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Friday, July 19, 2013

Dune buggying and sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

Like the trains in the US, the Cuzco airport didn't display gate information for each flight until roughly boarding time (airlines don't appear to be assigned a gate, more of a first come first serve kind of deal). In fact, there wasn't a display inside the security checkpoint area. It's a small terminal though, so it's easy to listen for any calls for your flight.

Touching down in Lima, I quickly made my way outside, where a taxi driver from Barranco's Backpackers was waiting for me. For $19 and after a 40 minute drive through Lima, I found myself in front of a green gated home.

From the perspective of a backseat taxi ride, my first impression of Lima was poor. It appeared to be another big, dirty city that lacked the elegance and beauty of Cuzco. The streets were crowded with drivers swerving in and out of lanes at crazy speeds. The air was polluted and smoggy, which was exacerbated by the persistent haze and overcast sky that cover Lima everyday during this time of the year.

By the time I got to Barranco's Backpackers it was around 11AM and I was hungry enough to eat an ox. Unfortunately, breakfast was over and pretty much everything around the area was closed until lunch time. The only thing that was obviously opened was Starbucks. So, I grabbed some popcorn from a street vendor and went inside Starbucks to leech off its wifi. 

I later discovered Besitto, a local coffeehouse that served a wonderful concoction of coffee and chocolate.

Dinner was another hit at El Tio Mario, where I had potatoes, white corn, and two grilled skewers of anticuchos - beef heart marinated in salt, cumin, garlic, black pepper, Peruvian red pepper, and vinegar. This was accompanied by a large dish of picarones - onion ring shaped fried mixture of wheat, sweet potato flour, and pumpkin flour heavily drizzled in honey fig.

Yes, that day was all about eating (as most days are).

Since Starbucks are the only places that have any resemblance of heat, when eating at restaurants it's an important skill to be able to eat fast. Most places will bring everything out at once (I usually receive my desserts first), so in order to avoid eating cold food that's supposed to be eaten hot, you have to be able to eat quickly. Or, speak enough Spanish to ask the waiter to chill out.

By the time I left El Tio Mario, there was a line out the door. The establishment is rather large, with at least two levels. Lucky I was hungry early.

Early next morning, I was 20 soles less and in a taxi to the Cruz Del Sur bus station. I would soon return to Lima, but I wanted to first do a quick stop at Huacachina, a costal desert oasis 4.5 hours south of Lima. 

Security on Cruz included passport check, baggage search, passenger manifest, handheld metal detectors, camera on the bus, seat belts, and even an airplane like safety video. Like my bus trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta, a security guard came onboard to videotape everyone's beautiful faces.

Cruz supposedly limits the number of consecutive hours its drivers drive to ~4 hours, so most long distance trips include multiple drivers, as well as a bus attendant to serve meals / drinks. Drop down TVs from the ceilings play mostly Spanish dubbed American movies with the sound blasting throughout the bus (the bus brochures claim that the sound comes through headphones - BS). 

Regardless, I was asleep ten seconds after I got on the bus. I woke up an hour later to lunch and a view of the Peruvian coastal desert. Along the stretch of beaches appeared to be a series of ghost towns and ghost farms. In farms that appeared to be inhabited, it looked like they were growing grapes (which makes sense since the region is known for its pisco brandy). 

The bus eventually stopped in Ica, the capital city of the Ica region. But, Ica wasn't my final destination of the day. I asked one of the taxi drivers to take me to Huacachina, with my mind set to not pay anymore than 5 soles. When the driver refused to budge from his 7 soles, I walked half a block up - out of pride and nothing more - where I immediately found a willing driver. 

Ten minutes later I was in my hostel and booked for two hours of dune buggying and sandboarding down the sand dunes surrounding Huacachina (30 soles).

Huacachina is a tiny oasis whose livelihood entirely depends on tourism. It's an easy ten minute walk to traverse the town of probably somewhere between 400-700 inhabitants. In the center of the town is a blue-ish lagoon.

At exactly 4PM, about 35 of us hopped into two separate large dune buggies. The drivers took us to the edge of town (a thirty second drive), where we each paid the 3.7 soles government fee. Then, the driver slammed on the gas pedal and we were immediately up the nearest sand dune, only to experience a 1.5 second free fall on the other side. At times the driver would make a tight U turn right along the edge of the dune, just inches before we would drop on the other side. This went on for 15-20 minutes until the driver finally stopped and let us out. We each grabbed a board, rubbed wax on it to ensure maximum velocity, and waited our turn to slide down the dunes, head first.

It was a similar experience to what I had done on Cerro Negro, the black volcano in Nicaragua. On the dunes of Huacachina, however, the slopes were steeper and longer. We had three separate "trial" rides down large dunes, and then were brought to the top of what would be a series of three increasingly steep dunes. The bottom third of the first dune had a less than gradual change in incline. As a result, from the perspective of those of us watching from above, the riders appeared to disappear at the bottom when the incline increased, only to reappear sliding back out at the bottom. Other dunes had several bumps near their bases. Though the bumps were not large in size, when going over them at high speed riders experience a rather uncomfortable, sometimes painful, collision between board and body.

On our way back to town, the driver stopped briefly at the top of a dune overlooking the blue lagoon and pretty much the entire town of Huacachina. Behind us was the setting sun lighting up the clear sky in shades of yellow, orange, and purple. 

For dinner, I made my way to the lagoon, near which was Desert Nights, a hostel and restaurant. It was there where I saw my first outdoor gas heater in Peru. Warmth at night, Hallelujah! And, of course, the food (grilled chicken that night and a gigantic caramel covered pancake stuffed with fruit the next morning) was good as well. 

Having decided to shorten my trip to Huacachina to just one day, I was on a Cruz bus the next morning back to Lima and a 14 soles taxi back to Barranco's Backpackers.

Next up, a couple days in Lima and figuring out where to go next!


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