Penguins, Desert Lines and Sand Dunes
Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
45Trip End Mar 30, 2006
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Since we had two hotels in mind beforehand, we let both of their touts show us their places, and ended up settling on one with a pool, a kitchen and a pool table - one of the nicer places we've stayed..
Pisco is not the most attractive town, but it is on the Gringo Trail because it is the base for trips to the Islas Ballestas, a marine bird sanctuary and sort of a poor man's Galapagos. Knowing our friend Jessica had been in this part of Peru last year, we took her advice and found the tour operator she suggested, and set up a trip for the next day to the islands and then to the town of Nazca.
We were picked up from our hotel around 7:30 the next morning and took a mini-bus with a bunch of other travelers (Peruvian and international) to the little port of Paracas and then got on a motor boat that took us to the islands. First, we stopped to look at an unusual formation along the ocean on a steep hillside of hardened sediments that contains a huge, ancient image called the Candelabra, which may actually be the image of a San Pedro cactus. The image was created by the Paracas people something like 2,000 years ago and remains today because of the almost nonexistent rainfall and protection from the wind. The Paracas shamans are believed to have used the cactus, a hallucinogen, for their spiritual journeys and the image might have been a sign to the gods. It also may have served as a marker for incoming boats and/or a navigational tool.
After the Candelabra we went about another half hour to the Islas Ballestas, which are rocky islands with lots of arched passageways (ballesta means arch)
We headed back to Pisco around noon and then continued on to the bus station for our trip to Nazca, located about four hours south of Pisco. Continuing our string of bus disappointments, our bus was at least two hours late in arriving to Pisco and the ride to Nazca was memorable due to the sketchy men who kept offering to "help us with our bags." We declined.
After stopping three times for gas in four hours (maybe five?), not to mention several unexplained stops that provoked the Peruvian passengers to shout at the driver to get moving, we finally arrived in Nazca
We took a tiny six-person plane for a 35 minute ride over the lines, which lived up to the hype. Although they appear somewhat smaller than expected from far above, they are impressive (see photos). It was also pretty fun to be up in the plane, which takes some pretty mean cuts to the left and right so passengers on each side of the plane can appreciate the images. We have heard that something like 1 in 4 passengers gets sick on the ride, but we held up pretty well. Thankfully, although two of the other passengers felt pretty sick by the end, everyone was able to hold their stomachs together
After the plane ride we continued our tour to an ancient cemetery located outside of Nazca called Chauquilla, which is famous due to the mummification of its dead, moreover because the mummies were not solely the rich and famous of the tribe. Although this cemetery was ransacked by tomb-raiders several years ago, the community has restored some of the graves, complete with mummies, which are pretty impressive. Although the ransacking deteriorated the mummies, lots still have skin and hair (several of which have dreadlocks!) We also saw a mummified parrot buried with a little mummy boy.
From the cemetery we continued onto a workshop of a potter that creates replicas of pre-Colombian pots, using techniques from 2,000 years ago. A little touristy, but informative. From there we continued to a demonstration of how the locals extract gold from their mineral rich hills. The process involves crushing up the rocks into a powder, adding water and mercury, and then separating the gold from the mercury with heat. Think of the Peruvians and their mercury next time you buy gold... The guy who did the demonstration may well be as mad as a hatter. No wonder why.
From Nazca we headed back to the north for a stay in Huacachina, located near the city of Ica
Our second day, we left Huacachina for the day to see sights around Ica. We hired a taxi to take us to two wineries. One is among the largest and oldest in South America (Tacama is the name), as well as being modern and more industrial. The other was a tiny family-run bodega that still mashes its grapes by having a bunch of young men dance all night on the grapes while drinking pisco (for those who don't know it, it's a liquor made from distilling young grape wine). The small operation was pretty fascinating - they age wine in very large ceramic jugs and make pisco using a still with a wood-burning fire.
After our winery tour we headed into Ica to check out a recommended regional museum
Our last morning in Huacachina we rented sandboards again on our own and took a couple of rides down the dunes surrounding the oasis and then took off for Ica with the intention of catching a bus to Lima (we had already purchased bus tickets from Lima to Huancayo for the next morning - because it was Semana Santa/Holy Week, advanced planning was required). We arrived at the bus station in Ica only to learn that going to Lima was not going to be as simple as planned. Turns out the local campesinos had strategically planned a strike for one of the busiest travel days during Semana Santa and had shut down the Panamericana with burning tires and rocks. Nobody knew when the strike would be over - normally strikes are planned for specific 24-hour periods to make a point, but the government (we learned later) had reneged on its promises from the last strike, so the strike we encountered was going to be "indefinite." The problem, apparently, was that cotton prices had fallen dramatically in the last several months due to the Peruvian government allowing importation of cotton from other countries
So, after some thought, we decided to take a bus as far as Pisco, because that was where the roadblocks started. We hoped that being close to the action would allow us to be on the first bus out whenever things improved, which we were told could still potentially have been that same day. We hung out in Pisco for a couple of hours asking various people what their opinion was on when we would be able to get to Lima. Finally, realizing we were unlikely to get a bus that would put us in Lima in time to use our tickets to Huancayo, we decided to join a group of travelers and take a taxi through the backroads around the strike. It was a memorable trip. We were in a station wagon with four of us crammed in the back and one long-legged German in the front. We spent about 2 and a half to 3 hours seeing a piece of Peru well off the beaten track. Most of the time we were basically on two-tracks passing through remote agricultural villages and spent much of the end of the trip flying across the desert. Nothing is ever easy, though, and we were stopped several times by people (mainly kids) who had created their own road-blocks and were only letting the vehicles like ours pass after receiving a "tip." We paid our taxi driver pretty well for the trip, but we all agreed that he more than deserved it after all of the negotiating he did to get us to the other side of the strikes. In addition to the kids and their thorny branches/rocks, he told one group of cops that we all had an 11pm flight out of Lima, and one group of particularly obstinate kids that one of us was very sick
So, our plans to take in a little Lima that day were shot, and we rolled into the ritzy suburb of Miraflores around 10:30pm. Although it was late, we weren't that tired and hadn't eaten dinner, so we walked to the main square, all the while marveling at the incredible American-ness of the place. We even saw a Papa Johns delivery guy go by - sorry South America. Pretty weird contrast to our afternoon. But no complaints - we were pretty ecstatic after eating a huge falafel sandwich and Greek salad at a Middle Eastern cafe... We are getting a little burned out on rice, potatoes and fish.
Next stop, Huancayo, where we have been for about a week and a half, and will continue to be until at least April 12.