“The tour…..you want fast or slow.”
These were the first English words spoken to us in the hour or so since we jumped into the sketchy van that would drive us out to the desert.
(By the way, it’s alarming to me how often my travel buddy XFE and I just willingly jump into vans of questionable provenance. It’s like all those years of authority figures warning you not to get into dark vans with strangers have just flown out the window.)
We were on a dune buggying and sand boarding tour of the desert near the Paracas National Reserve. And our dune buggy driver, after ascertaining that we did not speak Spanish, wanted to know exactly what kind of adventurers we were: Do you want to go fast or slow?
The Paracas Peninsula of Peru is where the ocean and the desert meet and the Ica region is home to one of the driest deserts on earth. Just south of Ica, the sand dunes of Huacachina are the largest in the world — visitors can sand board white dunes up to 700 feet tall.
We opted for the fast option. And while I don’t think we went up any 700 feet sand dunes, we did whirl around like maniacs for about an hour at sunset, with lips firmly clenched to keep from ingesting the sand.
We arranged the tour through our hotel. According to the receipt, the tour group was Maveco Sand Tour S.R.L. and they say they have a website (www.sandtours.com) but that’s not really a working website. You can also, allegedly, email them at email@example.com
Anyway, we had arrived at the desert with three other tourists, all male, all Spanish speakers, picked up from various other hotels in the area.
An elderly gentleman handed us each a pair of goggles, rattling away in Spanish the whole time. I suctioned my goggles onto my head and fretted that we were missing vital safety lessons that would keep us from hurling headfirst into the sand. (Seriously, I had jerked the headband so tight I had red marks around my eye sockets for the rest of the evening. No speck of sand was going to work its way into in my delicate, special eyes).
The elderly gentlemen indicated where we should sit and helped us buckle in. At first, we were all in the same buggy, but about 15 minutes out into the dunes and a backup guy came and extracted us two gringos. We were apparently the less-adventurous of the crew and had not signed up for sand boarding, unlike our other three companions. So we’d be going off on our own.
At least, that’s what we think was happening, but it’s all very confusing because in the end, we did try sand boarding. I went down seated like a kid on a sled, amid much screaming. I went down on my stomach, amid much butt clenching. And, I even tried standing up, which lasted all of about 15 seconds. (XFE, by the way, did much, much better, not surprisingly. He’s a regular famous surfing type person, if only I knew the name of even one).
These very fast downhill bursts were followed by grueling efforts to trudge back up the sandy hills to our dune buggy. Our driver mistakenly took my flailing arms as an indication of, “no, it’s ok, we’re on our way up,” when really, I was trying to flag down the nearest rescue vehicle with an oxygen tank and perhaps some cerveza, if that’s not too much to ask?
But my favorite part was dipping in and out of huge sand bowls, racing around the rims before going vertically up and then down again and again. Every once in a while, we’d stop, cutting the engine and plunging everything into absolute silence. We knew the other three guys were around somewhere, but it really felt like we were the only people in the world out there.
We’d try to get photos of the setting sun reflecting orange on the ripples of sand, but not a single picture really does the whole experience justice. It was amazing.
After an hour of dermabrasion treatment of very fine flying sand, we headed back, settled our bill and returned to our hotel, with sand in many, many unmentionable places and big smiles across our sand-streaked, goggle-indented faces.