After seeing countless pictures on Pinterest, bucket list articles and other blogs, we couldn't wait to visit Huacachina. Peru's 'Oasis in the Desert' was, however, a disappointment.
It's a real shame. I can imagine how, once upon a time, it would have been a magical place.
Visit on any sunny weekend now, when the brown puddle of fetid water gives off a lovely stench, litter is discarded everywhere and hundreds of tourists, local and international, vie for the last restaurant table and you could be forgiven for wondering why you made the effort at all.
I don't want to sound too negative, but I am also reluctant to join the chorus propagating certain myths about this place; it has clearly become overdeveloped, overrun and oversubscribed. This has happened to such an extent that, in the centre, it feels entirely artificial - a tourist board creation - rather than a unique natural wonder. Indeed, because of new wells nearby and unsustainable demand, the water in the lagoon - once believed to have magical properties - is pumped in. Peru cannot afford it to run dry, so they keep the myth alive.
However, I would still, without question, recommend people to visit Huacachina. Once you've pared down your expectations for the oasis, you can ramp them up for the only other attraction in town: the dunes.
To one side of the oasis lies the city of Ica but, look the other way, and all you will see is endless golden desert. Wander out here in the morning and it is serene . However, come the afternoon, the roar of dozens of dune buggies marks a shift; adrenaline-fuelled adventure takes over.
After doing something similar down an active volcano in Nicaragua, we were both we were pretty certain that 1) we would go quicker on sand than ash and 2) sand would be more forgiving if we fell off. Emily however, was struggling with illness and, despite giving her as much time as possible to recover, it was up to me to go it alone and test the theories.
After our group of eight were strapped into the beaten-up buggy straight out of Mad Max, the driver revved his way up, over and down the dunes. Although he was probably following a set route which he's navigated hundreds of times, for us passengers his apparent freestyle, hell-for-leather, bump, jump and dump driving was exhilarating. Sure, probably certain death if the buggy flipped but this was like a personal desert roller-coaster.
Boarding is mostly done on old snowboards of varying quality and age, or repurposed homemade plywood alternatives, which the driver waxes up for you. Six of our group had never stood upright on a board before, so we were given a quick lesson in how to slide down the dunes in the simplest way possible: head up, arms tucked, flat on our belly. What could go wrong?
Throughout the afternoon, we scaled three dunes with the buggy and took it in turns to throw ourselves down. The first one was a nice and manageable slope, whilst the second and third were ridiculously steep, long runs.
On the second dune, I was one of the last to go. After picking up a decent speed on the first one, I was a little cocky and wanted to show everyone how it should be done. As ever though, whenever I try and show off, it all goes terribly terribly wrong.
My body-weight was unevenly distributed and, very quickly, my board started to bank to the left (hint, when volcano boarding or sandboarding, if you're never just going STRAIGHT then something has gone wrong). The same thing has happened in Nicaragua, so my only explanation is that I must have a fat left arse cheek or something. So I tried to adjust and correct the trajectory with my feet.
That went wrong too.
I rolled and rolled and rolled some more. Thankfully I kept a hold of my board and managed to right myself eventually and, with a whimper and some very damaged pride, slithered to a stop at the bottom. A few bumps and scrapes (that soft landing theory was clearly bunkum) but nothing too serious.
It did make me quite fearful for the next and final dune. This one was a monster and, if the same thing happened again, my embarrassment at having been the only person in the group to screw up (twice!) would probably be greater than the resulting pain.
So, throwing caution the wind, I decided I would go first.
After a cagier start, I felt the board start to bank again. I made a less dramatic adjustment and, thankfully, it worked. The speed picked up, sand sprayed my face and I hurtled down with a big, stupid grin on my face. Everyone else in the group made it down at high-speed, men and women alike screaming at the pure joy of being a kid again.
Often, bucket list items disappoint but this was awesome. Without hesitation, I'd put it above volcano boarding in terms of balls-out, unashamed and unfiltered fun. The oasis may disappoint, but the dunes will keep people coming to Huacachina for years to come.
key information and advice
Sandboarding and dune buggy tours in Huacachina are on offer at most hostels and tour companies - we went with the hostel, restaurant and tour agency Desert Adventures, whom I'm happy to recommend. The two hour tour cost around 50 soles per person (£10 / $15) and this includes your board and, for those who want to try snowboarding the dunes, your boots. If you are picking between a one hour or a two hour tour, definitely go for the two hours
If you don't want to join a tour group, you can pay for a private a buggy driver and go out at any time of day.
A small entry of 3.8 soles is supposed to be charged at the entrance, but that didn't happen for us.
It's also possible to ski or snowboard down the dunes. A few girls in our group (experienced boarders) tried out the latter option on the first dune but very quickly gave up; they could see how much fun the rest of us were having going down on our fronts and the sand provided more resistance than they had expected. By all means give these ways a go and get the cool picture, but just be aware that it might not be as fun. It's also possible to rent boards for the day and head up to the dunes independently.
We were recommended to join the 4 p.m. tour as the temperature is a little cooler then, plus it includes a final stop to watch the spectacular sunset over the dunes before a breakneck drive back to a point overlooking Huacachina. Again, I'd say this is a good option.
Sand will get EVERYWHERE, particularly if you roll down the dunes like me, so I would advise you to bring very little of value. Of course, people are likely to bring along their camera, phone or GoPro - just be aware that sand is awful for this equipment. I took a little zip-lock plastic bag, as well as my backpack, to store the camera and was very selective about when to bring it out (there was a strong wind on the dunes blowing sand up and around).
Wear shoes or trainers rather than flip-flops (bare feet aren't good back brakes) and bring plenty water and sunscreen as it's hot out there under the direct sun.
Lastly, sand boarding and dune-buggy riding is not an activity without risks, so ensure that your travel insurance is valid and covers this type of activity.
To reach Huacachina, take any bus to the city Ica and from there haggle for a taxi or tuk-tuk to bring you to the oasis (7-10 soles for the taxi, 10 minutes).