There’s more to Peru than Machu Pichhu and Cusco, discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY
Our van blazed down Peru’s historic Pan-American Highway, the southern part of the world’s longest motorable road connecting mainland America to Chile and Argentina. But I was heading south of Lima to Paracas, a secret paradise in the desert in the Ica region, a mecca for eco-tourism. Half an hour from Lima, our guide Pablo pointed out green swathes breaking the dull arid surroundings. Pantonas de Villa or the Villa’s Swamps in Chorillos is a 263-hectare wetland home to several migratory birds.
We passed the sacred pre-Incan archaeological site of Pachacamac dedicated to Pacha Kamaq, the god of creation and earthquakes, though the pyramids were barely visible. Further on was Chilca, known for therapeutic mud spas, UFO sightings and E.T. ice-creams! Paracas’ bright sunshine and peaceful coastline attracted the rich to build expensive summer homes and condos in the beach village of Asia.
Soon, we pulled into La Hacienda Bahia Paracas resort, a virtual oasis of peace and luxury. With Spanish tiles in the courtyard and red bougainvillea vines on its walls, its rooms overlooked the glassy Paracas Bay. I would have savoured it longer but for the morning boat ride to the famous Ballestas Islands, pegged as the Galapagos of Peru. At the private jetty, Ronald the naturalist hollered, “Before Islas Ballestas, we stop at a geoglyph called El Candelabro of the Andes, because of its design. People don’t really know where, when or why it came into existence.”
Paracas Bay teems with rich marine life, birds and sea animals. Three of the six varieties of flamingos are found in Peru while Paracas in particular is home to the Common Flamingo. Four of the world’s seven sea turtles live here, besides otters and the endangered Humboldt penguin. “It’s one of the 17 varieties of penguins that live in Peru and Chile”, Ronald rattled on. The Paracas Natural Reserve is unique because it’s the only one that protects the ocean and the desert landscape. In 10 minutes we were face to face with what looked like a sand dune mountain with a gigantic cactus-like candlestand on it. This was the Paracas Candelabro.
The ancient Pre-Incan Paracas culture existed around 600BC-600AD. Excavations at the Paracas Cavernas and Necropolis, the 2500-year-old mass burial clusters revealed mindboggling and morbid truths. Known for their exquisite pottery and tradition of mummifying the dead with delicate handwoven textiles using alpaca wool, the Paracas were among the earliest people of the world to experiment with trepanation, a form of brain surgery!
Trepanation involved drilling holes into the brain and covering it with a gold plate or deforming and elongating the brain as a form of medical treatment besides religious rites and ceremonies. “They couldn’t give Pisco to knock out their patients,” Ronald quipped “so they used hallucinogenic herbs, coca and a unique native Andean cactus to anaesthetise them. It is believed that the Candelabro design that faces the sky represents the San Pedro Cactus (named after Saint Peter who holds the keys to heaven) used in trepanation.”
Another theory is that 17th century pirates, sailors and cartographers regarded the Candelabro as a navigational tool since it pointed south. Others believe they were created by aliens. But it is possible to create these designs, Ronald mused, “using scales, sticks and chords”. Documentaries like Ancient Aliens by Erich von Daniken spin fascinating theories about the possibility of ancient astronauts and extraterrestrial interventions. But Maria Reiche Newman, considered the Guardian of the Nazca Lines researched the Candelabro for six months and proposed that it was a representation of the Southern Cross constellation visible in this region.
Much older than the Nazca Lines, the Candelabro is closely linked to the Independence Age. When General José de San Martin landed here on 8 Sep 1820 with 4000 soldiers to liberate Peru from the Spanish Empire, the first headquarters of the Independence Army was in Pisco nearby. As he rested under a palm tree by Paracas Bay, he awoke from a dream to see flamingos in the sky and decided to put its colours – red and white on the Peruvian flag.
This prehistoric geoglyph on the dune’s north face has been so well preserved due to the peculiar climatic conditions of Paracas. The cold Humboldt Ocean current that Peru shares with Chile ensures a lush marine life full of seaweed, plankton, fish and penguins. Because of the irregular water cycle, the water remains cold. There is no evaporation and no condensation so no rain. Only half an hour drizzle in the entire year. The wind blows sand from the desert from south to north…from behind the figure, thus ensuring that sand passes over it! Paracas literally means “rain of sand” in Quechua.
We continued to the triad of Ballestas Islands (Southern, Central and Northern). The picturesque cliffs with caves, arches and rugged rock shaped by wind and water were awash with curdled bird droppings. We circled closer and the panoramic cliffs seemed to pulsate with life. Against a soundscape of lashing waves, fluttering wings and myriad bird calls was the unstoppable dance of feeding, flying, feather-cleaning, fighting and fondling. I had never seen such a swarm of winged creatures in one place. The sky was patterned by avian constellations.
Thousands of Guanay Cormorants, worshipped in these parts, blackened the entire cliff side. Guanay is the Spanish word for guano. “This is the no. 1 poopmaker, 90% of guano is from them,” Ronald cried over the din. In the 19th century, this natural fertilizer triggered a flourishing economy and became a popular Peruvian export to France and England who literally spent “shitloads of money”.
Giving the Guanay Cormorants company were flocks of large-billed Pelicans, Red-legged Cormorants, Neotropic Cormorants, rare Oyestercatchers, Inca terns, besides nesting Peruvian Boobies, another guano producer. Apparently they are called ‘booby’ because of their dummy gait! I spotted a rookery of Humboldt Penguins camouflaged against the dappled landscape. They were shockingly small but waddled down like old heavy-bosomed matrons. Anticipating our exit, they dawdled before diving into the fish-filled waters for breakfast.
The wet rocks had other inhabitants too. Red crabs scuttled in crevasses while heaps of sea lions huddled and lolled in the sun, napping like beach bums. A few ‘energetic’ ones grunted, honked, yawned and moaned tiredly from the effort of hauling themselves from the water and lumbering over slippery rocks. There was even a beach for sea lions called the Maternity Beach where they breed between December and March. We spotted a small group of fisherman. Since fishing nets are banned in this protected area, they could only dive and pick their crabs, squids and octopus by hand or spear. One man waved a giant octopus at us… his prize catch of the day!
That lasting image of the big octopus dictated my choice for lunch at El Coral, the hotel’s restaurant – Pulpito Candelabro (grilled baby octopus). After trying the famous ceviche, I had my sirloin’s share of Loma Saltado Montado, along with another local favourite – the saccharine Inca Cola. The diversity in taste and fresh ingredients make Peruvian cuisine a big hit across the world.
But a full stomach is a dumbass idea before a dune bashing ride in the Paracas desert. For one, the dunes are practically like mountains and secondly, a Dakar rallyist like Davide does not make it easy for you. No sooner had we careered off the highway in a 4×4, Davide suddenly swooped up and down and round on a sea of sandy tidal waves, spraying jets of silken sand on every turn. The nonchalance with which he tackled improbable drops and climbs revealed his prowess at the wheel.
We stopped to catch our breath and rearrange our body parts on the rim of a gigantic dune. Davide pulled out a surf board and asked, “Sandboarding?” “From here?” I squawked, looking at the incredulous incline and declined. No way I could haul myself up the slope in time for sunset. The whole Ica Desert turned into gold dust as the sun sank and an inky blue twilight took over the sky.
We drove deeper into the desert to a tent in a sandy bowl in the middle of nowhere. In this romantic Bedouin setting, a romantic lamplit dinner had been set with champagne, skewered meat and prawn, traditional potato snacks with dips, guacamole, salsa huancaina and green ocopa sauce and gourmet dessert. El Condor Pasa, the lilting Peruvian classic filled the air as a full moon rose over the dunes. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Paracas is the ideal base to set off to Pisco airport for the 1½ hour flight over the mysterious Nazca lines. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has bewildered everyone for centuries by their presence, purpose, location and precision. The fact that each iconic image can be perceived only from the sky adds more intrigue. For years people had been driving right over them and didn’t notice anything. The Pan American highway built in 1938 cut the image of the Lizard in half because of this ignorance! Glued to my window seat behind the pilot in Aerodiana’s low flying 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan we droned bumblebee-like 3000ft above the sandy canvas of the desert.
With a cheat sheet of 13 diagrams to compare with the original line drawings, I scanned the landscape. For the first 40 minutes, the incomprehensible vastness of the Pampas de Jumana desert between Nazca and Palpa stretched like an enormous snake moulting its scaly skin, interrupted by a few green patches of farmland. “We are now approaching Nazca Lines.”
The lines of the Whale went under the wing before I fathomed its design. I focussed harder for the next. My heart skipped a beat as I spotted the distinct lines of the 310ft Hummingbird! Then the Parrot, the mighty Condor, the goggle-eyed Astronaut or Owlman, the 890ft Monkey with its coiled tail that inspired the Peru logo, the spider, the tree and bizarre waving hands…
Was this the work of mere mortals or some divine or alien hand? How did they conceive it, let alone execute it? Nothing explains the purpose of scratching 30cm deep furrows on the earth’s surface in a maze of geometric lines and designs! But theories and conspiracies abound. Were these 300 odd drawings covering 450 sq km an intergalactic code or airbase for spaceships? Did E.T. go home?
First recorded in 1553 by Pedro Cieza de Leon who mistook them for trail markers, Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe documented the open scrapbook of biomorphs (bird and animal figures) in 1927 while on a hike. Maria Reiche zealously guarded them for half a century and concluded they were a calendar of solstice markers.
Another find was Vina Tacama, South America’s oldest vineyard established in the 1540s. I stood there imagining how workers danced and sang as they crushed the grapes underfoot for the ‘first press’ of juice leaving the ‘second press’ extraction of the skin by horses. Deep in the Ica valley, set in a Suffolk pink hacienda, the historic winery was established by Francisco de Carabantes with a vine brought from the Canary Islands, to supply wine to the different religious orders established in Lima. From 1821 to 1889 it was run by nuns from the Order of St. Augustine. Even today, the 250-hectare vineyard is watered by its 15th century canal Achirana del Inca, built by Inca Pachacutec and immortalised by Peruvian author Ricardo Palma.
About a hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards, this region was earmarked to grow the sacred coca leaf for the Inca and the surrounding Andean mountains were the limit of the property! Over time the estate changed several hands as did the crop. Tacama enjoys 476 years of antiquity and grows 23 varieties of grapes. With guided tours by in-house experts, learn what goes into making awarding winning wines and how the wine-making culture spread from Peru to Chile and Argentina. The Ica region is adapted to produce wines under exceptional conditions because of its climatic and soil characteristics, giving its wines a distinctly rich terroir.
After browsing through the collection of old amphoras, barrels and distillery equipment, I asked Pablo why Peruvians contest the Chilean claim over Pisco, the famous grape brandy used to make the popular cocktail Pisco Sour. “Our best Pisco buyers are Chileans, so that should tell you who knows how to make it!” Touché. “Besides, our distillation technique is better. Its alcohol content is more, so it’s really fire in your mouth and you can taste the fresh grape on your tongue. Chilean pisco is light brown or amber coloured.”
The in-house restaurant boasts Peruvian classics, fine estate wines, pisco and lively entertainment every weekend. No wonder, Tacama is a favourite getaway for locals and international travellers. After a glass of chicha morada (purple corn drink), I scooped into sunny yellow Causa (Quechua-style potato mash) and a hearty meal of Arroz con pollo o aji de gallina (Chicken and rice served with a spicy sauce) between sips of wine.
Spanish guitar strains added a festive mood as we watched the graceful romantic Spanish marinera dance paired with the gentle gait of a Peruvian step horse on the lawns. Apparently, the horse (Caballo de Paso Peruano) evolved from the first Arabian horses brought to Peru by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th Century, which were crossed with Peruvian paso horses. “Having one is like owning a Rolls Royce,” explained Pablo. Peru is indeed a living goldmine of unexpected treasures to be patiently experienced, one wonder at a time.
Getting There: Several international flights operate to Peru’s capital Lima via Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid and Miami. Jorge Chavez International airport, 12km west of Lima in the suburbs, lies in the port city of El Callao. Paracas is 261km south of Lima (4-hour drive) and 22km south of Pisco along the Pan-American Highway. Exclusive yachts also leave from Lima to Paracas.
What to Do:
Fly over Nazca – The airport at Pisco operates flight trips to the Nazca Lines. Aerodiana organizes 20 flights on shifts per day. The Pisco-Nazca flight (1hr 30 min) covers 13 geoglyphs. Tickets $150
Boat trip to Ballestas Islands and Marine Reserve and the Candelabro of the Andes, a national treasure. There are regular boats excursions from Paracas Port.
Wine tours at Vina Tacama – A heritage Spanish hacienda with dances, parades and a great restaurant. www.tacama.com
Dune bashing at Paracas – 4X4 drives, sandboarding and dinner on the dunes in the heart of the Ica Desert
Where to Stay
La Hacienda Bahia Paracas
Peruvian décor with stunning oceanic views, boat trips, relaxing spa treatments with an excellent restaurant El Coral www.hoteleslahacienda.com
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.