From wine tasting to sandboarding

My companions for cycling to the vineyard
My companions for cycling to the vineyard

It was an easy trip on Wednesday from Paracas to Ica. The bus left at 11.30am and I was picked up by Luis in Ica at about 1pm, so didn’t even have the hassle of taxi drivers. I had booked bed and breakfast at his house, where he lived with his mother and brother and had quite a few rooms to rent, although I was the only guest for that evening. They also arranged tours to the wineries, Huacachina Oasis and to taste street food. I thought it might be a little different!

Old French oak barrel at Tacama vineyard
Old French oak barrel at Tacama vineyard

On arrival at the house, I had lunch and then a rest for an hour or so before mother, brother, Luis and I took to our bikes. (I think they liked their siesta, hence the enforced rest!) The ‘roads’ were not paved, which resulted in a somewhat bumpy and painful (at times) ride and they were also piles of sand to be wary of as they had a tendency to stop one dead in one’s track! We meandered slowly through a few villages and eventually reached Tacama vineyard, which is one of the oldest in Peru, and has a lot of very pink buildings. In the few minutes it took for us to sign in, I was eaten alive by sandflies, which resulted in a lot of scratching over the next few days.

Tacama vineyard buildings are all pink
Tacama vineyard buildings are all pink

Whilst the others waited and sampled one or two wines, I was given a guided tour, after which it was my turn to try both wine and pisco. I can’t say that the tour was particularly informative as the guide seemed to be more keen to practice his English and ask me questions than impart information but I got a little bit of an insight. I was also given a lesson in how to taste and assess pisco in its neat form and not as part of a pisco sour. I might just stick to the pisco sour in future!

Sunset near the winery
Sunset near the winery

It was already starting to get dark by the time we were ready to return. The intention had been to visit another vineyard but, given that the bikes didn’t have lights, there were no streetlights and the roads were rough, I decided it might be wiser to return to the house whilst there was still a bit of light.

The following day, Luis dropped me at the Regional Museum of Ica, which houses some quite important Paracas and Nazca civilisation exhibits, including the mummies found by the archaeologist, Tello, at Paracas. There definitely didn’t appear to have been much money spent on exhibiting the artefacts but it was very interesting nevertheless. There were quite a number of skulls, as opposed to the swathed mummies I was anticipating, which, I would have to say, were a little disconcerting, especially the deliberately deformed ones. They were remarkably well preserved, given their age, but this, I understand, is due to the dry conditions.

Unprepocessing entrance to Ica Regional Museum
Unprepocessing entrance to Ica Regional Museum

After the Museum, I walked up to the nearby shopping mall and had a coffee before strolling along to the Plaza de Armas, where I sat for a while watching the people go by. I then caught one of the many yellow ‘collectivo’ taxis back to the house, where some more guests had arrived, these being a couple of Spanish young men and an English/German couple.

Later in the afternoon, Luis took us all to Huacachina Oasis. This is the only remaining oasis around Ica, there having been 7 or 8 twenty years ago. However, with population growth and more use of water, they have gradually disappeared. I have been puzzled by the amount of fruit, vegetable and greenery in the area, given the very dry conditions and soil, but apparently, there is very good irrigation and sufficient water collected during the rainy season in the mountains for the area to produce a large quantity of crops.

Huacachina oasis
Huacachina oasis
Ica in the distance
Ica in the distance

The principal attraction of Huacachina is the dune buggy riding and sandboarding. Originally, I hadn’t intended doing this as the dunes looked decidedly steep and high. However, having arrived and, with the others all going adventuring for 2 hours, I decided to be brave. I am so glad I went. We all piled into the buggies (I tried hard not to consider the damage to the environment) along with a Peruvian family of various ages and off we charged, up and over the dunes, accompanied by a multitude of other buggies.

My dune buggy and driver
My dune buggy and driver

We had several attempts at the sandboarding, with the dunes getting steeper and higher at each attempt. To begin with they looked somewhat daunting. However, having watched others go down, I decided it wasn’t so bad. By the end, I was extremely frustrated as the last couple of dunes were very steep and high but somehow my technique was not right, so I didn’t go down as fast as I would have liked. The two Spanish men, like some of the others, were trying to go down using their boards like snowboards but this didn’t appear to be very successful. Apparently the boards weren’t good enough and was nothing to do with their ability! The sand is extremely soft and it was very easy to get bogged down, like I did.


Once the excitement finished, we trudged back through the sand to our buggy and headed to the oasis. From there, Luis took us to an area that had street food so that we could try the local specialities. Here, we sampled cow’s heart kebabs, a potato ball with meat inside and fried doughnuts made with pumpkin flour. Very healthy! Most food here is carbohydrate and/or fried and there are very few vegetables on the menu.

Unfortunately, no one wanted pisco sour so I was forced to drink beer, which was a bit of a disappointing end to a quite varied day!

The oasis at dusk
The oasis at dusk

South to Paracas

I spent my last day in Lima visiting the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, which were built around 600AD by the local Lima civilisation and which are situated right in the middle of Miraflores. Excavations were only begun in the early 1980’s. Prior to this, the huge mound that looked like a dirt pile had been used by bike riders! Excavations are ongoing and there is still a large part that resembles a giant mound but at least people are prevented from trampling over it now.

Huaca Pucllana built by the Lima culture c600 A.D
Huaca Pucllana built by the Lima culture c600 A.D
Part of the unexcavated area of Huaca Pucllana
Part of the unexcavated area of Huaca Pucllana
The bricks of the walls were constructed with space between to withstand earthquakes
The bricks of the walls were constructed with space between to withstand earthquakes
Preparing to paraglide off the cliffs at Miraflores
Preparing to paraglide off the cliffs at Miraflores

Afterwards, I walked down to the seafront and watched the activities. As it was Sunday, it was, of course, very busy. There were so many people paragliding off the cliffs that I was surprised there weren’t any collisions.

Art in Kennedy Park, Miraflores
Art in Kennedy Park, Miraflores

On Monday, I had to leave early to catch a 7.30am bus to Paracas. I managed to find one of the grumpiest taxi drivers in Lima, who agreed to take me for less money than he originally demanded (although it was probably still too much). The bus was practically empty so I am not sure why I was offered one of the only 2 cheap seats, next to the toilet, that were, supposedly, left when I booked. It was a 3 1/2 hour trip, which passed very smoothly. We were even given breakfast, which I wasn’t expecting. I had already had some before I left Lima, but I ate the offering anyway.

View from my balcony in Paracas
View from my balcony in Paracas
Sunset in Paracas
Sunset in Paracas

On arrival, I found the hostel just across the road from the bus stop so, thankfully, didn’t have to battle any taxi drivers, just the touts for the tours to the Islas Ballestas and the National Park. After checking in, I had a wander around the small town of Paracas, which is basically two strips. One is along the waterfront and full of cafes/restaurants and souvenir shops and the other is on the hinterland side of the road, and comprised dense housing for the local population in small houses, most of which I could see from the balcony of my room. There are a couple of somewhat smarter hotels at one end of the town but otherwise the accommodation in principally in hostels. If the others were anything like mine, they are fairly basic and overpriced for what they are.

I had lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon, such as it was, in my room before venturing out again to watch the sunset and drink pisco sour, for this is the home of pisco. As it was happy hour, I was forced to have 2, although, I would have to say, they were not up to the standard of the ones I had had in El Calafete a few years ago, and half the glass seemed to be froth.

On Tuesday, I was woken exceptionally early by a cacophony of dogs and cockerels, most of which seemed to be parked under my window. The cockerels would certainly have excelled in any competition with those from Rarotonga!

The departure to Islas Ballestas
The departure to Islas Ballestas

I had booked a tour to the Islas Ballestas, as well as to the Paracas National Park for today and it was leaving at 7.45am. A young Australian couple were also going and we were picked up from the hostel and escorted to the bedlam on the marina, where hordes of tourists (mainly tour groups) were waiting to board the boats. Our guide disappeared to get change for us and, whilst he was gone, we were hustled on to a different boat and that was the last we saw of him and our money for a while!

The Candelabra in Paracas National Park
The Candelabra in Paracas National Park

The trip lasted about 2 hours. On the way out, we stopped to look at the lines carved in the earth entitled The Candelabra. This is similar to the Nazca lines but created, probably, by the Lima people, rather than the Nazcans. The carving is etched 2 feet deep into the earth, on the side of a dune that is protected from the wind and, as it never rains, has never eroded.

A few pelicans in Paracas
A few pelicans in Paracas
Peruvian boobies at Islas Balletas
Peruvian boobies at Islas Balletas

The islands are so called because Ballesta means archway, in Spanish. No one is allowed to land on them as they are completely covered in birds! I don’t think I have ever seen so many altogether and this was one of the most impressive parts of the visit. There are also sea lions.

Sea lions at Islas Ballestas
Sea lions at Islas Ballestas

Needless to say, there is a lot of guano and the rocks appear white as a result. However, underneath, they are actually red. It was hard to believe, when looking at them. The guano is harvested every 7 years and is protected by one resident guardian in the meantime. That must be one very smelly occupation! The layer is currently about 30cm thick and due to be harvested in another 2 years when 200 – 300 people will descend with shovels and scrape it up. Another lovely job! It is then sold for fertiliser.

Pelicans and penguins at Islas Ballestas
Pelicans and penguins at Islas Ballestas
Leaving Islas Ballestas
Leaving Islas Ballestas

Back in Paracas, I returned briefly to the hostel before being collected for the trip to the Paracas National Park. The Australians and I were, thankfully, reunited with the guide and our money. The Park is completely desert and quite amazing. We first stopped at the Interpretation Centre, which is opposite the mound where Tello, the ubiquitous archaeologist, discovered hundreds of mummies, which are now housed in the museum in Ica.

The Cathedral (minus the arch lost in an earthquake)
The Cathedral (minus the arch lost in an earthquake)
In the Paracas National Park
In the Paracas National Park

Afterwards, we visited various beaches and view points to admire the scenery before arriving at a beach for lunch. Naturally the guide recommended one of the 3 restaurants in the location, which is a small fishing port on the peninsula, with some very fresh fish was on the menu. Having decided to have lunch, I was then furious with myself for doing so as it was so overpriced. This area seems to specialise in obtaining as much tourist money as possible as I was also vastly overcharged for a beer at the local shop later on. When I queried the price (having been charged more than was indicated on the bottle) the woman just shrugged. I know that tourists are always charged more but this was so blatant.

Aside from feeling taken advantage of, financially, it was a very enjoyable day and I was very impressed with the scenery. Like the rest of the coast, it is extremely dry as it never rains. Coming from the climate that I do, I find quite hard to imagine one without rain.

At Playa de Roja (Red Beach) in Paracas
At Playa de Roja (Red Beach) in Paracas
Playa de Roja in Paracas National Park
Playa de Roja in Paracas National Park