Dune surfing in Peru
By Cassie Silva
“But there’s no snow!”
To a backpacker hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, boarding is considered a winter sport. It doesn’t get any better than flying down a mountain covered in the fresh fluffy white stuff – does it?
The opportunity to board in the desert – no scarf, gloves or snow required – intrigued me to no end. I was ready to see what the dunes had to offer.
Welcome to Southern Peru – home to some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. Huacachina, an oasis village on the outskirts of Ica city, and Cerro Blanco, a massive dune outside the city of Nazca, are the two most popular spots in the area for sandboarders to put their skills to the test.
The Legend of Huacachina – An Oasis in the Desert
How were the gorgeous sand dunes created? Peruvian legend tells of a beautiful Princess who took a dip in a pool of water but was interrupted by a young man who stumbled across her bathing pond.
She immediately grabbed her clothing and fled, creating the rolling dunes of sand with the folds of her mantle as she retreated across the desert, dragging her cape behind her. According to the legend, the beautiful young woman still lives in the lagoon today as a mermaid.
Today, the village of Huacachina (population approximately 115 – give or take a mermaid) has developed around the oasis, and is a popular resort for wealthy Peruvians.
It is also becoming famous among adventurous backpackers as one of the best sandboarding locations in Peru. Huacachina is located just outside the beautiful city of Ica, and its rolling dunes are enjoyed by newbie and pro boarders alike.
Cerro Blanco – The Highest Dune in the World
Dubbed “The Everest of the Desert,” Cerro Blanco, located nine miles east of Nazca in the Nazca Valley, is considered one of the world’s tallest sand dunes. At 2,080 meters above sea level, it is said to be the highest in the world.
Many professional boarders have traveled to Nazca to conquer the dune. With the steepest section boasting a 600-meter long slope of sand, an excursion to Cerro Blanco is the ultimate adventure that any adrenaline-junkie should add to their life’s to-do list.
The Sport of Sandboarding
First things first: you’ll need a board. Sandboards are harder than their snowboard cousins and need to be waxed more frequently due to the roughness of the sand. You can rent your own for a few U.S. dollars and venture out on your own, or sign up for a tour from a local agency.
On a buggy tour, you’ll be taken on the ride of your life, strapped to a dune buggy racing up and down the dunes at surprisingly high speeds. Tours range from less than $12 U.S. to over $75 and usually include about an hour or two in the dunes.
Your driver will load your boards onto the dune buggy, ensure you are strapped in and drive you to the top of a tall dune. You’ll board down and get picked up at the bottom, then taken to the top of an even bigger dune.
It’s definitely the most expedient way to get the most boarding in and is much faster than the chairlift that snowboarders need to take them to the top of a mountain.
The most popular way for newbie boarders to tackle a dune is on their belly. You will lie flat on your stomach lengthwise on your board, as if you’re lying on a surfboard, with your forearms on the board and your legs spread wide behind you. Don’t let your feet drag in the sand – it’ll slow you down and create a huge cloud of dust.
Once you successfully tackle boarding on your tummy, try it on your feet if you feel ready. The fastest downhill speed on a sandboard is rumored to be 60 mph.
As with all Peruvian travel, layers are typically your best bet when deciding what to wear on your adventure. Most boarders wear short pants and a tank top/singlet top or a t-shirt and good running shoes, but it’s a good idea to bring a fleece for early morning or late afternoon excursions.
Bring a cap to protect your head from the sun and plenty of sunscreen. Sunglasses are a necessity on the dune buggy ride – not just to keep rays out, but to protect your eyes from flying sand.
Bring enough water to keep yourself from getting dehydrated in the scorching desert sun, and a Ziploc bag to protect your camera – it won’t take much sand to ruin it. Don’t make my mistake and slip your camera into your pants pocket for safe-keeping – it’ll get filled with sand.
Wear your seatbelt in the dune bunny to avoid serious injury – you really get thrown around! When you exit the buggy at the top of the dune, stow your belongings in your bag and tie it around the seat securely so it doesn’t fly out when your driver drives down the bumpy dunes to pick you up at the bottom after your ride.
We spent thirty minutes searching the dunes for a friend’s camera only to realize it had slid under one of the seats.
After Your Adventure
You did it! Shake the sand from your shoes and head back to your hostel and grab a shower or a swim after your adventure, then relax with a Pisco sour – a popular Peruvian alcoholic beverage. Prepare to find sand in all crevices of your body for weeks after your ride.
If you aren’t ready for the fun to end, it’s also possible to take an overnight trip to the dunes. Catching a sunset in the desert can be a truly memorable experience.
Camping tours may include a tent, bonfire, and a fireworks display, but check to see if you need to bring your own sleeping bag and supplies.
Reflect on your memorable day with friends and congratulate yourself for mastering a new sport. Whether you are a skateboarder, surfer, or a snowboarder at heart, you can’t consider yourself a true boarder until you try the sport of the desert – sandboarding.
Looking for other fun excursions in Southern Peru to try after sandboarding? Take a speedboat around the Ballestas Islands, frequently referred to as “The Poor Man’s Galapagos” in Paracas National Reserve, or take a fascinating (while slightly nauseating) flight over the Nazca lines – a series of ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca desert.
Fly into Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, then buy a ticket from a reputable bus company such as Cruz del Sur to either Ica or Nazca.
Keep an eye on your belongings on bus journeys, especially overnight trips. It takes about five hours to reach Ica from Lima, and Nazca is another two or three hours past Ica. Nazca can also be reached by bus from Cuzco (about a fourteen-hour trip) or from Arequipa (about a nine-hour trip).
There are numerous local operators that can be booked from your hotel or hostel in Ica or Nazca. You can also rent a board for next to nothing and go trekking on your own, but you’ll need to hike to the top of the dunes yourself before sliding down.
Be aware of your surroundings so you don’t get lost in an unfamiliar desert. Tour companies make the trip easy – here are just a few that offer sandboarding excursion.
[Note: Some agencies recommend tackling Cerro Blanco first thing in the morning before temperatures rise too high. Some groups will trek to the top on Day 1 and spend the night camping, then tackle the dunes on Day 2.]
Cassie Silva is a writer, children’s theater director and globe-trotter who most recently spent two months traveling and volunteering her way across Peru.
Read Cassie Silva’s story: The Hummingbird Outside My Window: The Mystery of the Nazca Lines