11th July – We say our goodbyes to everyone here at Arequipa, where all 4 vehicles will be heading north at some point.
Once we leave the city behind, the desert suddenly hits us….much too quickly, it’s all a bit of a shock. Our clear, blue skies have changed to a colourless glare above a layer of dust that has blocked out the horizon. The road winds between hills of dull brown and grey rock and sand, settlements perched on the hillsides in a colourless and bleak environment.
The valley surprises us when it widens out to a green strip with fields of prickly pear, sugar cane, maize, alfalfa, onions and even vineyards.
We get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean just before Camana and the road winds higher with views down to treacherous coves, waves pounding the rocks and huge sand dunes towering above and below us.
When the valleys reappear, we see rivers flowing into the sea, every piece of flat land being used for crops, before the steep sand hills take over.
It is dark by the time we reach Hotel Puerto Inca, 2km down a dirt track towards the sea. We are able to camp on the beach with the sound of waves roaring and thundering somewhere in front of us. These waves sound big, but we will see in the morning.
12th – 13th July – Our promise of a hot shower doesn’t materialise, in fact the water seems to have run out in that area. The water in the wash basin is unpleasantly greasy, full of grit and tastes of salt….so it will be a bucket wash in Moby instead. The sea however, is a lovely blue, the waves are calmer and it looks like seals are in the water along with many sea birds.
We leave for Nasca, climbing once more looking down at this wild coastline. At Yauca, the wind is murderous with sand across the road, dunes piling up one after the other into the murky distance and a wide stretch of white crested waves and surf, being blown up the beach. The sky is laden with dust and the landscape appears devoid of life, its surface swirling with dust devils and decorated with wind-blown rubbish. A few fishing boats are braving the seas but it is a wild and rugged coastline.
At Lomas the road goes inland to Nasca and it is easy to find La Maison Suisse on the main road, where they provide a camping area amongst green lawns and many lovely trees, including an avenue of tall palms with very straight and smooth, white trunks. We are the only people here and it is good to have shade under some trees. The girls are lovely and very helpful, a new gas bottle has arrived and although they spend some time twiddling various knobs, there doesn’t seem to be any hot water…something wrong with the thermostat apparently. They are very apologetic and promise it for the morning.
Small planes are taking off every few minutes at the airport just in front of the hotel, to give people a birds-eye view of one of the great mysteries of South America – the Nasca Lines. The flights are quite expensive however, so we visit a few of the lines the only other way…… from the top of look-out towers.
At Km 420 on the Panamerican highway, a tower provides views of geoglyphs that may represent a native tree and a pair of hands with only 9 fingers. In contrast to the Paracas geoglyphs, Nasca designs were traced on to the arid plains and can therefore only be seen from a height.
Some small hills a short distance from the tower, give views of more Nasca lines stretching out into the desert.
We then visit the small but very well run museum in memory of Maria Reiche from Germany, a mathematician and astronomer, who dedicated her entire life to the study of the Nasca Lines. She became known as the Lady of the Plains. One of the most important and lasting contributions of her work, was the first, detailed catalogue and map of the Nasca Lines.
The room where she worked. Her vehicle.
She was able to confirm the link between the mysterious lines and the Nasca culture. Nasca pottery had been discovered in the area with figurative decorations, many of these appearing on the plains.
Another tower in the desert a little further on, provides views of geoglyphs of the Paracas culture. In contrast to the Nasca Lines (which were created a few centuries later), the Paracas geoglyphs mostly appeared on the slopes of hills, which meant that they could also be seen from the ground,
The valley in Nasca remains green and fertile even though the river is often dry. This is due to ancient, subterranean aqueducts and It is believed that at least 120 aqueducts were constructed in the valley of Nasca’s Rio Grande.
Our last visit is along a dirt track approx. 15km into the desert, to an enormous ceremonial centre at Cahuachi that was of great importance to the Nasca culture. This huge archaeological site, that is still being excavated by an Italian team, was their main political and religious power centre, a centre for pilgrimage and attending to the ceremonial and ritual requirements of the religious calendar.
14th July – Leaving Nasca today, the green valley full of citrus fruits disappears after Santa Cruz and we travel across a flat plateau that appears so barren, it seems as if someone has swept the landscape clear of everything……except rubbish. Just before Ica however, the huge farming valley reappears with more vineyards, Ica having a number of bodegas in the surrounding area, which produce wines and piscos, the latter being famous throughout Peru.
Approximately 5km to the west of Ica, is the village of Huacachina. This was once a peaceful oasis and exclusive bathing resort for the rich, nestled amongst enormous sand dunes, shaded by palms and with a lake that was believed to possess medicinal properties, as well as being the home of an Inca maiden, whose tears were said to have created the oasis.
Unfortunately it is now surrounded by a promenade, shops, hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants and is a popular place for tourists looking for an adrenalin rush, either sand boarding down the steep dunes or experiencing the desert in a buggie, racing amongst the dunes. This was a little disappointing at first sight, after seeing pictures of it years ago.
The magic however, was in climbing the huge dunes just before sunset, to watch a deep, golden glow spread up the steep sides of soft sand, before plummeting from knife edges down into the dark depths and hard-packed shadows.
Buggies race over the dunes, their occupants shrieking as if they were on a roller coaster. Looks a lot of fun!
We are unable to find any place to park for camping, which we thought surprising considering the location, so we check out the cost of a room in the Hosteria Suiza, tucked away at a quiet end of the lake and with secure parking behind tall gates. We are expecting it to be expensive, so have a nice surprise when we discover that a double room including breakfast is 172 soles (approx. £40). A lovely Hosteria, tastefully designed amongst trees and flowers, with steep dunes rising behind.