Tag Archives: South Coast

The Nazca Lines (and a very lucky escape)

The last  stops had brought some real ups (trekking in the Andes, sandboarding in Huacachina) and downs (the Islas Ballestas). Arriving in Nazca it seemed to me that the Nazca Lines could easily go either way, and I was in two minds as to whether to bother with flying over them or not.

Eventually, I realised that while Huacachina and the Ballestas are hardly world famous, whereas I’ve known about Nazca since I was a kid. So I decided to give the flight a go, hoping the reason for that fame lay in more than just their mysterious origins.

The flight itself cost $50, which I suppose is quite cheap for a flight, but still a little pricey for a forty minute experience. The plane itself was tiny, with seats for just five passengers, and I got to sit right in the front, next to the pilot, which was pretty exciting in itself.

Co-Pilot Geoff

Co-Pilot Geoff

We were soon airborne, and within minutes were over the giant rocky plain that is home to the lines. Despite a lifetime of work by the archaeologist Maria Reiche, no one is quite certain why the lines are there, with various theories being espoused including suggestions that they pointed to water sources or were fertility symbols, or even left by extra terrestrials. Whatever the truth, the fascinating thing is that they can only be seen from the air, so flying over at around 200m is the only way to see them.

Ultimately, they are just giant stick symbols. I wasn’t expecting to see them all that clearly, but as soon as we were above them they stood out way better than I was expecting, especially the hummingbird.

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

My personal favourite was the monkey (probably because it reminded me straight away of someone I know), but they are all pretty cool.

The Monkey

The Monkey

Getting off the plane, I realised I was really impressed and I really couldn’t work out why. It’s not that they are ancient and mysterious – I just can’t manage to get very excited about all that for some reason. I think it’s partly because it was fun being up in such a tiny plane, partly because I was expecting so little, and partly just because it’s cool seeing giant animals drawn on the ground in such a way you have to fly above them to see properly. Whatever the reason, it was bafflingly good fun.

The Whale

The Whale

It very nearly turned out to be a bargain, too. When I went to pay the night before, I only had two 100 sol notes on me, and it cost 150. As per usual for Peru, they had no change, so I just paid 100 with a promise that the person collecting me would ask for the other 50 in the morning. What with it being an early start, I forgot entirely and no-one asked me for it. I didn’t realise until later when I was sitting in a restaurant and it suddenly hit me. At which point I was hit with a moral dilemma. Should I ‘fess up and pay? Or should I hide out for the rest of the day and hope I’d get away with it?

One the one hand, immoral Geoff was thinking what the hell, I know for a fact I’ve been overcharged for things recently (after comparing prices with other travellers), in one case by a fair bit more than 50 soles, so I’m due a bit of payback, and anyway, they’d probably never find me.

On the other hand, moral Geoff was thinking, they have costs to pay, tourism is down this year because of the crisis, it would be wrong to try and defraud them when I can easily afford it. Plus I’d had a very lucky escape earlier (jumping out of the taxi back from the airport my wallet had fallen on the pavement without me noticing, and I was lucky enough for it still to be there when I realised quarter of an hour later when I went back – I was in a real panic for a moment, as it had my only card in it), and if the locals were honest enough to not to steal from me, who was I to steal from them?

Luckily, my moral dilemma solved itself pretty damn quickly without me having to make a decision. Nazca’s a small town, and there are only so many cafes a tourist can hang out while they wile away the hours between the early morning flights and the late evening night buses. As I sat there pondering what to do, the travel agent turned up in the restaurant. Seeing her before she saw me, I realised the game was up and had the 50 soles in hand before she even got to the table.

What would you have done in my situation?

You can see the rest of the Nazca Lines photos here.

Sandboarding at the oasis

As has so often been the case on this trip, it’s the unexpected pleasures that turn out to be some of the fondest memories. Huacachina is definitely a place to fall into that category.

Just south of Pisco along the Panamericana sits Ica, which is surrounded by a desert landscape with some of the world’s biggest sand dunes. Right in the middle of those dunes sits the little oasis of Huacachina, a pretty little lake surrounded by palm trees, a pleasant little promenade, a few restaurants and cafes and a handful of hostels and hotels. And that’s it. It totally lived up to my expectations of what an oasis should be like, and I could have happily spent days hanging around by the pool in my hostel, soaking up the sun, chilling out with a book and admiring the gigantic dunes that towered all around.

The dunes of Huacachina

The dunes of Huacachina

Unfortunately I had no time for that, as I was headed south in a hurry, so I had to make the best of it and jumped straight into the other thing that makes the place a must-see on the backpacker circuit: the sandboarding.

Dune buggies!

Dune buggies!

I must admit, much like the mud volcano in Colombia it was something I was doing more because it was there than out of any real enthusiasm. Yet again, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The trip starts off round the oasis as we all piled onto a dune buggy to drive us up to where we’d go boarding. But far from being a simple means of getting from A to B, the buggy was as much as part of the experience as the boarding was. Our guide drove like a maniac across the dunes, bouncing around across the sand, shooting up the steep slopes at a rate of knots and then plunging down the other side again. It made the average rollercoaster ride seem tame and I loved every single second of it. I was giggling away like a madman as we got thrown around at ridiculous speeds, and the thought we might turn over any second made it all the more fun.

Doing stupid things makes me very happy

Doing stupid things makes me very happy

After all that, I was worried the sandboarding itself would be a disappointment, especially as I’ve never snowboarded before (I wonder why they don’t do sand skis??). We started off with three relatively gentle practice dunes, which I went down standing up, snowboard-style. And I was useless. I kept falling off, and even when I did start to get the hang of it it was all pretty slow. So when we drove off again to the serious dunes, I was hoping for something a little more fun – and I got it. The fourth dune was stupidly steep and very high, and we were instructed to go down lying on the board, head first, and using our toes to brake with. It was awesome, flying down at a ridiculous speed, with the knowledge that it would soon even out slowing you down naturally. After that, we had three more, with the final one being the biggest of them all. Most people were gingerly making their way down standing up, but I was having none of that. I wanted one final adrenaline fix, so I jumped on head first, keep my feet firmly off the ground (who needs brakes?) and plummeted down without stopping. By the time I hit the flat bit I’d gained so much speed the board was bouncing up and down off the ridges in the sand like a thing possessed (leaving me with a lovely bruise across my pelvis) but it was worth every bit of pain. I was just gutted I didn’t have time to stay another day to do it all over again.

You can see all my photos of Huacachina here

The Poor Man´s Galapagos

After finishing the Huayhuash circuit, stopping in Huaraz for a shower, a beer and yet another pizza at El Horno in Huaraz (my regular post-trekking dinner of choice), it was straight onto the night bus to Lima. After spending longer than planned in the mountains, I needed to head south pretty quickly  in order to meet my friend Adrian (who was flying over from London for a three week holiday) in Arequipa.

Grey morning in Paracas harbour

Grey morning in Paracas harbour

Rather than rush all the way south in one go, I decided to break the trip up with a couple of stops along the way. First stop was Pisco, jumping off point for the Islas Ballestas, also known as ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’.

Rougher seas later in the day meant it was yet another early start (I was quite used to that after 6am starts every day while hiking – funny how I’ve been up before 7am more times in the last five months than I have done in years of working) to catch the boat from the nearby port of Paracas.

Local Pelicans

Local Pelicans

After being herded onto a little motor boat, we were soon out to sea and heading towards the giant geoglyph called the Candelabra. Vaguely similar to the Nazca lines further south, noone is quite sure who made it, with some theories claiming it was created by an ancient culture similar to the one in Nazca, and others claiming it was as recent as the time of the liberation of Peru (the liberator of Peru landed in Paracas from Argentina in 1821). To be honest, it was slightly disappointing (although I’m not sure what I was expecting).

The Candelabra

The Candelabra

With no time to mess around, the boat soon moved on to the islands themselves. The reason they’re famous is that they are home to one of the biggest seabird colonies along the coast of South America. Thanks to the Humboldt current, which brings oxygen-rich cold water all the way up the coast from Antarctica, marine life is abundant. And where there are lots of fish, there are lots of birds. Thousands and thousands of birds in fact. Every metre of the islands is covered with them – cormorants, boobies, penguins and many more.

And what do lots of birds mean? Yes, lots of shit. Or guano, to use the technical term. So much of the stuff that for years guano was one of Peru’s biggest exports (it makes fantastic fertiliser). So valuable was it, that Peru & Chile even fought a war over the area. Even now today that it’s less important (thanks to chemical fertilisers), every seven years a hardy group of men from the mountains travel to the islands and spend the summer months systematically collecting it all – and after seven years, the guano is METRES deep. Not a job I’d fancy, personally.

Seabirds on the Islas Ballestas

Seabirds on the Islas Ballestas

It’s not just birds that are attracted to all that fish – the islands are also home to a pretty big group of sea lions, who we got to see lazing around on the rocks in groups. I’d never seen sea lions outside of a zoo before, so getting to see them in their natural habitat was pretty impressive.

Sea lions

Sea lions

Despite that though, I came away from the whole thing a little disappointed. Maybe it was because I’d just had the best experience of my life trekking in Huaraz, so anything afterwards was bound to be a bit of a letdown. Maybe it was because the uniform grey skies made everything look a little dull. And maybe I’d just seen too many recent photos of other travellers’ recent trips to the real Galapagos. But whatever it was, I just couldn’t summon up all that much enthusiasm (and to be fair, it was probably just me – other recent visitors seem to have had much better fun). Still, it was pretty good value (just 40 soles, around $13), so I’m not complaining, and I was soon on my way to my next stop, Huacachina.

Oh – and what of Lima? Well, far from being the dump that many travellers (and even my mother) had warned me about (recent quote from a friend’s email: “twelve hours in Lima is twelve too many”), I actually found it a really pleasant city. I spent a lovely four days there before and after Huaraz. However there are times when my blogging inspiration runs dry, and in this instance I just can’t think of anything particularly exciting to say about the place, especially when others – try here, here, and here – have done a pretty good job of it elsewhere recently. There was one thing in particular that stood out that’s worth a mention though – on the night I arrived back from Huaraz, I got to meet up again with my friends Cathal & Sarah, who I’d originally met in San Gil, and then seen again in various places in Colombia, and we had a fantastic night out in Barranco, at an indie club called Sargento Pimienta (i.e. Sgt Pepper). Easily the best night out I’ve had since I’ve left home, it’s a great club with fantastic music, and a very friendly crowd. If you’re in Lima I can highly recommend it, and it was a lovely way to say goodbye to two great friends who I’m really looking forward to seeing when I get home.

You can see all of my Islas Ballestas photos here, and the ones from Lima here