Huacachina is a tiny town in southern Peru, an hour away from the Pacific coast. The town is basically a collection of resorts and restaurants around a blue-green laguna surrounded by huge sand dunes. An antique image of the town is featured on Peru´s 50 soles bill. Its interest to tourists is three-fold: the novelty and beauty of a dry desert with huge sand dunes, plus the opportunity to sand board and to ride in four-wheel-drive dune buggies that cruise up and down the dunes at break-neck speeds. The town depends entirely on tourism; as most visitors are foreigner tourists.
Legend claims every year a mermaid living in the laguna takes one man. The inability of certain Peruvians to swim seems a more likely explanation of the yearly drownings. Other people speculate that the cause of the frequent drownings is swimmers muscles cramp when the warm water on the top of the oasis mixes with cooler water below.
Getting to Ica from Lima, most bus companies including Peru Hop, Cruz del Sur and Soyuz have frequent trips along the route. Once in Ica it is a quick 10 minute taxi ride (drivers at the bus terminal ask for around s/. 10; from elsewhere s/. 5 seems to be the going rate (January 2017)) to Huacachina. Note: tuktuks will be cheaper than taxis
If taking a public bus, you would need to take a bus from Lima to Ica or Cusco to Ica. Once in Ica, you would need to find a local taxi to then take you to the oasis of Huacachina. To leave Huacachina, you would need to do the same. You can also organize a shared shuttle/bus from other locations such as Paracas, generally through your hostel or a tourist agency.
Peru Hop is the only direct bus to Huacachina. Their buses go from Cusco to Huacachina and Lima to Huacachina. They also have the necessary license to enter directly to the oasis, so you can avoid the hassle of taking any taxis to and from Ica.
This oasis is a few kilometers from the bustling city of Ica. There are no longer municipal bus routes to Huacachina, but it is possible to find taxis during the day (8/10 soles one way) and at night (10/12 soles one way) although be warned that most taxi drivers work for commission with the hostels and will often tell you hostels are full when in fact this is not true, and they will try to sell you every tour imaginable on this journey from Ica. Take the registered official taxis to ensure your safety.
If coming into Ica from Nazca, Arequipa or Cusco, ask the driver to let you off at “desvió Huacachina” or “cruce Huacachina” – the turn off is before the center of the city/bus stations and getting off here will save you time and money.
The town is extremely small, and visitors can walk from one end to another within a few minutes.
Taxis are used to travel from Huacachina to sites in Ica, and moto-taxis can be used within Ica to affordably travel to locations that are too far too walk. Most taxis charge 2.5 or 3 soles for trips from one location in the city to another. Most taxi-motos charge 1.50 soles, making it a very cheap way to get around.
Watch the sunset from the rim of the dunes. Amazing colours and views. You can walk up for the sunrise but be careful as there are no marked paths. To hike up to the top of the biggest dune on the north of the lagoon takes no more than 25 minutes and the views are spectacular.
Sandboarding and dune buggy rides are the main attractions in Huacachina.
Tours of the Bodegas and Wineries: in Ica there are about a zillion different bodegas and wineries that produce pisco and sweet red wine. These bodegas range from the small family-run “artesanal” bodegas to huge industrial bodegas that supply the entire country with pisco and export to Europe and the US. Perhaps the best artesanal bodega is “Catador” and the best industrial bodegas are probably “Tacama” and “Vista Alegre”-
There are two museums in nearby Ica, but the one that is of most interest to visitors is probably the archaeology museum, el MUSEO REGIONAL DE ICA. The museum is full of clay pottery, mummies, and trepanned human skulls (skulls that have had holes drilled into them for surgical reasons, while the person was alive) and textiles from the various indigenous groups that have lived in the Ica region for thousands of years. The dry sand from the desert preserves the bodies and fabrics in impressive condition. The museum costs 10 soles, and is worth a visit although superior museums can be found in Lima, Arequipa, and the north of Peru.
The other museum is rarely open because the building it is located in, and its exhibits, where heavily damaged during a 2007 earthquake. It is the Museo de Piedras Grabadas, the museum of recorded stones. It is a large collection of round, smooth stones with images of fish, dinosaurs, and people carved on them. The creator of the museum claims they are thousands of years old, but virtually all scientists hold a skeptical opinion of the rocks and strongly suspect they are modern hoaxes. It is not recommended to visit this museum because to do so supports scientific hoaxes and is a waste of money.
- The Lagoon — At the lagoon you can hire paddle boats or row boats. Its also possible to swim in the lagoon however the water is not particularly clean so caution is advised.
- Walking to the top of the dunes — Soak up the views at top of the sand dunes for a rewarding, yet exhausting experience. It will take up to an hour, depending on fitness (and which dune you pick!). The views of both the lagoon and town itself are spectacular, not to mention the rolling sand dunes on the horizon. Take a camera (in a plastic bag or case to prevent sand damaging the lens, plenty of water and a scarf or something to protect eyes/camera equipment from the wind swept sand at the top. Particularly beautiful at sunset.
The following activities are best done as part of an organized tour. There are numerous reputable agencies in Huacachina.
- Dune buggy rides — Considered by many to be the most exciting activity in Huacachina, fans of adventure sports and rollercoasters will find that taking a dune buggy ride is an essential component of a trip to southern Peru. Rides are offered by most hotels and hostals, usually for around 30 – 45 soles. There is a communal “tax” of 3.80 soles per person which is to be paid to the driver either right before you enter the sand area or when you return to the village. This tax is not usually announced when you buy your tour – ask if it is included. Most dune buggy tours are two hours long, which includes approximately one hour of sand boarding. The late-afternoon tour, usually starting at 4-4:30pm, is probably the best time of day to take a tour as the sun is bright enough to illuminate the landscape but no longer bright enough to cause sunburn, and sometimes drivers will take passengers to look-out points to observe the beautiful desert sunset. The wind carries a lot of sand which gets into your eyes and mouth. Wear sunglasses. Be aware that the ride resembles a roller coaster and might be quite dangerous. Drivers do all sorts of crazy stuff on the sand and vehicles are self-made and don’t seem safe. There is no need to book with your hostel or any agency in advance, just show up in Huacachina before 4pm and there will be loads of buggy drivers trying to get your attention. As of June 2017, cheapest tours are found at a small groceries store in the street left of backpackers hostal for S/.30 including tax and without bargaining. Many tourist report that they have had their camera broken because of the large amount of sand that inevitably goes inside the camera. Consider leaving your camera at your hotel or pay special attention on preserving it. If you end up with a broken camera, don’t worry. The remedy is to have it repaired on your next stop – Arequipa. Reliable and inexpensive place to do that just for 50 soles is a photo center, located at Calle Jerusalem 107, where they also exchange money. Look for the green label above the entrance as there are many similar studios nearby.
- Sandboarding — It’s the “hot” version of snowboarding except you do it on sand instead of snow. It is included in all dune buggy tours, but you can also rent a board on the streets for a few soles. Wax (cera) is essential for velocity, so ask for a piece to go with your board. Due to differences between sand grains and snow, snowboarders may be disappointed with the pace of sandboarding and the increased difficulty of maneuvering the board. Most non-athletic tourists eventually end up riding the sandboard like a sled, face-down on their stomach. This allows for a very simple, and very rapid (sometimes dangerously so) descent of the dunes. If you are serious about sandboarding you should go to one of the more expensive agencies and pay for a proper board, otherwise you will have the standard homemade plywood boards. Do not bring your phone as you will loose it for sure and never find it back under the sand!
- All Terrain vehicles — Quads, (called Cuatrimotor in Spanish) are a type of four-wheeled all terrain vehicle that resembles a tiny jeep but is the size of a golf cart. Desert Nights hostal rents these vehicles, and offers tours. They cost $40 per hour, which is quite expensive.
- Swimming Pools — Beat the heat: bring your swimming suit because numerous hotels and hostels in the area have swimming pools.
Near the entrance to the Huacachina promenade are a number of kiosks. Some are selling souvenirs, jewelry, t-shirts and other touristy knicknacks. Others sell tasty jams made from fruits in the area (such as mangos, figs, or guanabana) and some liqueurs from Ica such as pisco and wine. Apart from these small shops, there are only tiny convenience stores. Virtually all items are more expensive than when purchased in Ica.
The only ATM in the town is located at the Huacachinero hostel. It frequently is out of cash. Many places in Huacachina accept Visa/Mastercard but best to ask beforehand. Ica, located a few kilometers away, has a number of ATM machines as well as money-changers who will convert your dollars into soles and vice versa in exchange for a small commission.
There are numerous restaurants in Huacachina, all of them somewhat overpriced when compared to normal Peruvian prices. For budget travellers it is highly recommended to bring food from Ica. The cheapest menu (10S) can be found offered at a restaurant 1 street back from the north-eastern corner of the lake.
The Casa de Avinoam, the restaurant located in the Carolas del Sur Hostal, has delicious thin-crust pizzas. Pizza prices range from about $6 USD for a personal pizza to $15 for a large family-sized pizza.
The restaurant at Desert Nights Youth Hostal is quite popular too.
For those craving tasty ethnic food, head to Bamboo Cafe, located in a small lot in between Carola del Sur and Hosteria Suiza. They serve a flavorful Thai curry, decent falafel (popular with the Israeli and Arab travellers), and other ethnic and peruvian dishes. The Bamboo Cafe is also a great retreat for those who have been travelling for months and are in need of a bacon butty with brown sauce, marmite or a full English breakfast.
In Ica, there are quite a few decent restaurants. One of these is the restaurant “El Otro Peñoncito” which has a very pleasant, upscale decore and serves a variety of italian and peruvian dishes. It is slightly expensive by Peruvian standards, unsurprising since much like the restaurants in Huacachina it exists to serve food to tourists.
A great, cheap restaurant to eat lunch is McGrille, on Avenida Cutervo. It has cheap but tasty menus at lunch time (from around 12:40 to 3:00pm) that only cost 7 soles per person during the week and 9 soles on weekends and holidays.
Valentino’s Cafe-Bar, across the street from McGrille, has tasty fixed-price lunches for 9 soles and free WIFI for customers. The lunches here will be higher quality than similarly priced lunches in huacachina.
Alcohol is overpriced in Huacachina. Most of the larger hotels have their own bars, including Casa de Arena and Huacachinero. One of the only bars that is not associated with a hotel is Da Silva House, located alongside the Casa de Arena hostel. Cocktails here cost between $3 and $5, and the owner prepared many types of mixed drinks and cocktails.
Many visitors to Huacachina decide to visit the wineries and pisco bodegas that are located all over Ica. These wineries grow their own grapes, crush them, and convert them to wine or pisco. They will show you their vineyards, their fermentation machines and wine-making process, and then give you a small sample of their products. You are of course encouraged to then purchase the wines and piscos. Many of these tours are free (the bodegas make their money from wine sales), but your taxi driver or tour guide will charge you to take you around to various bodegas.
During late February and early March, is the grape harvest when grapes are crushed by foot. Visitors are encouraged to take off their sandals and shoes, wash their feet, and then help crush the grapes. While perhaps not the most hygienic method of alcohol preparation, this is a very popular activity.
Bodegas are split into two categories: artesenal and industrial. Artesenal bodegas are small, family-run operations that only produce a small amount of wine or pisco. Industrial bodegas produce large quantity of product that is intended for national distribution or international exportation.
- Casa de Arena, extremely popular backpacker resort with swimming pool, restaurant, bar and small dance club. Rooms are plain, the service inpersonal and like most “party hostels” it’s noisy. Great buggy and sandboarding tours that net discounts on room prices. Dorm rooms are currently 20/24 soles per person for the 18-person dorm room and 25/28 soles per person for the small 4-person dorm rooms. A shared 2 or 3 person room is s/. 30 pppn. Bathrooms are shared. Private rooms with private bathrooms are also available, and tend to cost between 40 and 45 soles per person.
- Casa de Bamboo, good sized en-suite rooms, quite quiet, no common area or pool. Decent veggie/vegan restaurant. Standard breakfast.
- Hotel Mossone is an upscale and expensive hotel located in an old colonial hacienda in Huacachina, with views of the oasis. Prices here are decidedly geared towards foreign tourists, as room prices range from $80 to $150. The hotel features its own swimming pool and restaurant. Definitely the nicest hotel in Huacachina, but probably not the best option for backpackers or young people who might find the social scene there to be lacking.
- Hostal Salvatierra is a backpacker hostel that has seen better days, although it remains a bargain for tourists looking to save money. Private rooms often cost as little as 20 soles per person, although the rooms are old and grungy. The hotel has its own pool, one of the nicest pools in Huacachina. Like most resorts and backpacker hostels, they offer dunebuggy tours and wine bodega tours.
- El Huacachinero is a popular budget hotel that is similar to, but more upscale than, the Casa de Arena hostal. The facilities, rooms, and swimming pool are nicer. The price is slightly more expensive. Huacachinero doesn´t have a discoteca, and often is less crowded than the Casa de Arena.
- Hotel Rocha is a grungy old backpacker hostel with dirty, small rooms but a decent bar and swimming pool.
- Desert Nights is a good budget option. It is a hostal that is excellently located near the entrance to Huacachina, and is owned by an American-Peruvian couple. It is well-liked because it is clean and affordable. It has a restaurant with tasty food. However it lacks a discoteca and swimming pool. This is the only Hostelling-International youth hostel in the area. Wifi is quick enough when it is quiet, best time is early morning or after 10pm.
- Las Dunas Hotel is a very upscale hotel in a quiet neighborhood about 7 minutes ride from Huacachina. It is the nicest, most exclusive hotel in the area with huge swimming pools, large lawns, and llamas and alpacas that roam around the grounds. As you would imagine, it is also the most expensive hotel in the area.
- Sunset Hostal (Sol de Ica), Balneario de Huacachina s/n – Ica (On the southern side of the lagoon. Go strait at the round about when you enter Huacachina. It is a the end of the road.), ☎ 056 214870. checkout: 12 noon. New hotel (one floor is still unfinished) with clean and comfortable rooms either with private or shared bathroom. Hot water, free sandboards and free wifi. No nightclub, no swimming pool hence very quiet. S/.50-60 for a ensuite double room.
Taxis leave Huacachina at all hours of the day and night. If you plan on leaving the area in order to go to Lima, you can also take Soyuz (cheap but sometimes quite dangerous) or Cruz Del Sur. If you are going to Arequipa or Nazca, options are Cruz del Sur and Cial (the budget option). To take these buses, take a taxi from Huacachina to their bus terminal in Ica (around S./12 as of August 2016). It is important to use a registered taxi as there have been some reports of theft in taxis between Huacachina and Ica. This is rare but caution is advised.
Peru Hop departs directly from Huacachina. They operate 7 days a week and can take you in all directions, to Arequipa or Cusco, or to Paracas and Lima in the north. There bus south goes towards Arequipa via Nazca.