Adventures in the Desert

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, September 4, 2004

The main objective for our stopover in Lima - Peru's sprawling and somewhat dilapidated capital city - was to visit our son's godmother Zarela. As most of you know, Mike was conceived in Puno and born in Arequipa (more of that in a future TravelPod episode) when we worked in Peru twenty five years ago, so this was a golden opportunity for a long overdue visit. We spent a delightful week with Zarela in her beautiful apartment in the upscale district of Barranco, reminiscing about our time in Puno and all our friends and colleagues from that era, and catching up on the news and developments since then. Evenings we were treated to some of the best fare that Lima's finest restaurants have to offer, including the spicy ceviche (marinated raw fish), and discovered again the deceptive smoothness of Peru's powerful drink, the famous Pisco Sour. Daytimes we were able to visit some of our old haunts, and get a few housekeeping chores accomplished, including getting DC3 fitted with a new set of shock absorbers.

After a week of high living we decided it was time to hit the road again, and work off some of the affects of all the royal treatment. Our first stop was for a couple of days in the Paracas National Reserve, a few hundred kilometres south of Lima, which is a remote coastal desert peninsula famous for its bird and marine life. The offshore islands are so deep with nitrogen-rich bird droppings - politely known as guano - that they have been exploited as a source of agricultural fertilizer since Inca times. After the hustle and bustle of the big city it was a relief to enjoy the solitude and wide open spaces of the desert hills high above the ocean, with no neighbours for miles around. The first evening we were treated to the impressive spectacle of the full moon rising through the haze above the shimmering water. Time for an open air concert of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, including the Moonlight Sonata of course, with Vladimir Ashkenazy!

A little further down the coast the small desert oasis of Huacachina nestles around a small lagoon surrounded by a seemingly endless panorama of massive sand dunes. We passed on the supposedly curative properties of the murky-looking water, but signed up with some trepidation for a few hours of Xtreme sports in the dunes. As soon as they fired up the dune buggy and headed straight up the nearest sandy precipice we knew we should have just read and sunbathed beside the pool! By the time we were zooming down the other side at full throttle, all we could think of was hanging on for dear life and trying not to scream any louder than our young companions - what an adrenaline rush! (Imagine two hours on the scariest ride at Canada's Wonderland, with a distinct lack of safety features, and you'll get the picture). At the top of one of the highest dunes - where we naively thought we were just going to enjoy the view - they got out the sand boards and started to wax them to a high polish! Sandboarding?...hey, aren't we getting a little long in the tooth for these kind of youthful activities?! After a few rather ungraceful practice sessions, we gradually got the hang of it, and were finally able to make some decent runs without spending too much time on our backsides. But the biggest thrill was yet to come! Clutching the board for all we were worth, we sped down the slope head-first, toboggan style, at breakneck speed, gratified to find ourselves still alive and in one piece when we finally shuddered to a halt part way up the next dune. Back at our campsite, it took several showers before we were finally able to clean out all the fine sand that had found its way into every conceivable bodily nook and cranny!

For a slight change of pace the following day, we opted for a tour of one of the vineyards in the famous wine growing area of Ica. Despite the hot and arid conditions in the desert, the wine cellars provided a suitably cool, dark environment for the fermentation of the grape juices. Besides a variety of red and white wines, sherry and port, the Ocujaje Winery is famous for its production of pisco -Peru's national drink - a type of brandy distilled from white grapes. Originally established in 1908, the vineyard suffered a major setback in the agrarian reforms of the 1970s when its extensive land holdings were confiscated and the carefully-tended vines were largely lost. It operates now at about 30% capacity with grapes purchased from small-scale producers. Sampling some of the products directly from the huge barrels was quite a treat, and reminded us of previous visits to similar establishments in the Niagara area.

Heading further south we decided to spend a little time investigating the mysteries of the Nazca Lines. These are a complex series of very large geometric designs and lines etched in the desert plain at the base of the Andean foothills. They are thought to date from the time of the Nazca and Paracas cultures of 900 BC to 600 AD, and despite intensive study and controversial debate they have never been satisfactorily explained. The mystery lies in the fact that as well as straight lines running for several kilometres, there are many designs that depict large animals, but they are only visible when viewed from the air. Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who spent 50 years living in the desert studying the lines, considered them to be an immense astronomical calendar for planning agricultural activities. Another theory attributes them to shamanic ceremonial activities to control the flow of life-giving water down from the mountains, and most people have heard of Eric von Daniken's theory that they were landing strips for extraterrestrial visitors. After flying over the Lines yesterday in a four-seater Cessna, our considered (and somewhat facetious) opinion is that they were probably made by Ms. Reiche zipping around on her dune buggy on her long and boring weekends in the desert!
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