve up the dunes. However, that route requires walking up, and in that heat we were not in the least interested. So, we wiled away our time, relaxing at the hostel, before catching a cab to Ica that evening.

Just thirty minutes away, Ica is the closest city to Huacachina–and the nearest ATM. It’s also where the buses leave for Arequipa. We ordered two cabs to transport out new crew–three Danes, one Ausi, one Brit, Oscar, and myself. No one packed beforehand, so we arrived at the station just two minutes before our 10 pm departure. We didn’t need to worry, as the bust was over forty-five minutes late. We passed the time getting to know our new friends and fawning over the little puppy who belonged to that family who ran the snack kiosk. At eleven, we finally boarded, sinking into our comfortable camas for the twelve-hour ride to the colonial Arequipa.