Huacachina: Head over heels

Special to The Times

"Do you like to fly?" José 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 José 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 José'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 José'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. José 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, José 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.

A couple of years ago, a local entrepreneur even tried adding a lift, which residents remember as an eight-passenger sled pulled by a tractor anchored behind the dunes. Complaints that the sled was eroding the dune reportedly caused the project to be scrapped. Now, dune-buggy tours and budget accommodations seem to fuel Huacachina's economy.

I chose to stay in one of the newer places, a bright, white building called Casa de Arena, which means "house of sand."

When I walked in, I felt as if I had entered a combination opium den and luxury Caribbean resort. Young Europeans and Australians lounged beside the pool and at a tiki bar. Elsewhere, men with dreadlocks, pierced parts and tattoos leaned against doorways, chatting with girls with braids and hemp necklaces. I could not find a front desk. Turns out, it was at the tiki bar.

Of course, not all Huacachina's accommodations are as raucous. The venerable, colonial Hotel Mossone offers comfortable, quiet rooms just off the oasis, as does the newer Hostería Suiza.

No private rooms were available at Casa de Arena — its chaos suited me fine — so I spent $3 on a bunk in a communal room, then walked to the bar and put a beer on my tab.

I would wait until the next day to deal with what was behind me: a sand dune about the height of an eight-story building.

Extreme off-roading As we forged into the desert, José turned the wheel over to Carlos, a 27-year-old I thought might be a more responsible driver. This illusion was dispelled in the time it took Carlos to turn the ignition and press the gas pedal to the floor.

In minutes, we were streaking across the dunes, everyone clinging to the seat backs and roll bars as if our lives depended on it — which they did. Carlos used the sand dunes as a skateboarder might use a half-pipe, roaring up one side, and then flying across the other.

After a few minutes, José — his arm still wrapped around the Israeli girl — looked at us from the front seat and pointed to his eyes. This meant ojo, which meant "watch out." I saw we were approaching a cliff of sand. I braced myself against the roll bar with both hands and then watched as the sand turned to air and we were flying, flying, flying down a slope that slid out from beneath us. Everyone screamed, first with terror and then with terror and exhilaration.

Throwing caution to the wind Finally, we powered up another dune and stopped for our first sandboarding descent of the day. I had expected a lesson, but José, Carlos and Chincha, an adolescent "guide," simply handed out sandboards and waited.

I sat on the dunes, slowly locking my feet into the board's Velcro straps. Beside me, Chincha was rubbing a gooey orange substance on the bottom of his board. What was it? I asked.

Floor wax, he said; it makes you go faster. Did I want some?

Not wanting to look afraid, I said yes.

That was a mistake.

On my trial runs above Casa de Arena, I had been aided by the fact that sand creates friction, making it difficult to go too fast. But common floor wax gives sand dunes the slickness of WD-40, allowing you to descend far, far faster than you should.

I inched off the edge and took off as if I were wearing rocket boosters. Then I fell. I got up and started again. I went too fast. Then I fell.

I repeated this process each time I tried to slow my speed by turning. Fear, I realized, was part of my problem. This revelation came to me from Matt Pearce, a former London energy trader whom I'd met at the Ica bus station.

Matt, with spiky blond hair and a sunburned face, was possessed of the sort of dead-ahead fearlessness that I associate with the English explorers of Africa. If he had been born 200 years earlier, he would have been stomping through jungles, hacking out clearings, hunting lions, and then having a nice cup of tea.

Matt's approach to sandboarding was simple: He did not turn. Nor did he attempt to slow his descent. When it worked, this approach looked simple and thrilling. When it didn't, it looked like a gruesome stunt from MTV's "Jackass." In any case, I did not have the guts to duplicate his method.

But by the time Carlos announced that we were nearly out of sunlight and gas, something remarkable had happened: I had acquired the ability to sandboard far and fast enough to feel the wind in my hair and the grit against my skin. It was time to go home, and I was not even close to ready.

Luckily, I had almost another 24 hours before my bus departed Ica.

After a night's sleep and a day's lounging by the pool, I slogged up the dune for a few more descents, zipping down the hill and laughing with other beginners at our collective ineptitude.

On my last run of the day, I eased off the highest point of the dune and accelerated smoothly downward, the sand whooshing beneath me. I felt totally exhilarated, skimming my finger along the sand as if it were the curl of a wave, all while descending toward an oasis surrounded with palm trees.

"Things," I said into the wind, "could be worse." Then I caught an edge.

When I stopped tumbling, sand was between my teeth and my sunglasses were 10 feet above me, sticking jauntily out of the dune. I could remember only a whirl of sand and sky.

In Huacachina, that's just about all you need.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Adventure at the oasis

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lan Chile has nonstop flights to Lima, Peru. Continental, Copa and Aeromexico have direct flights (one stop). American, Delta, Continental, TACA and Lacsa have connecting flights (with change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $400.

From Lima, several bus companies, such as Ormeño, 1059 Avenida Javier Prado, Lima; 011-51-1- 472-1710, http://www.grupo-ormeno.com , offer frequent service to Ica, about four hours away. Fares are $3 to $13, depending on the quality of the bus and the frequency of the stops. Huacachina is a five-minute taxi ride from Ica's bus station.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 51 (country code for Peru), 56 (the regional code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Mossone, Balneario de Huacachina; 213-630. A colonial-style building with a wide courtyard. It is the city's oldest and most luxurious hotel. Doubles from $60.

Casa de Arena, Avenida Angela de Perotti; 215-274, http://www.globehostels.com/arena . A great place if you want to party with the young, international backpacker crowd, but be advised: It's noisy and the bar's bookkeeping system is disorganized. Rates $3 per person with shared bath and $4.70 per person with a private bath.

Hostería Suiza, 264 Malecón Huacachina; 238-762, http://www.hostesuiza.5u.com . Lovely, clean and a good value. Lobby is decorated with pictures of Huacachina's aristocratic glory days. Doubles from $30.

WHERE TO EAT:

Restaurante Mossone, Balneario de Huacachina; 213-630. Hotel Mossone's restaurant and the nicest place in town. Meals are served on a deck with views onto the oasis. Entrees $3-$8. Set dinners and lunches $9.

Restaurante Morón, Balneario de Huacachina. Has a breezy, pleasant deck on the water. Entrees $2.30-$3.70.

Restaurante Mayo, Balneario de Huacachina. Off the main road leading into Huacachina on the opposite side of the oasis from Casa de Arena. It has excellent breakfasts, including fruit-filled crepes covered in chocolate sauce. Entrees 70 cents-$3.

Restaurante La Sirena, Balneario de Huacachina; 213-239. Decent food and a nice location off the water. Entrees $2.90-$7.20. For $2, the set "menu of the day" is a good value.

SANDBOARDING:

Several vendors and stores, as well as many hotels, rent sandboards. If you don't want to slog up the dunes surrounding the oasis, ask your hotel about a dune-buggy tour. Be aware that some drivers consider safety secondary to thrills.

TO LEARN MORE:

Consulate General of Peru, (213) 252-5910, http://www.peru.org.pe .

— Ben Brazil

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