deGeneration X: Riding Giant Sand Dunes at a Desert Oasis

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deGeneration X: Riding Giant Sand Dunes at a Desert Oasis

According to an ancient Inca legend, a young hunter came upon a beautiful native princess crying over the loss of a handsome prince. As she fled from the hunter, her many tears formed a desert oasis, and the folds of her cloak became giant sand dunes. Some believe the princess survived as a mermaid living in the oasis water. Since the mid-1800s, Peruvians flocked to this mirage-like lagoon in the village of Huacachina. Some say the water has curative properties, but beware of the siren as legend says she regularly takes the lives of men who dare swim in her tears.

Huacachina, a name that roughly translates “young weeping woman,” sits near the Andes Mountains in the southern end of Sechura, the longest stretch of desert in western South America. Encircled by palm trees and wind-sculptured sand dunes, the lush natural oasis sits in the center of the small village, which is home to 100 or so Inca descendants. People do swim and paddleboat in the lagoon, but a mermaid statue reminds them of the risks. Peru immortalized the “Oasis of America” putting its fairytale-like image on the back of the country’s 50-nuevo sol banknote.

Departing Lima in the early afternoon, the Cruz del Sur bus took six hours to arrive in Ica, a regional capital famous for wine and pisco production, but the taxi ride from Ica’s urban chaos to Huacachina’s desert seclusion took only five minutes. Similar to Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan or Lake Hollywood in Los Angeles, the seemingly secluded village gave no hint that big city streets are mere minutes away.

After settling into the pousada (an independently run inn), I asked the clerk, “What are my tour options?”

The clerk, who doubles as a tour agent, replied, “We have day trips to the Nazca Lines and Islas Ballestas, and three daily tours to the sand dunes that depart in the morning, midday and early evening. The best time to visit the dunes is the evening when you can see the sunset.”

“The tour includes sandboarding?”

“The tour starts with a buggy ride, and then the guide takes you to several large dunes that you can sandboard down. The guides provide the boards.”

I signed up for Isla Ballestas and caught the Nazca Lines a few days later en route to Arequipa, but I would tackle the sand dunes that evening. In 2011, the price was 40 soles (with the current exchange rate at 3.41 to the dollar, up 20 percent), though the tour currently runs about 60 soles or more. After I pre-paid for the tours, an ominous sign followed: A young girl rushed into the lobby with a blood-drenched arm. She was sandboarding at the village edge when she lost control and slammed into the street. She had to be taken to Ica.

From the 1920s to 1950s, Huacachina served as an elite playground for wealthy Peruvians who came to bathe in the “healing waters,” but the party didn’t last. Like many nations, the global financial crisis and 1929 Wall Street crash affected Peru, which struggled for stability shifting from one short-lived government to another. Huacachina eventually became a hippie hangout, but the emergence of sandboarding decades later turned the village into a hotspot for backpackers and boarders.

Sandboarding potentially dates back to Ancient Egypt when locals possibly rode hardened pottery down desert dunes, but the 1960s surf craze certainly prompted would-be daredevils to take car hoods, surfboards and cardboard pieces down sandy slopes. Lon “Dr. Dune” Beale, publisher of Sandboard Magazine, said sand riding as sport started in the 1970s with the emerging popularity of snowboarding, and it surged in the early aughts as pioneers like skater Jack Smith started crafting sand-specific boards. Parks and tournaments now exist in countries like Namibia, Japan, Australia and Dubai, but Huacachina, Peru earned (or marketed its way to) the title Sandboarding Capital of the World.

For diehard boarders, the same stretch of desert claims the ultimate bucket-list ride a few hours south. Cerro Blanca, a.k.a. The Everest of the Desert, rises 4,000 feet from base to summit with a steep 2,000-foot slope that will send the adrenal glands into overdrive. Our highest slopes were shorter, but not significantly so.

As I awaited pickup outside the pousada, my ears rang with a sound not unlike fireworks on Chinese New Year, and I realized the racket emanated from an unwashed dune buggy with a green roll cage heading my way. The buggy had four rows with four passenger seats each, and I took a cramped seat in the front row next to the driver. Once buckled in with straps crisscrossing my body, the buggy rendezvoused with two more buggies—in yellow and red colors to make them easier to spot—and headed into the dune field. I took sunglasses for the glare and a plastic bag to protect my camera as sand and technology do not mix.

The initial part of the buggy ride was a steady incline straight into the heart of the dunes. Once past any potential trekkers, the driver proceeded to hit the dunes Mad Max-style redlining the RPMs, catching air and tackling steep turns like a safety-adverse roller coaster. The driver continued to channel his inner Dominic Toretto for about 20 minutes before reaching the first set of dunes, which snowboarders might call bunny slopes. As everyone exited the buggies, the drivers broke out the boards.

“Does anyone here snowboard?” asked the driver without waiting for an answer. “A sandboard requires more wax because sand is rougher than snow. Take some wax with you, and every time you ride, wax the board again.”

Beginners typically lie face first with their bellies on the large wooden boards as if riding a snow sled. Despite no real sand, surf or snowboarding experience, I opted to conquer the first dune—a mere 30 feet high with a gradual slope—standing on the board. I bit the dust less than 10 feet down as my lack of coordination and coolness quickly came front and center.

I climbed back up the dune and attempted the next ride on my stomach. The driver said to spread my legs and to drag my feet in the sand to slow down, but doing so would kick up a huge sand cloud behind me. On the so-called bunny slope, it was not necessary to use my feet, and the ride was underwhelmingly fun like a waterslide. We proceeded to tackle several more slopes in the area that progressively got bigger until we finally reached the real challenge. We approached a consecutive set of three dunes that ranged in height from 650 to 1,000 feet with very steep gradients. I watched the first few riders descend the slope with surreal speed eventually looking like tiny ants at the base of the dune.

“Shit,” I thought to myself as butterflies swarmed my stomach.

I love cliff jumping into water, but I often pause at the ledge to gather my nerve. This type of pre-jump anxiety overwhelmed me as I laid down on my belly looking over the dune ledge. The angle of the gradient was so extreme that acceleration would occur immediately. By asking someone to film me, my pride only allowed for 20 seconds of hesitation before I had to go. As I dug the balls of my feet into the sand to push myself forward, the board tilted downward like a teeter-totter, and off I went at rocket speed.

The long ride was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Halfway down, the board started veering to the right, and I imagined wiping out like a vehicle-flipping stock car crash. I eventually gave in and dragged the front of my shoes slightly for balance and speed reduction. At the base of the first dune, the board came to a relatively quick stop that highlighted the friction between the wood and sand. The foot straps I held on to had cut into my hands stripping away rectangular patches of skin, but my adrenaline made sure I did not feel a thing.

Pulling the wax from my pocket, I reapplied it to the bottom of my board and headed to the next hill. Though the next two dunes were taller, I managed to ride them without further hurting my hands or digging my feet into the sand. Each dune was a full-throttle rush.

Following the final ride, the drivers collected the sandboards and wax and drove us to a dune-top plateau for the sunset. As the South American sun descended on the dune-filled skyline, the light rays illuminated the sand with a deep golden hue that gradually turned fiery red. When the sun finally touched the horizon, the drivers called everyone back to the buggies and made a break for town before darkness engulfed the sandy sea.

Photo:, CC-BY

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.

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