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Huacachina: Head over heels

It's love at first slide for a novice sandboarder, who falls -- again and again -- for the gritty sport while visiting a Peruvian oasis.

June 13, 2004|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

Huacachina, Peru — "Do you like to fly?" Jose asked, the silver rims around his front teeth glinting in the desert sunlight.

I was sitting in the back of a jerry-built dune buggy, and Jose was looking at me from the driver's seat, smoking a cigarette and grinning like a teenage drag racer. His arm was draped around a curvy tourist, and he was joyfully dispensing a warning to his passengers: He would soon be driving very fast. If he didn't, he told us, we might get stuck in the sand. And no one wanted to be stranded in the desert, did they?

It was nearly 3 p.m. in Huacachina (pronounced Waka-CHEE-na), a tiny oasis at the southern end of Peru's vast coastal desert, about 190 miles south of Lima. I had paid $10 for a seat in Jose's vehicle, which would ferry me to the top of the sand dunes, then pick me up at the bottom. In the interim, I would slalom downhill on a plank of plywood sandwiched between two strips of Formica. This is sandboarding, and I came to Huacachina to try it in May last year.

Sandboarding is much like snowboarding, except that it is practiced on a substance that is not slick, often in places that are devoid of water -- frozen or otherwise. I had never tried either sport until a day earlier, when I'd hiked up a huge dune behind my hostel for a few trial runs.

My descents were ugly affairs, full of headlong falls and sand in uncomfortable places, but I'd already come to regard the sport as fun and wanted to improve my abilities.

What was not fun was slogging up the dunes, whose shifting sands ate two-thirds of every step I took. That's why I had reserved a spot in Jose's "boogie" as soon as I'd heard about it, a decision that seemed wise until I was sitting in the vehicle.

Our dune buggy had once been a Ford Bronco. Jose told me he and his buddies could transform Broncos into all-purpose desert vehicles in a day's work, easy. He did not explain, however, why this process required the removal of most of the vehicle's seat belts. Nor did he explain how the new roll bars would benefit us in the event of a rollover, which would probably eject anything that was not strapped down. Now, it was too late for such considerations.

After another "guide" jumped in the back seat, Jose turned the ignition and the buggy unleashed a throaty roar. Then he gunned the engine, and we barreled out of town in a cloud of dust -- six Israelis, a Briton and an American, all headed into the Sechura Desert.

Faded glory

The first Peruvian I had asked about the oasis was a Lima street tout named Javier, who was trying to talk me into a $6-a-night hostel in Peru's chaotic capital. As we walked, I asked Javier if Huacachina was good for anything besides sandboarding. He paused dramatically on the sidewalk.

"For falling in love!" he exclaimed. "If I want to marry a third time, I take the girl there, under the moon, by the dunes, and I tell her" -- he feigned kneeling and stretched his arms to the sky -- " 'Honey, this time will be forever!' "

Indeed, Huacachina is romantic in the way that only the desert can be. Built around a natural lagoon and surrounded by towering mountains of sand, the oasis has palm trees, a promenade and a prominent, colonial-looking hotel with graceful columns and arches.

Although it is a five-minute cab ride west of the busy departmental capital of Ica, Huacachina feels like it's a week's camel ride away from the next watering hole.

During the early and mid-20th century, the oasis rose to prominence as a getaway for the Peruvian elite, who spent their nights here in formal wear, listening to an imported orchestra and promenading around the lagoon.

Locals say the oasis' aristocratic glory began to fade in the 1960s, but visitors continued to bathe in its waters, which were believed to be therapeutic. In recent years, however, drought and overuse of the region's groundwater have lowered the level of the lagoon, transforming it into a stagnant, greenish pond whose waters look to me somewhat less than curative.

The decline in water level has also diminished the aesthetic appeal of the promenade, which now sits 10 to 15 feet above the water that it nearly encircles. To ensure that the oasis does not disappear, residents are supplementing its natural water supply by pumping in water from a well.

Still, the overall effect is charming -- a sort of sepia-toned, faded elegance, like stepping onto the set of "Lawrence of Arabia" several decades too late. In the three days I spent here, I saw few Peruvian tourists and no one who remotely resembled an aristocrat.

I did see a horde of young, beautiful budget travelers, most of them here to try Huacachina's newest, biggest tourist activity: sandboarding.

There could scarcely be a better setting for the sport than Huacachina, which is nestled into a mountain range of sand dunes. Locals say sandboards began to appear about 10 years ago, and the sport has taken off since.

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