The Peruvian Experience: Huacachina

After our adventures in the distillery, we finally made it to Huacachina. Huacachina is a tiny village centred around a natural oasis in the middle of the desert. The lake at its centre looks like an emerald, and palm trees cluster around the edges of the water. The village itself is tiny – you can walk the entire circumference in about half an hour – and even though most of the walkways are paved, there is always a thin dusting of sand everywhere you look as the desert crawls back over the stones. Even the air tastes hot and dry here.

The village is something of a tourist trap. There are a lot of hostels there, and very few actual houses. Most of the other buildings appeared to be shops, hotels, bars and clubs, and as we were visiting in the off-season we became the centre of attention very quickly. At first, this didn’t seem too bad – it was much easier to haggle for stuff and we got some pretty good deals – but we soon found that being one of the few tourists in an empty resort had its downsides. Our guide arranged for us to stay (and eat) at a swimming pool for the afternoon. We stayed there for a couple of hours, but after a group of men started hanging around the girls’ toilets – which, incidentally, had no locks on the doors – we decided to make a quick exit.

Any dodgy loitering around the girls’ toilets was soon forgotten, however. One of the main attractions at Huacachina is the chance to try desert sports – mainly driving around in a dune buggy and having a go at sandboarding.

It was awesome.

The dunes in the Huacachina Desert are enormous – easily taller than fifty feet, and with the kinds of long, swooping curves that are just perfect for a dune buggy. Sometimes they had razor thin peaks and you would find yourself teetering over a ledge no thicker than the fold of a birthday card. The dunes looked so flimsy that it almost seemed as if the dune buggy would plough right through them, but they were surprisingly firm. We could swoop up and down the dunes with no problems at all, and despite the enormous drops, I wasn’t the slightest bit afraid.

Sandboarding, however, was another matter.

For the uninitiated, sandboarding is basically when you slide down a dune on a board. It sounds simple enough: we did it lying face down on the board, and – when the instructors weren’t looking – sitting on the boards in the same way that you would do for a toboggan. However, when your face is dangling over the edge of a fifty-foot sand dune, your friends are specks at its base and the only thing you can look at is the drop spilling out beneath you, it gets a lot more frightening. But once you’re sliding down the dunes with the wind in your hair and the sand rushing out behind you, the fear is completely forgotten.

The only downside is that the sand gets everywhere. Ten months later and I still haven’t got all the sand out of my trainers.

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The Peruvian Experience: Travelling to Nazca

For the last part of our trip to Peru, we would be staying in an oasis in the Huacachina Desert – a tiny little place exploding with palm trees, with airless, empty sand on all sides. It was a long way away from Cusco, and as we would be passing through the Nazca region to reach it, we decided to stop and have a look around.

The first place we visited was the Chauchilla Cemetary at Valle Las Trancas. Not far from the city of Nazca, the Chaucilla Cemetary is the remnants of a pre-hispanic burial ground in the middle of a desert. Not a lot is known about the site, but it appears to have been in use by the Nazca civilisation since the 9th century AD. Calling it a cemetery does not give an adequate description: the graves are open pits in the sand, and if you peer over the wooden railings you can see their mummified occupants. The mummies are extremely well preserved: it is possible to get an idea of the possessions, clothing and hairstyles of the Nazca culture. Unfortunately the cemetery had been disturbed over the centuries by various grave robbers. Standing in the stifling heat, staring into an open grave with the grey desert sands on all sides, it was very easy to forget the bustling city we had just left behind.

After stopping in at a pottery shop – where the owner made traditional Nazca pottery using all the ancient techniques – we found the Nazca Lines.

I confess, I had expected something very different. Rather than pulling up at a sparklingly efficient tourist site, we instead pulled over on the side of the road, right next to an enormous tower, constructed of thin metal poles and swaying dangerously in the breeze. We had been driving through the Nazca Lines for hours and had simply not known it. All we had to do to see them was to climb to the top of the tower, which was creaking quietly in the wind. The Lines themselves were nevertheless impressive. Etched into the expanse of dark sands before us and sprawling over acres of space, the Lines were strangely proportioned. I could not call them crude – not when the level of detail, time and effort that had gone into them is so clearly visible – but the peculiar, almost geometric pictures were nevertheless intriguing. The one thing that really struck me was that this was a way of understanding how the Nazca culture saw their own world, and as I descended the tower – trying to ignore the occasional wobble – I wondered how much more of the Nazca culture modern society would ever be able to see.

Then, it was off to a pisco distillery for lunch. For those of you who do not know, pisco is a kind of grape brandy local to Peru which is about 40% alcohol. We were given a tour and a free tasting – in the form of several shots – before we had our lunch, which left most of us extremely giggly at the very least. I’m afraid to say that after our free tasting, I don’t remember much of the museum we visited afterwards – apart from that I found all the exhibits extremely funny.

 

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry for the incredibly long absence; I had a dissertation to write.)