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I visited the Ica Region of Peru as part of my trip there in August 2009. The region, which is towards the South on the Pacific coast is just 3 hours drive from the national capital of Lima. Within Ica there are several provinces, including one caled Ica, plus the main town is called Ica, and there is a river of the same name. However in this review I am going to write about my experiences within the region of Ica where there are a number of interesting places to visit for tourists.
ISLAS BALLESTAS RESERVE, PARACAS.
The Ballestas Islands are a small group of islands, situated just off a small peninsula about three and a half hours drive south of Lima. They are well known for their marine birdlife and boat tours can be arranged. Ours was included in our holiday.
Arriving at El Chaco port within the Paracas Marine Reserve we had some time before the boat, so had a little walk along the beach. There are pelicans on the beach and some tour groups have included the opportunity to feed them. I had done this elsewhere, so was content just to wander around the small, waterfront stretch of shops and cafes. Upon joining our boat we were all given life jackets and the speedboat set off. It was a bumpy and wet ride. I don't know where the best place is to sit in the boat, but the people at the front seemed marginally drier. I recommend a waterproof jacket, and of course, make sure your camera is in a case or waterproof bag during this part. The boat stops first to view the 'candelabra', a 50m carving of a candelabra etched into the hill, similar to those that can be seen at the Nazca Lines. No one seems to sure who did it or how long it has been there however, although to me it looked a bit like a cactus.
Overall the journey to the islands probably takes about 20 minutes. You cannot disembark the boat at any point. This is a must do for any fan of birdlife. I have to say I am not an expert on birds but our guides spotted loads of different types, the main one however are cormorants. As well as pelicans and Peruvian boobys the main bird to try and spot is the Humboldt Penguin. They are not native to Peru, actually hailing from Chile but warmer waters due to the El Nino weather phenomenon meant they had ventured further North. It is not often that you actually see the penguins, it cannot be guaranteed, and so we felt quite privileged when we saw two small ones. They are not large penguins, probably only 35-45cm tall, and being black against a dark, wet rock, meant they were difficult to photograph, especially when you consider the natural motion of the boat in the water as the waves lapped the rocks meant focusing was near impossible - you had to point and shoot and hope for the best. Other birds are easier to capture as there are so many of them so it is easier. There are also plenty of fishy smelling, lazy seals flopped out on the rocks too.
Not all wildlife is on the rocks there are plenty flying around over your head, often in formation. One island, known as Guano Island, is covered in, well... guano. There is apparently not a square inch of that island that hasn't got any bird poo on it. Nice. It isn't habitated by humans, but it is harvested so people do work on this island at certain times of the year. Apparently the warm currents make Peruvian guano quite sort after as a fertiliser. It is also a very noisy island as every single bird on it was making a racket about something. We spent approximately an hour and a quarter sailing round the islands before returning to the mainland for another soaking by speedboat.
As mentioned before this tour was included in my holiday itinerary, you can book full day tours from Lima to explore here and other parts of the area, or just take the boat tour if you are her independently. I would say this is a must-see for bird and marine wildlife fans, but would still be enjoyable for most people.
ICA REGIONAL MUSEUM, ICA
This is a small, but quite interesting museum in the town of Ica. The town itself is inland and about four hours drive from Lima. You can get tourist flights here from Lima, this is because it is also the gateway to the Nazca Lines and scenic flights can be taken from the nearby airport (more of an airfield!).
It was quite an important area in its day and the various cultures that have inhabited the region are featured: Paracas, Nasca, Wari (Huari), Chincha, and Inca. Before going to Peru I knew that the Incas had been the culture that had been significant in Peru prior to the Spanish conquest, what I hadn't realised is that they had only been dominant for the preceding hundred years. Whilst their buildings and culture were an important part of Peruvian history there was a lot of pre-Incan history prior to their time. The Paracas (600-200BC) were very talented textile makers and the Nasca (200 BC - 700AD) were impressive potters.
Like many museum visits we did as a group, we were guided. At first we were explained the different cultures and how they were significant to this region, as they had all developed locally. Then we were taken around the museum to see some of the examples of pottery and textiles. To be honest, I don't think I was alone in finding this part a bit dull. I suspect the language barrier was part of the problem, as we were informed lots of facts, but they weren't really presented in an engaging way. I, for one, was getting a bit fidgety looking at ceramic vessels, however significant they were. The museum however did offer a fine collection of mummies and deformed skulls - now we were more interested! Whilst not as well presented or as prestigious a collection as the Museo Santury in Arequipa, you can take photos and the exhibits are well lit.
The museum also has a scale replica of the Nazca Lines for viewing, and you can find out the story of Maria Reiche, a German mathematician, who worked hard to try and uncover the secrets of the Nazca Lines.
The museum is open everyday, but mornings only on Sunday. The cost is about 5 soles (just over £1.10) and will probably take about an hour to get round. There are toilets on site. To get to it you will need to take a taxi from the town centre.
LAKE HUACACHINA OASIS, OUTSKIRTS OF ICA TOWN
After an educational morning at the Regional Museum in Ica, we went for some fun in the afternoon at the Huacachina Oasis. The Oasis is a small lake in the middle of a desert full of sand dunes. It is now a family resort but there are sand dune based adventure activities that you can participate in, and this is what we did.
The cost of this little excursion was approximately US$70. First of all we boarded dune buggies - open sided jeeps with protective bars around. They are quite high up so difficult for us shorter people to get in and out of. You are strapped in tightly with a harness that goes over you shoulders and fastens between your legs. I recommend wearing reasonably thick trousers as I got quite a bruise at the top, inside my thigh from all the being thrown around, constantly bashing into the seatbelt fastening. There is a little mesh pocket on the back of the seat in front of you that can hold your water bottle and camera securely. Each buggy takes 8 or 11 people including the driver.
It is a short drive through the streets to the Oasis proper, and here is what you see what these buggies can do. The drivers takes you up steep sand dunes, swishing about with sharp turns and then letting the buggy slide down a particularly high dune before giving it another sharp turn and taking you back up again in a different direction. The initial shock and scream as you plummet downwards soon turns to an exhilarated laughter, and so it continues.
At one point further into the dunes the drivers find a suitably sheer one and get out the snowboards. You lie on your tummy on the board, holding onto one of the straps tightly, and lift your lower legs slightly as one of the guides pushes you down the 35m drop. It is quite surprising how much speed you get up as you slide as elegantly as you can to the bottom. It is quite a smooth ride going down the dune, but as the slope tails off, it can be a bit bumpy and this is where most people fell off or acquired their bruises. The guides were impressed with me and thought I was some sort of natural, I don't think there was very much to my technique other than to hold on for dear life! It was great fun and most of our group participated, although most (like me) were a bit nervous the first time they went down as the slope was so steep.
We had about three goes at sliding down different dunes. Don't worry, you don't have to climb back up, the buggies come down and collect you and take you on a short ride to the next one. The guides (two per buggy) will also take photos with your camera (one of them always drives a buggy to the bottom of the slope with the cameras so they don't get sand in them - one guy went down with his camera in his pocket and it didn't work again for the rest of the trip).
After the duning we piled back into the buggies and drove around to a viewpoint of the actual oasis itself and heard its story, before the buggies took us back to our coach. The buggy place is a little away from the oasis (only a few minutes drive) but has toilets and a café. We didn't eat in the café but is also sells soft drinks, snacks and ice creams. It is an exhilariating and adventurous afternoon activity, there was a lot of laughter and all the participants thoroughly enjoyed it.
CHAUCHILLA CEMETERY, TOWARDS NAZCA
Chauchilla Cemetery is in the middle of nowhere, off the Pan-American Highway, near Nazca, a southern province in the Ica region. After you turn off the highway you travel for what seems like ages into barren lands. There is no other civilisation around here, and the land is flat and dry with a few hills in the distance. Eventually we made it to the cemetery and it really is like nothing I expected.
When our guide told us that we were going to see some pre-Inca tombs, I didn't realise that they would be 2000 years old and with the clothed skeletons still in place! Sadly over the years the site had been pilfered by grave robbers who took all the valuables and a lot of the artefacts, scattering bits of bones all over the place. Since then the authorities have attempted to tidy it up and return some of the bones to their tombs. Paths have been marked by small stones and you follow these to walk around the various tombs. Off the paths, the dry dirt looks like it has other stones in it, but these are some of the scattered (and sometimes broken) bones that are yet to be reunited with the rest of their body or respective tombs.
The tombs have been covered with a roof now (it looks like a makeshift bus shelter) so you are sheltered from the sun (it never rains here apparently) and you look down into the open stone tombs containing various high profile families from the Nasca culture (200 BC-700AD). The skeletons have been bleached white from the sun and in most cases still have their hair and clothes. Apparently they were covered with some kind of resin to preserve them. It certainly worked. The dry air has left them unharmed unlike human tampering has done with some of them. It is certainly a macabre sight, almost as if someone dressed up a skeleton and put a wig on it as some kind of sick joke. Having learnt something about the burial practices from an earlier visit to the Ica Regional Museum, we knew that this wasn't the case.
All the bodies in the tombs were sat facing east, towards the sunrise. Their knees were up to their chest in a kind of upright foetal position. This symbolises re-birth and is quite similar across the indigenous cultures of Peru - the Incas did the same. They were wrapped in cloth, like some kind of cape, and long hair was often braided. Sometimes the lower jaw had fallen open, giving the impression of the skeleton having a ghoulish laugh. There are also a number of small children and babies in the tombs. All this, while the sun in sinking. It is very peaceful and empty out here, you are miles from anywhere and as dusk approaches, it does feel very eerie.
There is a small admission charge. Location makes the cemetery difficult to get to, I recommend using a tour company or hiring a taxi, there is no other way to get here.
The majority of people who visit Peru fly into Lima then because it is depressingly grey and overcast (due to a sea mist that hangs over the capital for most of the year) head straight out to Cuzco, Machu Picchu and head off on the Inca Trail. Most people associate Peru with jungle, rainforest, the Andes and the Amazon (not to mention Paddington Bear), but a few hours drive south of Lima (325km/202 miles to be exact and located high enough above sea level to avoid the sea mist) you will find the Peruvian desert and a place less well-known but well worth including in your itinerary: Ica.
Ica has the honour of being a department, a province, a city and a river. The department of Ica covers 21,328 km2 and consists of 5 provinces: Ica, Nazca, Pisco, Chincha and Palpa. The region of Ica was once inhabited by the ancient Paracas and Nazca cultures, then taken over by the Incas in the fifteenth century. The city of Ica was founded during the Spanish conquest in 1563 by Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera and is now a busy place which is home to around 260,000 inhabitants. Its most famous for its wine and pisco (Peruvian brandy). To avoid confusion, I will focus on my trip to Ica city with highlights from the best places to visit in the department of Ica, and a quick dip in the river (but not literally!).
On my visit to Peru, Ica featured right at the end of the tour and because wed been roughing it, was the one place where we managed to enjoy a hot shower and a safe swim in a pool (i.e. it wasnt a piranha-infested tributary of the Amazon and it wasnt an attempt to avoid drowning as Id experienced in the Pacific Ocean). Ironic really, considering that Ica has a distinct lack of water and its inhabitants have to be very careful with the amount of water they use. Watertowers were everywhere, and at that time the river Ica didnt look too healthy, so I felt rather guilty that as a tourist staying in a hotel I could enjoy abundant supplies of water while the locals were on rations.
My visit to Ica happened to coincide with a local festival in October called El Señor de Luren, patron of Ica. The main square (every town in Peru seems to have a main square, always called Plaza de Armas) is a nice place to wander around in the evening, with small shops where they offer you local wines, Pisco and chocotejas sweets to try, before you buy. One evening we were there a local Peruvian band were playing in the square (I dont know if this is a regular occurrence or because of the festival). Anyway, being a group of Brits listening to the band, we managed to attract attention to ourselves and the next thing we knew was that all the locals wanted the gringos to dance to the music. Yes, this was the moment I wished Id kept my distance and appreciated the pan-pipes and guitar from a safer distance. Maybe just smiling and standing still would work, but no, the locals wanted us to dance and they werent taking no for an answer. So, thats how I found myself dancing in the main square of Ica with a local twice my age getting rather too close for my liking (until someone finally rescued me). Lets just say, it was an unforgettable experience.
A few minutes' walk from the main square was a church, lit up for the festival with brightly coloured lights, and there were stalls around with fairground-style games, kids funfair rides, people selling balloons, and finally the evening was capped off with a fireworks display and a procession. Peru is a Catholic country and they take great pride in celebrating religious and other festivals with a passion, so if you can time your visit with a festival, its worth it for the atmosphere. Apparently Ica has festivals in February, March, June, September and October, so youve got a good chance of catching one.
5km from Ica, and easily reachable by bus or taxi, is the oasis of Huacachina. As youre driving towards it, youre surrounded on all sides by sand dunes, heat, dust and a barren, dry landscape. In the midst of the dunes sits the oasis, consisting of a lagoon, surrounded by palm trees and beautiful tropical plants, and a café where you can sit, relax and enjoy the refreshing scenery, while enjoying the strange fizzy bubblegum flavour of the national yellow-coloured soft drink, Inca Cola. However, merely unwinding in the heat would be a missed opportunity at Huacachina. For a few soles, you can become the proud temporary owner of a sandboard, so we quickly took up the offer before being reminded that this was an activity not covered by our travel insurance. Too late for that, Id already got my sandboard and I wasnt about to locate a telephone in the desert to obtain extreme sports cover! Boards in hand, we set off walking up the sand dunes, although it was more a case of taking a step and sliding most of the way back down in the sand, and proved to be a very arduous journey. Its no wonder people dont survive long in the desert, a forty minute trek up the dune was exhausting enough. As we reached the top, we noticed further across the dunes that there was a basic ski-lift type pulley going up the dunes. Ah, so thats how the smart people get up the dunes then and it probably only cost a few more soles. Oh well, wed made it to the top anyway, and it had been a fabulous leg-muscle toning exercise. Once at the top, it occurred to us that no instructor had been provided nor was there a nice gentle nursery slope to ease us in. Id been skiing but not snow-boarding and my experience with a skateboard didnt stand me in good stead either. There was nothing for it, but to simply get on the board and head down the slope. Thankfully sand must create more friction than snow, because turns didnt seem necessary to slow down the descent. I simply headed straight down the dune at full pelt and when it all got too fast or a crash looked imminent, fell over (sand is mercifully very soft to fall on). Your feet are attached to the board with Velcro straps so the board handily stays with you when you fall off. It was a fantastic experience and thankfully no injury occurred so the lack of insurance wasnt an issue (however I would recommend being more sensible than me if youre contemplating sandboarding there are a number of trees at the bottom of the dunes which could cause considerable harm if you didnt manage to stop in time and according to the Lonely Planet someone has even been killed in the past). One unfortunate side-effect of the sport is that I ended up with sand in every crevice of my body, although it had a welcome volumising effect on my hair.
The other main attractions in the department of Ica, and an absolute must, are the Ballestas Islands. These are uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean, uninhabited by humans that is, but haven to all types of wildlife: flamingos, Humboldt penguins, sealions, pelicans and millions of sea-birds. You can take a boat-trip around the islands from the coastal town of Paracas (70km from Ica city). On the way out you pass a huge candelabra formed in the sand, which is said to point towards the start of the Nazca Lines. For those that arent familiar, the Nazca Lines are ancient patterns of animals, geometric shapes and long straight lines imprinted in the sand. Who built them and why is a mystery. They are best viewed from the air trips go from the town of Nazca or from Ica, although it is more expensive from Ica. I unfortunately didnt get time to see them for myself but have seen a fascinating TV documentary on them and would definitely take the air trip next time. Anyway, back to the Ballestas Islands: a boat trip in itself would have been an enjoyable outing in the beautiful sunshine, but when you get to the rocky islands, they are spectacular. My favourite part was the bay that was packed full of sealions, some sunbathing on the rocks, some swimming and splashing in the water, and the rest just packed solid on the beach making so much noise it sounded like a crowd at a football match.
One of the suburbs of Ica, Cachiche, is renowned for being a sanctuary for witches. It was quite eerie driving into the area, passing the carving of a witch hanging on a tree, and became even more so when we were taken to see the mysterious seven-headed palm tree, apparently deformed by sorcery. It was presumably once a regular palm tree, but has since grown six extra heads and sprawls across the ground like a twisted mass of giant snakes. The seventh-head has never been allowed to grow and has been chopped off with an axe. The version of the story we were told is that the numbers 6 and 7 have symbolic meanings, and as 7 represents Gods number, they didnt want the seventh head to grow and lopped it off. There are other legends regarding the reason of the unwanted seventh head, but whatever the reason, this is the scariest tree I have ever seen! The silence surrounding the area and lack of people we saw made the experience even stranger.
In Ica itself, there is the Museo Regional for a chance to visit Icas pre-colonial days. This museum has collections of artefacts dating back to the Paracas, Nazca and Inca cultures, including weavings, ceramics, mummies and skulls. There is also a stone museum on the main square, a cathedral and a couple of churches. A visit to one of the numerous wineries and distilleries (known as bodegas) should really be included considering the area is famous for them, although unfortunately we didnt have time for it. The best time to visit them is apparently from late February to early April.
On to a few practicalities: Spanish is useful when visiting Peru, so take a phrase book with you just in case. The people are very friendly so it makes all the difference if you can communicate with them. The local currency is the sol, and its far easier to exchange US dollars (make sure they are in excellent condition) in Peru, rather than sterling.
Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations are recommended for all travellers to Peru, as well as up-to-date tetanus, diphtheria and polio immunisations. Yellow fever and malaria are not a risk in Lima and the coastal areas to the south, including Ica, but if your trip includes a visit to the Amazon basin region, you will need a yellow fever vaccination and malaria tablets (take my advice, pay extra for malarone rather than risk lariam). Ica is very hot and dry, so do not forget to wear sunscreen.
There are a range of hotels in Ica; we stayed at the 3 star Hotel Sol de Ica, which was comfortable, conveniently located, had an outdoor pool and a couple of pet llamas.
Ica may not have the beauty of the rainforest or the spectacular views of the Andes, but the Ballestas Islands and the sandboarding experience are definitely not to be missed. Theres a lot more to Peru than Machu Picchu, so take time to explore as much of the country as you can!
www.peru.info/perueng.asp - this site is the official site for the promotion of Peru, and contains information about all places of interest in Peru, hotels, transport, airlines serving Peru, travel agencies, weather information, festivities calendar and more.