Over the span of about two weeks, we travelled from the seaside city of Lima to the deserts of Southern Peru where its barren landscapes is contrasted with its rich oceans to South America’s only oasis to the second deepest canyon in the world and the world capital of alpacas to finally the city of Cusco.
Our first stop out of Lima was Paracas, a touristy but quiet little seaside town. We went to the Paracas National Reserve in the early afternoon where we drove across the barren desert to La Cathedral and Sapoy beach. The desert dropping to the blue ocean in cliffs and rolling white waves is stunning to see as is the sunbaked desert hills.
The reserve’s museum was quite big and well done, showing the history and biodiversity of the reserve both past and present. Interestingly, there used to be a coastal mountain range here and the whole area was swampy. Now only the tips of the mountain peaks still remain as islands (such as the Ballestas) and it is a desert. However, the ocean is very rich as it is both a spot along the Pan-American migration of birds and there is an upwelling of the cold Humbolt current here bringing rich nutrients from the ocean deeps to the hot equatorial sun. Plankton flourishes here and subsequently the chain of life that builds on it. The richness has also been a curse however companies capitalized on bird guano, once the main fertilizer in the 19th century. The industry, as the museum states, was export focused and unsustainable. It was hard on the environment and so much was exported that there wasn’t enough for local agriculture. Another industry boomed a little later – fishing, especially anchovies. However, it was a complex ecosystem as the birds that produced the guano also ate anchovies. The museum states that a balance has still not been achieved.
The next day, we did a boat trip out to the Ballasta islands. It is amazing how much life is on these islands. Sleek black comorants, huge pelicans with their rainbow long curved beaks (black heads for juveniles and yellow heads for adults), and the endemic Peruvian boobies which look like sea -gulls on first glace but are more streamlined for ocean fishing than stealing beach-goer’s lunches on further examination covered the rocks. There were so many birds that the rocks were painted white with bird poop, which was the lucative main industry on the Peruvian coast. Every 5 years, they can get over 4000 tonnes of the stuff from this few islands. We also saw Humbolt penguins, seals and sea-lions. With so such life on these islands, I can see how they’re called Little Galapagos.
Our next stop was the oasis of Huacachina by Ica city. It is the only oasis in South America and its tranquil (though quite brownish) waters is surrounded by palm trees and then by giant sandy dunes. We hiked up to the top of the dunes to see the sunset the first night – Bill racing us the whole way up – and then we all went dune buggying and sandboarding the next day. It was so much fun as we bombed over the sand dunes banking up the sides of the dunes and flying right up over the top for a thrilling ride down the other side. It felt like a roller coaster at times!
Our guide drove us to four sets of sand dunes- each with three to four downhills – where we would sandboard down. We first tried to ride them standing up like a snowboard but sand doesn’t compact like snow does and instead slips all over the place. Also, our sandboards are just pieces of modified pliwood and could not carve. We tumbled a bit down the first slope and then switched to sliding down on our bellies. Our guide would cry out to us “Open your legs! Open your legs for balance!” as we sped down the sandy slopes. The second set had a dune that was so big that the dune buggy looked like a small speck at the bottom. We went down that one incredibly fast!
Then, we went for a flight over the Nazca lines. On our way there over the dry desert I kept thinking, how did one of the oldest civilizations settle here? Well the story of Nazca is actually a little sad. Archaeologists have found sediment on the mountains north of the plains that signify prehistoric vegetation. Also, they found snail shells in the sediment which have a co-relationship with humans…and moist environments. It suggests that 10,000 years ago, this area was lush and green and the fertile valley would have been settled early by people. However, as time passed, the area became more and more arid. The Nazca lines and geogylphs are the artifacts of the Nazca culture dealing with the stressors of their environment. Archaeological findings suggest that these grand gestures of time and effort were ritualistic offerings to the gods for fertility and water. A lot of work over centuries has been put on these plains which are now covered with lines, triangles and drawings – more and more are found all the time – but as it turns out, their world continued to become more arid and their culture eventually faded from existence. All we have left is these mysterious lines left behind – millenia old devotions drawn onto a landscape so dry that their rock and sand drawing remain for thousands of year – an old well that continues to have water and a pyramid complex swallowed up by the sand. Pictures of the Nazca lines and geogylphs are often sanitized, showing indiviual formations in high contrast. On our flight, I realized that each formation was a lot harder to find in reality as there are so many lines and drawings. You can see that some geogylphs are ontop of older, more faded geogylphs and there are swirls and lines everywhere. There seems to be about 20 that the flights highlight but there are so many more that you can see from the air that are unmentioned.
Afterwards, we said bye to Huacachina….by first stopping at a wine and pisco vineyard! We went to one just outside of Ica, about 6km from the oasis, which is 300 year old and one of the oldest in the country. They still make the wine in the traditional way – stomping on the grapes by foot and then with a huge wood and iron press that cranked up and down weighing tones and consisted of wood that was 159 years old. The system was a series of pools and channels that fed the grape juice forward leaving the grape skins behind. The juice was then put into tall ceramic jars that was fermented for two weeks for wine and longer for pisco. The pisco is then distilled – boiled in an underground vat and the steam is collected in a huge coil that goes through a pool of cold water. We have the Catholic church to thank for wine in Peru as wine is needed for mass. Wine in Europe was put into oak barrels but there were no trees like oak here so they used the cermaic jars that the indigenous people made their sacred brew – a corn beer called chicha mora. Afterwards, we had ample sampling of the different wines and pisco. It was fun and we were all a little tipsy as we got back on to the bus where we had a long night bus to Arequipa.
We arrived in Arequipa with the dawn and got dropped off at La Posada del Kuraka, a little hostel close to Plaza de San Francisco and four blocks from the central Plaza de Armas. Unfortunately, because people were being picked up to go to Cusco as we were getting off the bus, the rooms were not ready for us and the night guard was not the one cleaning them. We went and got a leisurely breakfast at a terrace restaurant overlooking the majestic Plaza de Armas as the city woke up and the chill morning air warmed with bright sunshine. Afterwards, we went to the city market to pick up some coca leaves. As an interesting fact, coca is not a natural plant but was rather breed by the Incans specifically to help with elevation!
We were near sea-level in Lima, Paracas and Huachachina then shifted to 2300m in Arequipa and then up to Chivay in the Colca Canyon the next day at 3600m going over a 4910m. Incredible changes in elevations these few days so we tried to prepare. However, some of us did get a bit winded with the altitude nevertheless.
Colca Canyon is known for being one of the only places in the world were condors are reliably seen on a daily basis. We got to see the majestic birds soaring over the deep canyon which is the 2nd deepest in the world and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. The giant birds made lazy circles gliding into the deep and soaring up over us towards the snowcapped heights.
With a 3m wingspan, condors can fly 250 km a day searching for food. They are carrion eaters and often start here in the Colca canyon in the morning and head to the ocean if no food is found here. They can fly comfortably up to 7000m elevation! It was breathtaking to see the birds circle and soar, sometimes flying right over us (hopefully none of us looked like dead meat!). Appearences are deceiving as birds don’t look that big at a distance and with such a deep canyon, there is a lot of space to play with. Four of us on the tour went on a short canyon walk after soaking in the splendor at Condor Cross and it was then that I realized how big they were. As we were walking away from Condor Cross along the deep ragged canyon, a female condor (so not even the biggest as the males were much big ger) soared over the crowd. The condor looked massive hanging over the small figures of people. I can see how these birds were sacred – they definately command a sense of awe.
The condors were amazing but I also found the Colca valley incredible in its own right. The valley floor and up the slopes of the mountainsides are covered with green terraces. Some of these were built pre-Incan and the oldest on the mountainsides date back to 200 BC!
In Arequipa, we went on a couple free walking tours by the energetic Carlos who works only for tips. We walked through old narrow colonial streets with rows of homes made from the iconic white volcanic stones with black metal grates over windows, black hanging lanterns and colourful potted flowers on the side of walls. On our tours, we managed to randomly run into Miss Peru and Miss Cusco beauty pagent winners and also the President of Peru who patted me on my back!
We had some queso helado, which is only found in Arequipa and actually contains no cheese. It is only called cheese ice cream because it looks like cheese made in a metal bowl over ice. Like a creamy custard icey delicately topped with a spinkle of cinnamon, it is a delicious treat. Arequipa is known as the capital of alpacas, which is prized for its soft wool. We went to see some camelids and learned about processing its wool.
After Arequipa, it was another long bus trip (10 hours) up to Cusco where we said bye to Peru Hop.
We really thank Peru Hop for making this trip. Peru Hop (http://www.peruhop.com/) is a fairly new company who does a hop-on-hop-off bus service from Lima to Cusco, stopping at the highlights in between (Bolivia Hop from Cusco to La Paz just started as well). There are a bunch of different options for how far you can to go and if you want to stop in Arequipa or not but they all have in common that buses run approximately every second day and the ticket is good for a year. You can stop in each location for as long as you want and just email the team whenever you’re ready to leave to get a seat on the next bus. We really appreciated that the bus picked us up and dropped us off at our hostel, which saved on hassles of getting our bikes to and from various bus stations. However, Peru Hop is much more than just a transportation company – it is a construction of community. The people you meet on the bus become a little family that often met up for dinner together, end up staying in the same hostel and we met others that continued to travel with each other after the bus. It is really awesome to wander around a new city and run into people that you know. Peru Hop also has an all-inclusive option that includes the boat trip to the Ballesta Islands, dune buggying and sandboarding at Huacachina and the Colca Canyon (excluding the 70 sol entrance tax) trip and all accommodation (private room surcharge for Arequipa only) for the minimum amount of days to do the trip. It made it fun and really easy. We ended up staying extra days in each place anyways, which does make it a bit harder because you keep changing bus groups and their associated guide. However, our pick-ups and tours always went off without a hitch and we were always picked up when we were supposed to so the staff did a great job organizing. Only thing I would complain about is their horrible choices of movies in the buses – they’re all in English but tend to be all teenage/college party and getting laid dilemmas movies with jokes that made me wince a little in their terribleness. Admitedly, the bus is geared towards a younger crowd of backpackers but they worked really hard to cater to Bryan’s parents….and for our bikes! However, if bad movies is all I had to complain about then the trip was overall pretty amazing!