Huacachina: a boozeless weekend in Peru’s party capital

small town of huacachina around an oasis with sand dunes around and the andes mountains in the background

Saturday morning in Huacachina

It’s half past noon in Huacachina. Zeza and I stroll along the Malécon, scanning the restaurants and peeking at the menus. In the 20 hours or so between leaving our house in Porto and arriving at the hostel in Huacachina, we’ve had nothing but a tasteless flight meal and an energy bar. We’re ravenous, but our first proper meal in Peru deserves, at least, that we don’t jump into the first burger joint we come across.

So, after a quick lap around the lake, we decide on a raised esplanade that had caught our eyes (and our noses) earlier. We take a seat at a front table, and a waitress brings us the menu as we contemplate the oasis below. At this time of day, cooking beneath the Sun in the casserole formed by the towering sand walls that encircle it, Huacachina almost feels like a sleepy, forgotten town in the middle of nowhere. Very few people roam the streets, apart from a few locals chatting in the shade, and the odd foreign couple looking for a place to eat.

shoreside town at an oasis lake with a sand dune in the background at Huacachina, Peru
Huacachina oasis

Of course, this is only the calm before the storm. Huacachina is only sleepy in the mornings. “Mornings” being the short period of the day when the music is turned off. And since it’s Saturday, today’s morning might be a little extended.

Almost every building in Huacachina is either a hostel, a bar or a restaurant. Or all of the above. Those locals chatting in the shade are in fact tour promoters, hurling their dune buggy and sandboarding tours at passers-by. Others are taxi drivers, street vendors or other workers making a living off the daily tourist influx, which is way above the village’s resident population.

But this bohemian vibe is part of the reason we chose Huacachina as the first stop of our Peru trip. Before we get up to the Andes and start waking up early everyday to hike up and down mountains in the cold while getting sick from the altitude, we want to spend a couple of days relaxing, meeting new people and drinking our faces off. And enjoying the marvelous views of these mighty dunes glowing in the midday Sun. We’re going to have a blast sandboarding those later in the afternoon.

The waitress’ heels on the hardwood floor get us out off our contemplating state.

– “Are you ready to order, Sir?”

– “Yes, we are. We’ll have the Lomo Saltado and the Arroz Chaufa con Verduras.”

– “One Lomo… Chaufa… And to drink?”

– “Two Cusqueñas, please.”

– “Oh, I’m sorry Sir, we cannot serve alcohol to anyone, there’s a Prohibition law in force due to the elections tomorrow.”

– “…”

– “Sir?”

– “… I’m sorry, could you please repeat that? I thought you said you cannot serve alcohol to anyone!”

 

Flashback to Lima

Yes, flashback to Lima, about seven hours earlier. A chilly break of dawn finds us outside Lima airport, getting into an Uber to take us to La Victoria district, where we’ll board on a bus to Ica, 4km from our final destination, Huacachina.

During the 30-35 minute drive from the airport to the bus station, we notice thousands of billboards, signs, banners, posters and painted walls with some sort of political campaign. “Are you having an election soon?”, I ask our driver. “Yes, tomorrow. Regional and municipal elections. To select which thieves we want to be robbed by in the next 4 years!” He cracked himself up with his own joke.

“In Peru, voting is compulsory”, he carries on, still chuckling from his gag. “People who fail to place their vote are fined and may lose some of their constitutional rights. The Peruvian Government declares the day after the election a National Holiday, so everyone can go to their hometown that weekend to vote. They even go as far as forbidding alcohol consumption for the weekend. Yesterday, everyone went out to party, because today, there’s no Pisco for anyone! Does it work this way too in your country?” “Oh no, not at all. In Portugal we only vote if we want to, no fines, warnings or anything. It’s a right, so people are free to choose not to vote.”

“But then again… we do always end up with over 50% abstention in every election. So in a way, making the vote compulsory would probably cause major changes in the political panorama back home. And boy, do we need changes in the political panorama back home. Yeah, I would approve of that. Election weekend is no regular weekend. You’ll put down that beer, get your lazy ass off that chair, and exercise your duty as a citizen. And if you don’t, dear Sir, no healthcare for you. No retirement pension for you. And most of all, no complaining for you. You forfeit your right to vote, you forfeit your right to complain. ABOUT ANYTHING!”

The driver’s answer to my rant was a squint and a weirded out face. He remained quiet for the rest of the trip, while I pondered the subject and concluded, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, that Peru has it all figured out when it comes to their voting laws.

 

Flashback over, back to Huacachina

That is, until I heard the waitress confirm what she had just said.

– “Yes, that’s correct Sir, we cannot serve alcohol to anyone.”

-“But we’re not Peruvian, we’re not voting. Would you like to see our passports?”

– “No, it doesn’t matter Sir. The Prohibion law applies to everyone. No one is allowed to sell or consume alcohol during the whole weekend.”

– “During the whole weekend?!? But that doesn’t make any sense!”

– “I’m sorry Sir. There’s a copy of the government’s decree by the entrance, if you’d like to read it.”

I storm off to the entrance. This has to be a mistake. That decree has to say that only those who are eligible (or compelled, I don’t know anymore) to vote aren’t allowed to drink. And that those who are not eligible can drink whatever they want whenever they want it. As it is logical and reasonable. We cannot have come to Huacachina, the ultimate party destination in Peru where we plan to drink our faces off, on a weekend where alcohol consumption is forbidden!

example of a prohibition law decree
The Prohibion law decree for Peruvian elections

But we have. The expenditure of all classes of alcoholic beverages is forbidden until Monday at 08h00 in the morning. Precisely the time and date we’ll be departing from Huacachina.

“Please tell me we didn’t come to Huacachina, the ultimate party destination in Peru where we plan to drink our faces off, on a weekend where alcohol consumption is forbidden”, Zeza says as I return to the table. I cannot bring myself to answer that. A moment of frustrated silence ensues until the waitress shyly asks “Should I bring you a lemonade?”

– “Yes, lemonade would be fine, thank you.”

 

From denial to depression

It’s half past one in Huacachina. Zeza and I stroll along the Malécon, scanning the bars to check if they also had a copy of the decree on the entrance. And they did. They all did. Including our hostel’s.

Our hostel is built in a U-shape, enclosing the pool and the bar. Behind the bar there’s a massive dune, with a handful of dark figures running along the ridgeline against the blue sky. Our fellow guests are sitting on the pool’s edge, emptily gazing at their own feet splashing in the water. I’ve seen this look before, many times in my life. That’s the “I wish I had a beer” look.

But we aren’t yet past the denial phase. We still need confirmation that this isn’t just a nightmare. We get to the pool bar, expecting to be told that this was all a joke. Or that they’re obligated to put up the decree, but they don’t really follow it, could you imagine, a whole weekend without booze on a hostel full of party-eager travelers, ha-ha, that’s nonsense, here, have yourselves a beer. And a Pisco Sour too. And down them fast, in ten minutes we’re serving free rum shots!

However, the bartender was fast to shoot us down in flames. “Ah I’m sorry Sir, no alcohol this weekend”, he says while grabbing a Fanta out of a beer-crammed refrigerator. Defeated, we join our fellow guests on the pool’s edge, emptily gazing at our own feet splashing in the water. I wish I had a beer.

The hostel’s intermittent wifi is enough for a quick research on my phone. “Do you know when where the last elections in Peru held?”, I ask Zeza. “June 2016. And do you know when will the next ones be? April 2021. That means that in this five year period, there are only 48 hours during which drinking isn’t allowed in Huacachina. And we managed to pull the astonishing feat of visiting the ultimate party destination in Peru, where we planned to drink our faces off, DURING THOSE EXACT 48 HOURS. I’m sorry, but this is hilarious. This will make a hell of a story for the blog.”

After giving me one of those cutting glares, of the kind that only severely disappointed wives manage to give to her unbelievably disappointing husbands, she gets up and goes to sit on the other side of the pool.

 

Anger and Bargain

Stupid Peruvian government. Stupid law. And stupid bartenders, not willing to break the law for our pleasure. I have foreign money, and I’m willing to spend it on your alcohol. Why won’t you let me???

In a while, we’ll be picked up for our sandboarding trip, but I couldn’t be less excited. All I can think about is that cold, delicious lager crammed in a refrigerator only 5m from where I sit, but a whole world away from my mouth.

That’s when one of the waiters passes along the poolside, shouting at the bar “Una cerveza, por favor!”. The introspective crowd directs their suddenly widening eyes from their feet to the waiter. “C… Cerveza?”, a girl asks him, in a slight whisper that the whole of the pool heard as clear as if she was using a megaphone.

And the waiter bursts up laughing at her face. At all of our faces. Really funny bro. You’re not getting a tip after that joke, just so you know. Well, you weren’t getting one anyway, because I ain’t consuming anything!!!

But that joke proved way too much for a girl sitting next to Zeza. She storms up to her room, coming back with a beer on a plastic cup. Rejoicing with the envious stares of her fellow guests after every sip. Until the bartender notices, and asks her to carry her illegal activities within the premises of her room.

Ten minutes before 16h00, the pool empties out. With nothing else to do in Huacachina, everyone booked the afternoon sandboarding trip.

 

Acceptance

It’s half past eight in Huacachina. Zeza and I stroll along the Malécon, scanning the restaurants and peeking at the menus. The town’s dead. There are even less people on the street than at lunch time. Still, the bars are blasting off loud music as if it this was a regular Saturday night. With alcohol. And people.

I need to stop, though. My ankle’s hurting pretty bad. I hope I didn’t sprain it when I slammed myself against the dune while sandboarding. We find a small hole-in-the-wall cafe serving sandwiches, and decide to go no further.

While we wait for our avocado and chicken special, a small group of foreigners exits a nearby hostel. Heading down to a quiet place to make off with those liquor bottles they so poorly concealed on their jackets, I suppose. Perhaps a dune, or someone’s house. Or, who knows, maybe they’ll down them right there at the Malécon. Now that I think of it, I haven’t noticed a lot of patrolling around here. What if we tagged along and made friends?… Maybe we could…

Nah, forget it. I’m tired, I’m bruised, I’m jetlagged and most of all, I’m too old to be hiding from the police for a drink. Let’s just eat and go to bed.

My ankle’s getting worse and worse. Back at the hostel, I go lay down while Zeza asks for ice at the bar. Since there aren’t any drinks coming out, there should be plenty of it. She brings me the ice, gives me an anti-inflammatory pill and the elastic ankle support she always packs for our trips even though I always tell her not to. “You’ll be fine tomorrow”, she says, kissing me on the cheek.

I hope so. There’s a lot of hiking to be done in the next couple of weeks. How unlucky could I be? Not only did I come to Huacachina on the only boozeless weekend in 5 years, but I could also have ruined the rest of my trip to Peru in the process. F*** me, I need a drink.

Oh… right.

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