The 303 kilometers from Lima to Ica are mostly over good road without many other vehicles traveling it. Thus even without a particularly early start, we’re in Ica in plenty of time to go out to the dunes before dark.
In Ica we quickly settle in at El Carmelo — accurately described by the Lonely Planet folks as “this romantic roadside hotel on the outskirts of town” and “a delightful 200-year-old hacienda that has undeniable rustic charm.” Although the hotel’s right on the main road, our room way in the back is quiet, except for the occasional and inevitable barking dog. After drinking a cup of coffee poolside, we immediately head out to Huacachina, the smaller town right out there in the dunes.
We drive past unassuming houses at the edge of desert, and then into the desert itself. Already the dunes are impressive, and when we reach the outskirts of Huacachina we suddenly have the opportunity [urged upon us more than offered] to ride a dune buggy around on the dunes. I figure the ride should put us out in the middle of the dunes as sunset approaches. We leave the car and jump into a dune buggy, along with a driver and two Asian-American women from Connecticut or New Jersey.
The dune buggy makes for a bumpy, jouncing ride, but the dunes are pretty.
In addition, the dune buggy carries boards for sandboarding. Of course I can’t resist. Standing, as an experienced sandboarder would do, I can’t make any progress at all. I can’t find the right midpoint between cruising much too fast for my skills (and falling) and timidly turning back into the dune, so that I come to a dead stop. In short, I’m comically inept.
Lying down on the thing, like a child on a winter sled, works fine. Quickly I’m moving delightfully fast, and at the bottom the sandboard keeps sliding into the desert. Best of all, there’s no need to slog back up the hill in the deep sand lugging the sandboard. The dune-buggy races down to pick us up, and whisk us off to another site.
There’s also an oasis, which we stop above but into which we don’t descend. Fruit and other goodies grow down there, and it looks a delightful place. We see the remains of a paved road that once ran out here from Huacachina.
Huacachina itself is a pretty place, formerly quite trendy with upper-class Peruvians and now mostly occupied by young international travelers. I’d thought we might stay out there — and would relish a walk in that dark desert at night — but wonder if the loud, late music would delay sleep too long.
We eat a good meal at our hotel, in a very pleasant dining room, then sit awhile drinking Pisco sours out by the pool. The place is a delightful old hacienda, with lots of quirky, pleasant places to sit during a longer stay. Late at night, going out to the car to get something for Ragna, I find the night watchman and another man chatting quietly at the front door, with a basket at the watchman’s feet. It’s a dog bed, and I meet the hotel dog, a rival to the one in Cajamarca’s Hostal Hacienda San Antonio for the “Best Hotel Dog in Peru” award. He’s extraordinarily pampered, with the basket and a blanket and a soft pad in the basket for sleeping. This enhances my appreciation of the hotel.
In the morning we stop at the museum before driving on toward Nazca. There are a few mummies and a lot of skulls, including several that show the effects of shaping the skull, which some pre-Columbian cultures did, apparently for aesthetic reasons. It would be interesting to meet a live person whose skull had been distorted in this way; but, on the whole, I’m glad my parents weren’t into that.
As mentioned, the hotel restaurant was a delight. Food was good; and the area was gracefully decorated. Part of the restaurant is open-air, for daytime, and part isn’t, as the nights can be cool in winter.
One tip: leaving Lima’s Miraflores to drive South on the Pan-American Highway, the map suggests that ______ is the most direct route; but someone wisely advised us instead to go _________, which looks a bit longer, because the turn for the Pan American Highway is better marked. It was a painless exit from Lima, and the initial turn onto the Pan American Highway was indeed well-marked. (There’s also a Starbucks on the way, at which we couldn’t resist stopping for coffee-to-go and related treats.)
In Ica, sand-boarding cost us S./ 40 apiece for a couple of hours.
A ride through the dunes is fun, but could also be described as bone-jarring. (I missed my dirt-bike — it would have been fun.) Sand-boarding is fun; but unless you’re an experienced snow-boarder, don’t expect to go cruising gracefully from the top to the bottom of a dune straight away. It takes more practice than you get in just a few runs, and probably an hour’s lesson would help immeasurably. For photographic purposes, of course, go in late afternoon or early morning. For that matter, for photographic purposes stay out in Huacachina, and shoot the desert at dawn and sunset. (Huacahina itself is down in a little valley, surrounded by tall dunes, and thus not likely to get direct sunlight at those times, but it can’t be too burdensome to climb out.)