The Oasis at Huacachina: 19-21 March 2015

19 march 2015
I left Cusco on an overnight bus, sitting next to a kid from Lima who had the same name as my grandfather, Franklin. I remember this as the most awful of my bus rides through Peru – worse even than the minivan along the cliffs to Hydroelectrica – because of the number of people on the bus who spent the entire ride vomiting into plastic bags handed out by the bus company. An indigenous girl and her mother sat behind me filling bag after bag (occasionally I saw them walk past carrying their full bags to the toilet). Franklin made it to the bathroom in time, thank God, and spent the rest of the trip sweating next to me looking miserable. I’m no stranger to physical ailments (read: gluten intolerance) but thankfully motion sickness isn’t on my list of issues, so I made good use of the music loaded on my iphone to drown out the sound of sickness and enjoyed the view out the window of the brilliant green hills.

20 march 2015
Around 11:00 the landscape levels out and most people’s stomachs calm down (except for the ladies behind me who are still at it). We’re in a beautiful yellow sandy desert now, stretching out flat in the valley where we drive and bounded by stark rocky mountains and plateaus. We pass Nazca, where the famous enigmatic petroglyphs lie close to the road, though of course you can’t really see them from the ground. We stop at a roadside shack for lunch (some people still have an appetite) before continuing on to Ica.

Franklin nudges me and tells me to let the bus driver know I’m getting off here. “Doesn’t the bus go to a terminal?” He shakes his head. I stagger down the stairs as the bus swings around corners in the outskirts of Ica and convince the drivers to let me off in the dirt by the side of the road – I get the sense they’re reluctant to do even that, never mind actually taking me to a bus station or at least a taxi stand. They chuck me out the bus and leave me coughing in the dust by a busy side road in God knows what part of Ica. I stand there in my chucks with my blonde hair and my big American backpack, feeling indignant and a little awkward and exposed for a few minutes. A sleepless night surrounded by vomiting bus passengers leaves me a little underprepared for thinking on my feet. But I love this about traveling, the random places you find yourself and the adventure of getting yourself where you need to go on your own willpower. And there are few enough places I’ve traveled where friendly locals would actually refuse to help a lost tourist. Within a few minutes, a shirtless old man working on a car near where the bus ditched me waves me over and points excitedly at a tiny, rickety taxi that’s just turning across the road. He tells me it’s his neighbor’s taxi, and the neighbor can give me a cheap ride to Huacachina.

I get in the front seat of the taxi, say hola, and start to put my seatbelt on. “Oh you won’t need that, I’m a safe driver,” says Jhon, before stomping on the gas and driving full-speed in reverse for about three blocks. It’s probably not a very safe ride, from an objective perspective, but it’s a fun and fast one and about six minutes later we’ve come around a curve in the road that takes us into a valley of high sand dunes, and then we’re pulling into a tiny sandy town surrounding a cluster of lush palm trees ringing a large brown pond.

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From the racks of snowboards hanging up at the hostel and the giant posters advertising rides in dune buggies, I gather people tend to come here for adventure sports in the sand dunes. I consider trying this – it certainly seems fun – but eventually decide to save the money for something else. Adventure sports were never meant to be the focus of my trip – I didn’t ride the death road in La Paz, I didn’t do a trek to Macchu Picchu, I don’t plan on zip lining in BaƱos. It’s not my style. I’m not exactly an adrenaline-fueled person to begin with, and anyway, for this journey at least, I wanted my focus to be on experiences that would help me understand South American culture. I don’t expect to experience any great insights into the nature of everyday life outside the US while squeezed into a dune buggy full of shrieking tourists. That sounds cynical – I guess you never know. Perhaps next time.

I spend a quiet two days in Hucachina. It’s touristic – you can’t walk anywhere without someone coming up to you and trying quite persistently to sell you a tour or convince you to eat at their restaurant. The aggressive salesmanship has gotten worse as I’ve come farther north into Peru. Here a simple “no, gracias” is interrupted by raised voices and even more rapid spanish as they attempt to change my mind by reading me the entire menu or describing a tour in detail. I find it rude and a little exhausting. Fortunately, the little sand beach that rings the lagoon is free from this kind of behavior. I find shady spots on the rough, worn concrete walls and watch the humid air stir the surface of the lagoon, watch people float their paddle boats in circles across the water.

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21 march 2015
Before breakfast on the morning of my first full day, I climb one of the sand dunes looming over Huacachina. It’s hard work getting up those massive formations. They must be 150 meters high, the big ones, and the thing about climbing in sand is you’ve got nothing to push against, so progress is slow and difficult. The humid air here makes me sweat as I heave myself up to the very crest of the southern dune and look out across the desert. The view is enchanting. I was taken with the desert in Nevada as soon as I saw it, but that is high desert, flat caked earth and hard, unforgiving rocks and sagebrush and rough mountains. This is something softer and more exotic, this mysterious yellow landscape of sensual curves and elegant arcs and mysterious hollows between the hills. I look out in wonder to where the dunes march away south and west to the horizon. To the north and east, separated from the oasis by the crest of a single large dune, the city of Ica coughs in haze between the foot of steep mountains and the dust of the dunes.

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Back in Huacachina I enjoy a day of doing nothing in particular. Sometimes I feel guilty for relaxing, doing nothing, like I’m wasting time or missing an opportunity; but then I think back to where I might be if I hadn’t quit my job, in a meeting or at my desk working, and I think, I’m so lucky to have this time to myself, I’m lucky that I could afford to quit working for a year and do whatever the hell I want. I will probably never have this opportunity again. I’m going to savor it.

At sunset I walk up the dunes again to watch the sun go down. On the way I use the money I would have spent on a dune buggy tour to buy a beautiful macrame bracelet set with lapiz lazuli. The woman who made it ties it on my wrist, then clucks at my disapprovingly when she sees the state of my other bracelets. The one from Uruguay is being held on with a safety pin and the one from Machu Picchu is already coming undone. With a few deft movements she repairs the loose ends and secures them with a quick flame from a lighter, giving me a motherly pat and a smile and sending me on my way.

I watch the sun set and come back from the dunes covered in sand. The evening breeze crested the tops of the dunes with a surprising force that drove blowing sand in my ears, coating my skin with a fine layer and sticking to my face where I had sweated from the effort. The beauty and romance and enchantment of the desert are all great, but it’s also a messy, sandy place when you come right down to it.

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The hostel is about half full of friendly-looking backpackers, but the people who pass through while I’m there are all strangely insular, either in closed-off groups or buried silently in books, and I don’t exchange more than a few superficial greetings with anyone. This doesn’t bother me – I’m independent enough to survive a few days of keeping myself company – and I spend my last evening in Huacachina drinking red wine on the patio of the hostel where it overlooks the lagoon.