If you come across the city of Huacachina by accident, you may think it’s a mirage. Huacachina is centered around a lagoon with lush vegetation – it’s all in the driest desert in the world. Between the largest sand dunes in South America, it is the only natural oasis on the continent.
On 15 August 2020, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) captured this image of Huacachina and the adjacent sand dunes on Landsat 8. Huacachina is located in southwestern Peru, on the edge of the Atacama Desert. The city is located about 5 kilometers from the city of Ica.
Huacachina, roughly translated as ‘crying woman’ in Quechua, has several mythological origins. According to one legend, a beautiful Inca princess named Huacachina regrets the loss of her lover and her tears created the lagoon. One day a warrior saw her and startled the princess, who ran for hours in the water to hide. When she tried to leave, she turned into a mermaid. Another version says the princess was holding a mirror and admiring herself when the warrior saw her. As she ran away in fright, the mirror fell and shattered. The glass became the little pool in the desert and devoured the princess and made her a mermaid. Many legends say Huacachina still lives in the pool and comes out at night to tempt swimmers.
The oasis is actually formed by water from underground aquifers that seeps through the sand and helps promote the growth of palm trees, eucalyptus trees and carob trees around the pool. The lagoon, which covers only about 2 hectares, is surrounded by businesses, hotels and restaurants on the edge. The oasis city has a population of about 100 inhabitants. In recent years, water levels in the lagoon have declined due to the drilling of nearby wells and increased evaporation during the hot summers. Consequently, the city carried water from outside the water into the lagoon.
Huacachina is located about five hours by bus from Lima and has served as a popular tourist destination for over 70 years. The city entertained many of the financial elite of Peru in the 1940s, and today entertains tens of thousands of tourists a year. Huacachina, once called the ‘Oasis of America’, was featured on the 50 Nueva Sol coin note until 2006.
The rising sand dunes beyond the oasis rise several hundred feet in height – as long as small mountains. It offers excellent sandboarding adventures: adrenaline junkies can slip into the dunes like tubers or snowboarders. Visitors can also ride or hike dune carts over the dunes, although the sand makes walking difficult.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the US Geological Survey. Photo by Havardtl and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.