La Huacachina is a small oasis that rises between the imposing dunes of the Ica desert. An oasis that was naturally formed by palm trees and a lagoon of underground green waters and healing properties. An oasis that in the Twentieth Century was the resting place of Peru's upper class and which, today, has resulted in tourist overexploitation. This location offers an unforgettable landscape and a deep reflection of Peruvian society and its principles. It is worth a visit.
This desert has the peculiarity of being 5 km away from a noisy and chaotic city like Ica, which became even more chaotic after the devastating earthquake of 2007 – it can still be seen in several buildings divided into two, such as the City Hall and the Cathedral, both in the Plaza de Armas-. Although it seems impossible, grapes are cultivated in the surroundings. The vines in the Ica river valley -introduced by the Spanish in the past-, are situated above the haze of the coast and, consequently, the dry and sunny weather throughout the year, make the viticulture possible
The road from Ica city to La Huacachina was paved around 1970 and lined with rubber plants, acacias and huarangos, the latter ones are native to the area and ink and honey are extracted from them. Therefore, reaching the oasis from the city generates a sense of tranquillity. There is natural silence, paused and comforting.
However, once again, Peru has surrendered to tourism: it has taken from the hands of its elites this wonderful place -which looks like something out of a tale from Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)-, to surrender it to an irresponsible exploitation. Over the last years, tourism insistently perturbs this calm. Different songs sound in the hive-hostels, the engines of the areneros or tubulares (buggies that take you through the dunes tour) roar from 4pm onwards, and the atmosphere livens up from 7pm with music and drinking, becoming a place for drunken tourists to party. The waters that are described in books as emerald green and with healing properties, are now dirty green and not recommended for bathing.
Luckily, during the day, the noises are appeased by the dunes, which makes relaxing by the edge of the lagoon or by one of the hotels’ pools the perfect plan. Always (use?) with a powerful sun protection. Don’t forget that we are in the middle of the desert.
The appeal of La Huacachina
Although the roar of buggies breaks the silence of the desert, one of the best experiences in this area of the planet is to cross the dunes in one of these buggies, practice sandboarding from great heights and see the spectacle of the sun caressing the sand at about six o'clock in the afternoon.
These adrenaline filled tours can be booked at any of the hostels and hotels surrounding the lagoon. The price is around 20 soles per person (20 Peruvian soles are a little more than 5€ or £4.5 at the beginning of September 2017) including the entry to the reserved area. You must ensure that the guide travels through different dunes with you and carries tables for everyone.
The Dessert Night Hostel (which in Google Maps appears as Huacachina Backpackers House) has some of the best guides: they guarantee that they will provide adrenaline fuelled driving, choose the best dunes for the descent, tell you where to take the most stunning photos and stop at a quiet place to enjoy the calm of the sunset. In addition, if you ask them, they offer the possibility of eating dinner and sleeping one night in the desert, a minimum of 4 or 6 people are required for this.
It is also enjoyable to take a walk around the lagoon, try some of the sweets from the area and chat with the locals who, next to the statue of a siren, will tell you the legend of how the lagoon was created.
Huaca China means "the one who makes you cry" in Quechua language and, according to the elderly, the name comes from a very old love story that has several versions.
A young indigenous woman from pre-Columbian times suffered the death of her husband, shot down in the war, and ran to the place where they had met to cry. She cried so much that her tears created this lagoon. Half of her body was submerged in her tears, which endowed her with a siren's tail and never again allowed her to leave the lagoon. Some local people say that she became a fish and now is a huge croaker that inhabits these waters and has never been caught. They say that the siren / croaker takes someone every year in these shallow waters and, therefore, the elderly people of the area recommend not to bathe in the lagoon. Rumours say that some nights, when silence reigns, you can hear the bitter and disconsolate sob of Huaca China crying for her beloved.
Arriving, eating and sleeping
To get to Huacachina by public transport you must travel to Ica city, where all buses stop (or at the junction to Pisco or cruce de Pisco), and then take a taxi straight to Huacachina. Barter the price and reach an agreement before getting into the car. Do not pay more than 10 soles and don’t share the taxi, it can be dangerous.
The most comfortable and safe option for traveling by bus is Cruz del Sur which, from Lima, takes between 4 and 5 hours and doesn’t stop until it arrives. The seats can be reclined to almost to 180 ° and they give you a sandwich -don’t expect any gourmet creation-. Bring a sweater to wrap up warm against the freezing air conditioning and earplugs if you want to sleep because, as usual in many Latin countries, the TV is at unbearable volume.
Have your passport ready because in the middle of the road police officers - with submachine guns - check everyone’s identities.
Avoid the company Soyuz. It leaves every 7 minutes, but makes innumerable stops - not even marked -, which turns the trip into an eternal journey and unsafe with the possibility of assault.
By car you should take the Panamericana Sur and follow the signs to Pisco, then to Ica and finally to Huacachina. Watch out for the roadside checks. Police are looking for foreigners who exceed speed limits or are unaware of any rules, such as having the lights switched on at any time of the day and night on this route. Have all the documentation in order.
The road is good when leaving Lima but gets worse closer to Pisco. There are bumps, dirt tracks and a single lane where there are trucks, kamikaze bus drivers and cars ill-equipped for the rugged terrain. There is a point where the road is full of mototaxis (like the Thai tuk-tuks) so you have to be wide awake. A quite entertaining 4 hour journey where the use of a GPS is almost obligatory.
Eating and sleeping in Huacachina is not going to be one of the best experiences you'll ever have in your life. The Hosteria Suiza has a high price for the location but may be the most comfortable option. It faces the lagoon and has restaurant.
Hotel Mossone is a classic. One of the first hotels in this location, so you can breathe in the dingy atmosphere. It is quiet and expensive but has restaurant and swimming pool.
The Hotel Salvatierra is the other 70's classic but has lost all its charm. It has a pool, noisy guests and is located in one of the back streets.
In terms of hostels, Banana's Adventure has a good international atmosphere, rooms with only a few beds, swimming pool and its menu offers fruit, crepes and curries. Unfortunately, they are not very serious with reservations and they leave you without a bed if you arrive late at night.
The Hostal Dessert Nights has two large bedrooms with no windows and is infested with mosquitoes. The heat is impossible to stand at night and you get up with a thousand bites. The bathroom is shared with the restaurant, small but clean. Its terrace is the nicest place to eat a sandwich and try one of the refreshing Peruvian lemonades.
Avoid the Carola Lodge above all. It is dirty, cockroaches are everywhere, the beds are uncomfortable, there is a lot of noise until late at night and a very outdated local party atmosphere.
It is better to go to La Huacachina to spend the day and sleep in Ica, Paracas or Nazca. Yes, the surrender to tourism and easy money has ruined the charm of this oasis. What a shame!