Legend has it the town was named after a beautiful Inca princess whose voice was so haunting she was known as Huacca China (the girl who cries). One day, while bathing, she noticed a hunter watching from a distance. Startled, she dropped and smashed a mirror into tiny pieces which transformed into the lush lagoon and, as she fled the scene, her flowing robe left behind the imposing sand dunes.
Huacca China later became a mermaid who is said to still live in the lake, supposedly venturing out to sing her ancient songs in the dead of night. To honor this legend, a stone statue of the mermaid princess overlooks the lake.
In the 1940s, Peru’s wealthy elite descended on the oasis to construct a beauty spa around the waters, which they believed to contain special healing properties. Although the trend died out shortly afterwards in the 50s, many Peruvians still see the lagoon as therapeutic and come to swim or plaster themselves in mud in order to reap a variety of benefits.
Huacachina’s potential for tourism was rediscovered in the 90s as entrepreneurial operators began to offer dune buggy rides and sandboarding excursions to thrill-seeking backpackers. Due to its newfound popularity, the Peruvian government declared it a national cultural heritage site and imprinted the stunning oasis on the widely circulated 50 sol note. It’s possible to find the exact angle that corresponds with the bill, but we won’t tell you where so as not to spoil the fun.
The most popular tour in town is without a doubt the adrenaline pumping dune buggy ride. This no-holds-barred experience sees certifiably loco drivers hurl their buggies over towering dunes at breakneck speeds, at times balancing them on two wheels to really get the heart racing.
At the end of the dune buggy tour, strap on a sandboard and throw yourself down a hundred meter dune in what has become a bucket-list activity among backpackers in South America. Staying upright on these crude contraptions is deceptively difficult – even for those who know how to surf, snowboard or skate – so many opt to toboggan face-first down to the bottom instead.
For the more risk-averse traveler, hire a paddle boat and go for a cruise around the lake instead. A relaxing and tranquil experience, it also provides a unique perspective of this natural wonder and the surrounding mountainous dunes.
A stroll around town only takes an hour, so the more adventurous might consider heading off into the great unknown. Of course, it would be unwise to wander too far into the desert alone, but after just a few minutes of hard slog through the soft sand of these steep dunes, most would be ready to call it quits anyway.
Dune buggies and sandboarding aside, a trip to Huacachina is mostly about putting your feet up and enjoying the views. Local hostels have caught on to this, constructing swimming pools with adjacent bars for backpackers to kick back and soak up the vibe.
Despite only having a hundred or so residents, a constant influx of tourists means it’s never hard to find a nice spot for an evening tipple. For the best action, try the bigger backpacker hostels, a lakeside establishment known as “The Pub”, or the rather rudely named Huacafuckingchina.
Just a ten minute drive away is the sizable city of Ica, home to a large portion of Peru’s pisco industry. Made from white grapes, this brandy-like spirit is the national beverage of the country and is particularly well known for the ubiquitous pisco sour. Travelers can learn about the production process and sample the good stuff at the Tacama vineyard.