Nestled among towering sand dunes in the world’s most arid desert lies a hidden oasis; a lush fertile lagoon encircled by tall palm trees whose shade provides a welcome respite from the relentless sun. Yet this is no mirage. Indeed, this geological marvel is entirely real and has become one of Peru’s most magical tourist destinations.
Situated some 300 km (186 miles) from the capital of Lima and on the very edge of the Atacama desert, the town of Huacachina sprung up back in the 1940s around this spectacular lagoon when Peru’s financial elite built holiday homes to take advantage of its supposed healing properties. It fell out of favor in the 50s, but saw a revival again in the 90s as entrepreneurial locals took advantage of its tourism potential.
Nowadays, Huacachina is a thriving oasis town that welcomes scores of visitors each day. Surrounding the shimmering lagoon are a series of hotels, restaurants, shops, and travel agencies, testament to how the town’s primary industry has brought new life to the region. There is no question that Huacachina’s hundred or so permanent residents depend almost entirely on tourism to survive.
Although scientists will tell you the lagoon was formed naturally, local folklore begs to differ.
Legend has it that a beautiful Inca princess, who sang so hauntingly she was known as Huacca China (the girl who cries), was bathing in the region when she noticed a young hunter watching her. Upon fleeing the scene, she dropped and smashed a mirror into tiny pieces which created the lush desert oasis. Meanwhile, the mantle of her flowing cloak left behind a series of giant sand dunes.
The princess subsequently became a mermaid and is said to still live in the lagoon, only occasionally venturing out to sing for lucky onlookers on a moonlit night.
Aside from sitting back and enjoying the tranquil setting, the most popular tour in town involves jumping in a dune buggy to explore the surrounding dunes. These trips are not for the faint of heart thanks to reckless drivers who know how to push their buggies to the limit, at times balancing them on two wheels as passengers scream in abject terror.
After a brief hair-raising ride to the top of a massive sand dune, travelers are expected to make their own way down – this time, on a sandboard. As it turns out, staying upright on a sandboard is extremely challenging, so most eventually opt to toboggan down face-first instead.
An influx of tourists has caused the lagoon’s water level to drop considerably in recent years, mostly due to new wells being dug to source groundwater, but also the result of evaporation and a consistent lack of rain. Desperate not to lose their region’s premier attraction, an alliance of concerned businessmen pooled together resources to pump water in from the nearby town of Ica, effectively preventing the lagoon from drying up completely.
Huacachina is, after all, an officially recognized cultural heritage site of such importance it features on the Peruvian 50 SOL note.