Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ica, Paracas, Nazca, and San Clemente: Pisco, Ocean Views, Ancient Mysteries, and the Police Station

Here in Lima, June 29 was a national holiday in honor of San Pedro and San Pablo.  Although we aren’t quite sure why they are important enough for us to take a day off work in their honor (we suggest contacting "Father" Zaleski for details on that front).  We were, however, sure that the three day weekend was the perfect amount of time to explore a new part of the country. 

On Saturday, we headed south on the Panamerican highway, fueled by the requisite empanadas from the neighborhood Panadería San Antonio.  The closely packed buildings of Lima gradually gave way to the barren desert outside the city, with the occasional view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. 

Our first stop was the small city of Ica, located three hours south of Lima and home to the majority of the country’s pisco production.  Pisco is a type of brandy distilled from grapes and Gio would like to make sure that everyone knows that  pisco is originally from Peru and most certainly NOT from Chile (contrary to what you may have heard).  The strong beverage dates back to the 16th century in the Viceroyalty of Peru.  By the 17th century, commercial production was already underway in the town of Pisco (also in Peru).  And various sources site the oldest use of the word pisco to denote a Peruvian aguardiente.  Today, Chile's claim to pisco mostly revolves around good Chilean marketing and a Wikipedia entry where almost every sentence ends with a note reading "[citation needed]."

Following the signs for one of the region’s oldest bodegas, we exited the Panamerican and made our way down the increasingly bumpy dirt roads until we arrived at Bodega Tacama.   At Tacama, the fields were full of grapes that are harvested not only to distill pisco, but also to make wine.  After a cursory tour of the facilities and a brief marinera and paso horse performance, we had the chance to sample both the famous pisco and the not so famous wine.

Would Peruvian wine be better than the offerings in Madagascar and Myanmar?  At least the aging is done in oak and not plastic barrels.  We were not as lucky once the tasting started, however.  The samples, provided in tiny plastic cups during our cata, may not have been of the highest caliber.  That being said, it was somewhat hard to evaluate since a group of older ladies from Lima peer-pressured Steph into chugging all her pisco samples.  Even Malagasy wine probably tastes better after a shot of pisco.  (We brought home a bottle, so perhaps we can update our tasting notes whenever we drink it.)

After our stop at Bodega Tacama, we considered further explorations of la ruta del pisco, but opted instead for the short drive to the luxury of our seaside hotel in nearby Paracas.  (We have plenty of time for further pisco tastings!)  We had been to Paracas during Stephanie’s first ever trip to Peru –  August 2005.  Back then, we had taken one of the boats out to see the seals and penguins on the islas ballestas and the Candelabro de Paracas etched on the Paracas Peninsula.  A trip to the islas ballestas is a complete sensory experience - the herds of seals are raucously loud and the guano deposited by the flocks of birds is pungent.  Harvesting and selling the guano actually used to be quite  a profitable industry in Peru.  (Giorgio kindly requests that you don't judge his inferior photography skills from 2005.)

Having already seen the main sites of the beach-side town, on this trip we simply kicked back and relaxed – enjoying sundowners at the poolside bar and plenty of fresh ceviche on the hotel’s pier.

For Stephanie, the much-anticipated highlight of the trip was our flight over the enigmatic Nazca lines.  For years, Giorgio had been refusing to participate in this adventure, claiming that the plane ride was too dangerous.  Stephanie was pretty sure that he was just afraid of heights, as usual.  His parents also constantly warned us about other passengers getting sick on the plane.  But Grandma Carol and Grandpa Ed had flown over the Nazca lines on their Peruvian trip back in the '90s – how dangerous could it be?

Finally, Steph decided to simply ignore Giorgio and book a non-refundable flight to see the Nazca lines.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this archaeological mystery, the Nazca lines are ancient geoglyphs (some over 200 meters, or 660 feet, across) located in the desert of Nazca and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.  Scholars believe the lines were made by the Nazca culture between 500 BC and 500 AD; the geoglyphs range in complexity from simple lines and geometric shapes to complex images depicting monkeys, spiders, hummingbirds, and other animals.  The purpose of the lines remains a matter of speculation.

Despite Giorgio’s (and his family's) warnings about possible plane crashes and extreme motion sickness, we boarded a 12-seat Cessna at the Pisco airport on Sunday morning.  (If anyone is looking to plan their own trip, most of the flights to see the Nazca lines depart from Nazca itself – however, there are a few flights from Pisco and Ica if you’re looking to avoid an additional two-hour trip down the Panamerican.) 

Giorgio was the only Peruvian on our flight and was eagerly greeted by the pilot.  It seems that most Peruvians share Giorgio's fears about these flights (or would simply rather relax at the beach while on vacation).  The other passengers were primarily Japanese tourists.  This seems to be relatively common as the pilot impressed us all as he repeated all his warnings and descriptions of the lines in Japanese.  (It's also possible that he had just memorized the Japanese words for the Nazca lines - we aren't quite sure.)

Seeing the lines was a once in a lifetime experience, particularly since the warnings about motion sickness turned out to be somewhat correct and the dips to get close-up views of the lines are, in fact, stomach-churning.  (Lucky for us, no one on our small flight became ill.)  The constant turning also makes it somewhat difficult to get good pictures - but we think we can all agree Giorgio did an amazing job!  (From the top left: the astronaut, the spider, the whale, the monkey, and the hummingbird.)  In all seriousness, though, the Nazca lines were pretty amazing – we heartily recommend taking the flight.  

On Monday, we packed up for the short road trip back to Lima.  We joined the hordes of limeños returning to the city and quickly found ourselves sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.  As we approached kilometer 221, we narrowly avoided a collision with the car in front of us when the driver unexpectedly slammed on the brakes.  We recovered from the near-miss only to be rear-ended by a Kia (apparently the driver didn’t have Giorgio’s quick reflexes). 

When we pulled over onto the Panamerican’s dusty shoulder, Stephanie expected us to quickly exchange insurance information and be on our way to Lima.  (Other than a dented bumper, our car was none the worse for wear.)  However, that would be too efficient for Peru.  Instead, we embarked on an hours-long odyssey that included several calls to our insurance company, an aborted trip north to the police station in Chincha, a longer trip south to the police station in San Clemente, several wrong turns in the tiny but busy town of San Clemente during our futile search for said police station, lengthy meetings with various police officers, and a trip to the local clinic for a blood test to ensure that neither Giorgio or the other driver were drunk at noon.  (Someone should start a business selling breathalyzers in Peru so expensive blood tests aren’t necessary.)

When all was said and done, we had only made it 30 kilometers from Paracas, we had missed the kick-off for the Copa America semi-finals (a big deal since Peru was playing Chile), and it was dark.  Instead of proceeding on to Lima, we rebooked ourselves at the hotel in Paracas and returned for a much-needed pisco sour.  The drive back to Lima could wait until Tuesday morning.

The following morning we woke up bright and early and headed back to Lima.  This time around, there was practically no traffic and we were lucky enough to have an uneventful trip home.



  1. Places to visit in Normandy, Brittany and Bordeaux??
    Wine tasting

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