Legend has it that there was once a beautiful Inca princess who lived in the Peruvian desert. She fell in love with a handsome prince who suddenly died. With a broken heart her tears created a lagoon, where she sat longing for her lost love.
A hunter suddenly scared her away, and the folds of her mantle streamed behind, creating dramatic sand dunes like towering waves in the soft and endless dessert. It is rumoured that the princess returned and now lives as a mermaid in the lagoon.
After several hours on a hot and desolate bus ride, the little lagoon emerged from the distance.
Huacachina means “crying young woman” in the native South American language of Quechua. With a population of less than 100, it is an oasis in the desert of the Ica province of Southwest Peru, about 300 kilometres south of Lima.
Huacachina was founded in the 1930s as a vacation spot for the wealthy Peruvians in the nearby town of Ica. Several old Spanish-style buildings line the shore. There are also newer buildings with hostels for the plethora of backpackers who pass through continually in search of a sand-boarding lesson or two.
I woke up in the middle of the night, my left eye had swollen into a red ball. The doctor at the hospital in the next town over saw me straight away and gave me an anti-histamine shot. The nurse checked on me every 20 minutes for several hours until the swelling went down. The whole ordeal cost me $4. How do we treat foreigners at our Canadian hospitals?
Sand-boarding and dune-buggy rides are a favourite activity for young daredevils. Not one to shy away from adventure, I signed up for the $8 afternoon ride.
By 4pm, it started to cool down and the dune-buggy engines revved up and rumbled the town. We hopped into the buggies and drove into the desert, up, down and around the dunes, which are hundreds of feet high. The trip was coupled with sand-boarding “lessons,” which included a guide who knew about 10 words of English.
After several days of perfecting my sand-boarding technique, I took a day trip to the resort town of Paracas, an hour’s bus drive away on the Pacific coast. From there I took a boat to the Ballestas Islands—a small group of islands with stunning rock formations where I found a variety of birds, seals and, surprisingly, penguins.
In my pursuit to find a decent salsa instructor, I found many eager young Peruvian men who claimed to be professional dancers, only to find they were just looking for a date. It took me a few days, but at last, I found Alfanso bartending at a local dive. He was the real deal. His family owned the joint and while mixing drinks he would give free salsa lessons to backpackers drinking their pisco sours.
My days fell into a beautiful routine: I spent my mornings and early afternoons by the pool, or the lagoon, leisurely reading a book, or sitting at a café observing life around me. I spent my afternoons climbing the dunes and sand-boarding (or trying to) with the board I rented for $3/day. I spent my evening perfecting my salsa moves at Alfonso’s bar.
I met Ruben at a restaurant on my 10th and last day in Huacachina. He was from London and was on a two-month backpacking excursion around Peru and Bolivia. He had a bus to catch to Cusco in an hour but I somehow convinced him to climb the dune with me before we both had to go. I loved the feeling of the soft sand running through my toes. Climbing those dunes is fun but not easy as sand sifts through your toes as you sink down into each step up. Exhausted, we sat at the top of the dune and watched the sun set, turning the sand into brilliant shades of reds and browns. I reflected on my travels in Peru, from the magic of the Andes to the magnificence of the Amazon. It occurred to me that in all my travels I never felt so alive with such clarity than I did there, sitting at the top of a giant sand dune.
“How can this be?” I asked Ruben, “that a place that is completely desolate and void of life can make me feel so alive?”
“It is something about the emptiness,” he explained, “when clarity can emerge.”
From Moses to Mohammed, it is no wonder that many great revelations come to those in the desert.
I slid down the dune, packed my sandy bags, and boarded the bus to Lima.