Peru #9: Huacachina and Ica – sand, shots and serenading

Huacachina can best be described as a tourist hotspot based around a load of huge sand dunes and what the guidebooks term an ‘oasis’, a small lake now surrounded by hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants. Granted, the whole west coast of Peru is sand, but this particular place just happens to be the perfect place for extreme sandsports, namely sandboarding and less-than-safe dune-buggying. Ica on the other hand is famed on the tourist circuit for its Pisco wine tour, which is substantially more wine than tour, and the city is also home to an evil tree.

The aforementioned considered, despite the clock ticking on my time left in Peru, I saw no harm in crashing for a night in Huacachina if only for extreme sports and alcohol. I’d also be mesmerised by the girl in the black dress as the sun goes down and chatted up by a middle-aged Peruvian man within the space of minutes.

For my Peru trip I’d done the opposite to what most tourists do, heading out straight to Cusco from Lima and then working my way back through the must-see places on the gringo trail.

I had left it pretty late to get the bus out of Arequipa, arriving at the terminal after 10pm due to Sunday-night traffic jams, and had a stroke of luck in bagging the last seat on the last bus heading north with a company called Tulsa for 80/S. The journey was fine and after a good night’s sleep the bus left me on the edge of the Pan-American Highway as the bus was headed for Lima. This was no biggie as it was on the outskirts of Ica, and as ever in Peru, as I got off the bus I was approached by a taxi driver asking for my custom.

I’d done my research, as backpackers have to do, and was fully aware of what price I should pay for my wheels, as was the driver, who charged me the 8/S I was expecting to pay. All it takes is to amble around nonchalantly as you get off the bus and display a vague pretence that you know exactly where you are and what you are doing, and they know not to overcharge you. Act all confused and frazzled about why the bus left you on the dusty highway, consulting google maps and looking around frantically, and they will smell blood.

The chauffeur, who went by the name of Freddie, also turned out to know a place where I could stay at a good price and asked me if I had any kind of reservation anywhere. Again, the key is an air of tranquility, and I said I’d check out the place he was recommending when we arrived, which we did in no more than 10 minutes. Arriving in Huacachina I could see that it was very artificial and certainly purpose-built, though I couldn’t question the authenticity of the massive sand dunes overhanging the mini-town, which consisted of a handful of streets lined with hotels, restaurants and tour agencies.

I stayed at Casa de Arena in a shared dormitory with 12 beds, though the night I spent there I was the only one. The hostel was certainly basic and the room a little mosquito-ridden, reflected in the price of 25/s per night, and there was a swimming pool and a decent kind of a lounge area with big TVs. They also throw in the sandboarding and dune-buggying for 35/S, and I’d been led to believe that this price is the lowest you’ll manage, so I felt no need to go shopping around for better deals and told them I’d join the tour leaving at 9.30am.

As it happened, I went with a Peruvian couple and their young boy. Now, I’d heard that the sand-buggying was oh-so dangerous and life-threatening and that one must be strapped in safely and wear appropriate head safety gear due to the bumpiness of the ride, so when we set off helmetless and with very dubious rollercoaster-style over-the-shoulder restraints, I worried for the little man’s wellbeing. Upon going into the dune area we were supposed to pay something to the tourist board, but amongst the confusion they didn’t charge me anything, so we just drove on ahead, me with the back seat to myself.

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Dune-buggying

Indeed, I won’t deny that the ride is very bumpy and you do rather get tossed around the buggy. I’d recommend that tall people don’t sit in the back because the back end of the vehicle’s inwardly-hanging protective cage is low enough for you to bang your melon on, whereas in the middle row there is no such risk. We went up and down a few of the dunes and I thought that we were just warming up as I hadn’t yet experienced the exhilaration that Huacachina is famed for. In some cases the dunes are in fact steep, but you don’t really feel that sense of danger or stomach-in-your-mouth effect that I’d anticipated. Rather, the most extreme part of it all is being thrown around like a doll inside the buggy and having to grip the chair so as not to bang your helmetless head.

Anyways, we stopped several times at the top of dunes to go down on our sandboards. Many people talk about standing on them as you descend, though this seemed technically rather difficult, even just to start, as you need to be at a bit of angle as you get on the board and maintaining your balance seems difficult. Therefore I greased up my board with a piece of wax the guide had given me and I went down on my stomach, straightening my legs, tucking in my elbows and gripping the board with my hands as was recommended. The first time it’s a little daredevilish as you’re not sure how smoothly you will go down and I was mildly worried about scraping my chin all the way down the sand. However, as it happens, there’s no real risk of face-scrape or falling off and even if you do, it’s not so steep that you will end up tumbling all the way to the bottom and will instead be rooted to the spot you fell off at. I had a couple of goes at it and I must say that the sensation is quite exciting, though not as fast or scary as I’d imagined.

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Sandboarding

After spending about an hour on the dunes, we returned to the hostel sandy, sweaty and a little tired. I’d noticed the word ‘tip’ had been scribbled onto the buggy in various places in marker pen, and as tipping is customary in Peru, I wondered if I should. I decided to follow the lead of the Peruvian family, and when they did nothing, neither did I.

Having grabbed lunch at small café and having a hippy (white guy with dreadlocks and loose trousers) getting upset at me ‘coz I didn’t want to buy the cake he was selling out of a box, I set about getting on a tour to the Ica pisco (a liquor particular to Peru and Chile) vineyards, which I’d heard good things about. I tried a few agencies and was having no luck until a guy in one of the agencies said he might know someone in another who had spaces for the afternoon, and feigned that we had to really rush as it was about to imminently leave. From experience, my response was agin nonchalance and I traipsed after him to another agency where there was indeed a tour setting off within about half an hour. Apparently the tour should have cost 20/S, but he charged me 30/S. I figured that because he’d done the work for me and got me on a tour which would include a ludicrous amount of alcohol, there was no point in trying to haggle.

The vineyard, or rather big restaurant with a selection of alcohol and a kind of mini-tour to see how the wine is made, was about half an hour away and we were briefly talked through how grapes are grown, fermented and the wine distilled and bottled. As opposed to wine tours I’ve done in Porto, Portugal, here the emphasis was on the pisco itself, and not the blurb, and we were soon escorted to the tasting room.

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Pisco is made in this

Now after trying pisco sour, pisco passion fruit, and a couple of types of red and white wines I thought that was it. Even after trying another three healthy shots of pure, 40% pisco I thought that was it. And then we had some pisco-wine hybrids and I wondered if more was coming. And it was in the form of cream licquors, perhaps peach and almond flavours. It was rather relentless and we barely had time to rest between the brindises (cheers), each of which were different rhymes we repeated with our host. I calculated that we’d had 15 different 50ml shots of alcohol in around 30 minutes and I feel no shame in admitting that I was rather tipsy. All the other people on the tour were couples, and none of us had really chatted on the way out, but now with pisco in our blood we really got chatting, laughing and joking and I had a decent exchange with a Colombian couple, reminiscing about my time spent there.

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One of each of those please

There is clearly a method to giving such a volume of free alcohol, and of course, that is the range of products on sales once the tasting session has finished. Needless to say, all of us got something and I bought a red wine, a pisco and some homemade jam for a fair price of 50/S (approximately 15 USD), and would take them back as Christmas presents for my family.

Unbeknownst to me the tour included a bonus visit to Cachiche to look at a seven-headed tree. Legend has it that at this particular site centuries ago a woman rumoured to be a witch was hung. Apparently the tree she was hung from ‘died’ and in its place grew a tree that rather than growing upwards, snaked out across the ground. The tree initially had six main branches; a seventh would mean bad luck. Supposedly, over the years, a seventh head suddenly sprouts from nowhere from time to time, and on each occasion there has been a natural disaster somewhere in the region, whether it be an earthquake, drought or mass unexplained illnesses. The response is to chop it away as soon as it is noticed. Resultantly, whatever tourists are in the city go and have a look at it, and as with any tourist attraction there are people there claiming a ‘tax’ for looking at it and taking photos, so I got out, snapped some quick pictures and retreated to the safety of our minibus.

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Tree-hugging
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The witch and I
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The seven-headed tree

On returning to Huacachina I took a dip in the pool, watched a football game on the big TVs and had a quick nap. As it was getting late, I decided to head out towards the dunes to watch the sunset. Just as I was about to scale the dunes on foot I was asked by a gentleman for the time, and I kindly acquiesced. About to move on I was surprised when he threw in a further comment, something along the lines of ‘It’s hot here, isn’t it?’ Not wanting to be impolite I agreed with him and smiled. We went on to discuss the town, what I was doing in Peru, and general Peru-stuff, having what I thought was amiable conversation.

I realised quite quickly that the man, perhaps in his early forties, was probably gay and that he was attempting to chat me up. To be honest, he wasn’t doing a good job, as he seemed a bit shy and nervous and tentatively asked me what I was doing that evening. Even knowing where it was going,  I was still too polite to dismiss his invitation and said that I didn’t know. He took this for a ‘yes’ and then offered me his phone number, saying I didn’t have to give him mine, again not a wise move were I indeed interested. I took down his number, and then made excuses to climb the dunes, secretly praying that he wouldn’t say ‘I’m going up too. Let’s go together!’

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Why wouldn’t he approach me?

Thankfully he didn’t, and we bade our farewells, and he said ‘see you later’, evidently confident that he’d be seeing me later. I later reflected that he would probably have tarted himself up for nothing.

And then I would be faced with the other side of the coin.

I’d made it to the top of the sand dunes, happily engaging a Spanish girl on my way up only to find that some males were waiting for her at the top, and had sat down in contemplation of the falling sun, which I must admit was a wonderful spectacle.

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Huacachina

And then, as happens in the films, a girl in a black dress emerged from behind/below the sand-dune, with sunrays silhouetting her among the darkening sky. She was walking towards me, somewhat hesitantly, though the brightness of the sun meant I couldn’t quite make out the features of her face even though she was only a few dozen metres away. She stopped and started, as if wondering where to go and I felt as if she was scanning around for someone to take a photo of her against the wonderful backdrop of the golden dunes and red skies. I would have only too happily obliged, but was too mesmerised by the spectacle to do anything. In the split second that I unblinked to make my decision, she disappeared out of view.

Stunned, I scrambled to my feet and went over to the edge of the dune to see where she’d gone. I don’t know how long I’d been gazing at her and for what proportion of that time she was a mere mirage, but she’d somehow managed to get to the bottom of the dunes about 100m away and was heading back to the streets of Huacachina. I took off after her, but realised it would be a bit weird to shout or run.

Upon getting to the bottom I once again scanned the crowds for her and did a loop of the lake trying to find her. And then she appeared out of nowhere, but on the other side of the water. I went to the water’s edge, and we were both looking out at across the water, but she was still too far away in the dimming evening for me to make out her facial features. I’m sure we stood there for a while contemplating each other, until once again, she suddenly turned on her heels. Short of running, I again quickly went in pursuit of her, but alas this time I was unable to find her.

Even if I had I don’t know exactly how I would have engaged her or what I would have said.

Thus she will only go down as the girl in the black dress who emerged from the sand dunes. A romantic memory of Huacachina.

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Sunset in the dunes

Anyway, that night after dining on reheated chicken in a cheap outdoor eatery I went to bed early, only to be awakened by booming music just after midnight. It appeared to be coming from just outside, and then I remembered that taxi driver Freddie had said that Casa de Arena also had a nightclub of the same name next to it and that had the best parties in town. I briefly thought about going along myself, especially as I was sure he’d told me entry was free for guests of the hostel, but then quickly changed my mind when I considered that the man I met on the dunes might be in there and feeling adventurous, a potential awkward encounter I wanted to spare myself.

Despite the noise and heat, I managed to get some sleep and woke up the next day at about 7am, to head on to Paracas, just a few hours up the coast.

My day and night in Huacachina had certainly been action packed. I was glad I did dune-buggying and sanboarding before consuming large volumes of alcohol and pondered how I’d experienced the deep feelings of being admired and then admiring within minutes.

Such is life that it can change in an instant.

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