Penguins, Desert Lines and Sand Dunes

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
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Trip End Mar 30, 2006


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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

From Huaraz we took an overnight bus to Lima, and then found an early morning bus from Lima to the town of Pisco. We arrived in Pisco to a scene of tourist insanity with touts from at least four different hotels, plus several tour operators, all yelling at once in broken English, trying to convince us to go to this hotel or that tour agency. As we had not slept much on either bus, and were sort of cranky because neither bus delivered what was advertised, we weren't completely receptive to the immediate hard sell. In response, Jeff just stood there laughing, and Allison finally lost her temper and yelled at them in Spanish that we had had enough. Not our best moment (Ok, not Allison's).

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). Migratory seabirds come from all over the world to these islands, as do sea lions. We spent about an hour cruising around the islands watching Humboult penguins, pelicans, Peruvian boobies, cormorants, and several other birds. We also saw hundreds (thousands?) of sea lions, including many babies (it's that time of year). The islands are also famous for the bird guano that is produced by the birds, periodically collected, and then shipped all over the world for fertilizer. The guano has been collected from these islands since at least Inca times (possibly earlier) - our guide said that the guano was so valuable to them that any person who killed a sea bird was executed (or something like that...)

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. The next morning we headed off to the airport for a tour of the famous Nazca Lines. Nazca is in the middle of the Peruvian coastal desert, and, several years ago, it was discovered that a nearby flat pampa contains numerous enormous images of animals and other objects. The mystery of the lines is that they can only be truly appreciated from the air, yet were created by people 2,000 years ago. Theories abound - they may have been part of a huge astronomical calendar; they may have been created for shamans while on spiritual journeys; they may have been the result of contact with aliens, etc... The images include a monkey, a hummingbird, a whale, a spider, a cormorant, hands, a tree, an astronaut-looking thing, a parrot, a dog and more. There are also numerous geometric shapes and perfectly straight lines that shoot across the desert for kilometers and maintain their straight course over hills.

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. Huacachina is a desert oasis, complete with a lagoon, palm trees and huge, towering white sand dunes around the village. We didn't even know places like that really existed. We spent three nights there and had a great time. The first day, we took a dune buggy ride and tried out sandboarding (imagine snowboarding on a sand dune). It was a ton of fun and we both caught on pretty fast. The tour consisted of flying over the sand dunes in the buggy, followed by stops for sandboarding at dunes of increasing size and difficulty. Probably one of the most entertaining things we've done in the last two months.

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. The high-point of this museum was an extensive bioanthropology (?) exhibit containing lots of well-preserved mummies from the Chauquilla burial site we visited, as well as deformed skulls from the Paracas culture. The conehead look was en vogue then and, accordingly, they shaped children's skulls with planks - incredible - true highbrows! They also did lots of skull trepanations (think that is the word) - basically would cut out part of the skull, not just for trauma victims, but possibly to rid people of evil spirits. And people survived this (can see the regrowth) - 2,000 years ago!

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. Every time we came upon another block and we all groaned, thinking we would have to turn back, he would tell us "No problema." And, true to his word, Cool Hand Luke delivered us to the bus station in Chincha just in time to catch a three-hour bus to Lima. On the way into Chincha we passed by a huge line of buses that had arrived from the north and were in the process of waiting "indefinitely" for the road to reopen... Kind of a bad start to a vacation.

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.
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