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Posted by Tim on Jul 2, 2005
Desert Oasis

We'd been in cities for too long again. Basically since the time we'd left El Bolsón (back at the beginning of April), there hasn't been a break from crowds, traffic jams, or car alarms. We needed that break.

Peruvian currency, like the bills and notes of most countries, usually depicts some important building on the reverse side. The back of the S./50 note, though, is decorated with a drawing of a desert oasis: a lake surrounded by palm trees and hotels, set amid an endless expanse of sand. It's a place called Huacachina, and it was our next destination.

We took a bus from Arequipa to the sprawling, desperately unattractive city of Ica, and from there we took a taxi out into the desert. City gave way to outskirt, which gave way to a vast stretch of uninhabited sand. The dunes were enormous, taller than skyscrapers, like something out of the Sahara. And then suddenly, there it was, lake and palm trees, just like on the fifty-sol note.


After looking at literally every hotel in town (not hard when the town is a square three blocks on a side), we checked into a lovely little place called the Huacachinero. It was perfect, complete with a swimming pool and three resident parrots, and the back gate opened not onto a street, but onto a cliff-like sand dune over 100 feet tall (the tallest of the dunes surrounding the oasis). If you squinted, you could just make out silhouettes walking along the top of the dune carrying sandboards. Wiped out after our busride, we staggered into our room and fell immediately asleep.

The next morning, we shared breakfast with a marvelous Australian named Andrew, who had fallen in love with an American girl during his travels. After breakfast, he set off to an internet cafe, for a webcam "date" the two of them had arranged. He really was just the sweetest guy. We spent the rest of the morning swimming, reading out by the pool, and trying to whip our tans back into shape. We had a wonderful lunch (fried chicken for me, pasta for her, about $2 each including drinks) looking out at the lake, and then it was back to the pool. Everything was perfect: this is exactly what we had wanted. We resolved to stay an extra night.

And then it was 4:00pm: time for our adventure.

Mountains of Sand

We'd signed up for a dune buggy tour of the surrounding desert, and promptly at four we and three other couples piled into a dune buggy the size of a Hummer, and were strapped in like test pilots. It took under a minute to leave the palm trees and restaurants behind, and suddenly we were surrounded by nothing but massive dunes as far as we could see. It was stunning. And then we went flying off the edge of a cliff.

No, really. See, the whole dune buggy thing had been described to us as a "roller coaster ride", but we hadn't realized how accurate a description that was. We plunged straight down a dune the size of a mountain, and everyone started screaming. I was just certain the thing would tumble over, but our driver was laughing at us. He wasn't even wearing his seat belt.

And so it went, for about a half an hour. We would eschew the dunes that looked sane or at least less than suicidal, and would plunge down waterfalls of sand at what felt like a right angle to the sky. We would drive directly towards a towering wall of sand, and then improbably directly up it, then across it (looking to my right, I saw the desert floor: we were sideways), then back down it. It was amazing.

We then pulled to a stop at the top of a dune that was so sheer, so tall, that I was relieved we weren't going to try and go down this one. That was when our driver hopped out and started pulling sandboards off of the back of the dune buggy.

A Mountain Dew Commercial Gone Awry

Before we plunged down this sheer cliff-face, fortunately, our driver was supposed to give us some intruction. This, though, turned out to be him strapping on a sandboard, grunting at us and assuming an appropriate pose, and then taking the sandboard off again. Then he hopped back into the buggy and drove down to the bottom to wait for us there. Great.

Jessica, of course, is a sandboarding savant, and she didn't want the rest of us to be humiliated by her brilliance. For that reason, after initially showing off her skill for ten feet or so, she went down the dune on her butt, occasionally pretending to fall completely over. All to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves. What a sweet girl.

For my part, I spent the first bit of my descent doing what everyone else was doing: assuming a sort of crouched-over pose, I dragged my hands in the sand as I went, to keep from going too fast. Then, for some reason, I decided to pretend I knew what I was doing. Pride, of course, goeth before cartwheeling down a mountain.

For ten seconds or so, it was working. I struck the stance of a surfer, knees slightly bent and arms out, and I started flying down the dune. It was amazing. By my best estimate, I was traveling at just short of the speed of sound, and was nearly 3/4 of the way down the dune when two things happened at once. First, I heard Jessica yell, "Wow, Tim, you're doing great!" And second, I remembered that I have absolutely no motor skills whatsoever. I mean, I once broke my arm falling off a chair. Who was I trying to kid here?

Then I remember tumbling. Sand, sky, sand, sky, all whirling by at warp speed as I flipped head over heels over head down the rest of the dune. When I got to the bottom, I discovered an angry crack running across the nose of my sandboard. As I unstrapped myself from it, it came completely apart into two pieces. Whoops. (It should perhaps be noted here that I have since questioned many people, and no one has ever even heard of someone else breaking a board.) Anyway, our driver told me not to worry: I could use the extra board we carried for him.

Jessica, having witnessed my uncontrolled freefall down the slope with the concern of someone who didn't know whether I'd survive or not, decided not to sandboard a second time. (Plus, there was that whole "not wanting to embarrass us with how good she was" thing.) I, unsurprisingly, was not that smart. We pulled up to the top of another dune, and I was feeling downright cocky when I got out. Jessica murmured something about it not looking so bad after all. Then our driver indicated that we weren't heading down that side, and had us climb to the pinnacle of the dune.

This slope made the previous one look easy. The driver motioned for us to go, and the West Point grad with us (an accomplished snowboarder) immediately launched himself down the slope. He was looking good for most of the way, then flew off the bottom of the slope face-first into the sandy desert floor. None of the rest of us moved. Then, for reasons passing understanding, I made my way past everyone else and set off down the mountain.

It started much as it had before, with me looking for a moment like I knew what I was doing. I was soaring down the dune, faster than I had been the first time, and once again I was about 3/4 of the way down before everything went horribly wrong.

I clearly remember the manic pace of my decent down the dune sliding suddenly into slow-motion, as I felt myself float up and away from the sand. For what seemed like an unbearably long time, I was suspended in mid-air. Then things got fast again, and I plunged head-first into the sand. I rolled, flipped, and cartwheeled, caught my balance, then started flipping and rolling again. Then a second time, I righted myself, only to lose my balance again and continue tumbling. It was much faster this time than on the other slope, a much more violent tumbling, and at some point my sunglass flew off my face and forever disappeared into the sand. For the first time I began to worry about my safety.

Then I felt a sharp crack in the vicinity of my ankles, and my feet flew apart. What?!

My board had broken again, straight down the middle this time.

Our dune buggy later pulled alongside another one, and our driver negociated with theirs for an extra sandboard, but it wasn't necessary. I would not be sandboarding again.

Happily Ever After

Other than my near-death experience, our time in Huacachina was tranquil and relaxing, exactly what we'd wanted. We also made a number of new friends, including the two couples pictured with us to the right.

Andrew and Karen were given two gifts by a sadistic friend when they set out on their trip. The first was a stuffed hippo, which they were directed to photograph in different setings around the world, much as our friend Philip charged us to do with Henry the Mascot Duck. Before opening the second gift, Andrew was informed that it was an article of clothing, and as with the hippo, he had to be photographed in various places wearing whatever it was. It turned out to be a Speedo, two sizes too small. Karen was nice enough to share with us photos of him sandboarding in nothing but his Speedo, and wearing it at the (very cold) Sun Gate up at Machu Picchu.

Michael and Sophie we have since met up with again in Cuzco, just the other night, where we were all first mobbed by violent children and then later by overzealous touts. They are presently hiking the Inca Trail, poor bastards. The two of them will be back at home in England by the time we get there. In fact, if things work out the way they presently look like they will, we'll be there just in time for Michael's birthday. Thanks to their input, we can't wait to see Ecuador, and we will never go to Bali.

Our last full day in Huacachina, we went back into Ica to buy ourselves bus tickets to Cuzco, and to see off our friend Australian Andrew (not to be confused with Speedo Andrew), who was catching a bus of his own. When we returned, we went back to our room to lay in bed and do a little reading. Soon, though, we could hear our names being plaintively called from outside the room. It turned out to be Sophie, who didn't know which room we were staying in, and so had been wandering the hotel calling for us, bless her. She invited us out to dinner: a massive group, composed of nearly everyone staying in the hotel, wanted to go out for dinner together, and she didn't want us to feel left out.

In the end, there were sixteen of us wandering tiny little Huacachina as a group, looking for a restaurant that could accomodate so many people. We eventually found ourselves at an Italian restaurant that had probably not served 16 people in total the rest of the evening, but who felt they were up to the challenge. It turned out to be a wonderful meal, all the food arrived relatively quickly and everyone got what they'd ordered, and (surprise, surprise), everyone threw in the correct amount for the check. The only hiccup in the whole process was that the restaurant appeared to have only five forks available, and seemed to think we'd be able to make do with them. When pressed, however, they acquired more from somewhere, and soon we were drowning in a surplus of forks. Pasta was eaten, beer was imbibed, and stories were told. It was an enormously enjoyable evening.

The next morning, we checked out at 10am, and then just hung around the pool the rest of the day (our bus to Cuzco didn't leave until 6pm). As it turned out, the situation was identical for Karen and Andrew (leaving for India at 1pm) and Sophie and Michael (heading to Cuzco as well, but not leaving until 9pm), so we were all able to hang out together. As much fun as that was, it was eventually time to catch a cab back into Ica, board our bus, and say goodbye to our desert oasis.

July 13, 2005 at 6:13pm
# 1! i rock, love you guys! keep on having fun!
July 13, 2005 at 9:47pm
Aw… such fun stuff all around. The sand boarding incident… wow. That's talent. (I'm SO glad you didn't actually hurt yourself! Better the board break than you!)

Take care you guys… Keep up the good work on those tans. Hee!

July 13, 2005 at 10:21pm
yikes… i'm so glad you're okay ;) sounds like fun, though, most of it.
July 14, 2005 at 6:54am
What a thrill! That was totally Mountain Dew! Do the Dew!
Amie a.k.a Koreen's sister
July 14, 2005 at 10:00am
I laughed so loud my co-workers must suspect I am surfing the net …he he. Not that I wasn't concerned for your safety…but once you broke the second board I couldnt control the giggles. Glad your ok and will live to (if not surf) at least walk another day.
July 14, 2005 at 7:56pm
i'm glad that your having fun , and i totally agree with you about jessica being gracious by not showing off

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