Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Coastal Lowlands: Nazca to Trujillo

Brice and I had a hell of a time getting along in Nazca, so I'm just going to cut to the interesting stuff. We arrived at around 4 AM, so we decided to track down a hostel and sleep until 9 or 10. A man was kind enough to unlock for us, and we took a nice, long nap. There are plenty of cheap hostels around the Plaza de Armas, and there are tons of tour guides operating out of the town. If you walk around for 10 minutes in any direction, you'll probably find 3-4 of each.

We meant to take a bus out to the observation tower to view the Lines, but we couldn't figure out which bus we wanted. We ended up contracting with a taxi driver to take us out the tower and back into town. It wasn't too expensive, but it costs quite a bit more than the bus would have. I thought the Nazca lines were really cool, but Brice was less impressed. All in all, we were glad we didn't waste our money on one of the over-priced fly-overs. It would have been an interesting experience, but we had just as much fun climbing up the rickety observation tower and exploring the "ruins" around the area.

I really liked The Frog, one of the more famous, smaller geoglyphs at Nazca. It actually looks kind of like a frog, if you tilt your head a little bit. We saw a large mound of dirt from the top of the tower, and had our taxi driver take us to an access road. We climbed up the large hill of shale, and Brice did some more exploring on the top while I listened in on an English-speaking tour guide (guiding a lone British student at the remote location) explained that the large lines running out from our hill acted as a pre-Incan calendar.

After touring the lines, we hired a car to take us out to the aqueducts on the outskirts of the city. The Nazca culture built these underground aqueducts to pipe cool water from the Andes to their dry, dessert-like home. Roughly 2,000 years ago, they devised the spiral window system to keep the air flowing through the channel: this served to keep the water flowing smoothly and to regulate its temperature. All the Nazca people had to do was slow the flow once a year so that they could crawl through the short spaces between windows and remove the accumulated debris. In 2,000 years, the aqueducts never failed. They're still an integral part of this region's agriculture.

After the aqueducts, our guide took us to another geoglyph - the thread and needle, and then we saw the remains of an adobe Incan administrative center. There wasn't much to look at, really, but we walked all the way around it, despite the oppressive midday heat. As with Chan Chan (coming!), the adobe bricks had all but melted away from the seasonal rains.

We left Nazca on a mid-afternoon bus for a larger city a bit further north on the coast: Ica. Ica is like one big circle, and it's probably the most modern-looking city we visited. Their Plaza de Armas had a very "Modern Art" feel to it. As far as we could tell, the inhabitants spend most of their time driving around in circles honking at each other. Still, it wasn't as bad as La Paz, and we found a nice hotel with pretty cheap rates for a hot shower.

I put Ica on our itinerary because all of my reading and research told me it was the heart of Peru's grape-growing region. And it is. BUT (there's always a but) they are more famed for their Pisco (a white grape brandy that tastes like turpentine) and the wines generally tasted like over-ripened grape cough syrup. That didn't stop us from trying though, so we bought a bottle of a local Cabernet (that was a mistake) and booked a tasting tour for the surrounding vineyards for the next day (also a mistake).

They force-fed us several shots of turpentine-esque Pisco at each vineyard, got really offended if we didn't drink the whole glass, and then followed it up with a series of vaguely palatable dessert wines. I really didn't mind some of the sweeter ones, but they tasted more like fortified koolaid than viticulture. Worst heartburn of my life? Check. Basically, if you want to experience Ica, we can lock you in a garage with a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and honk at you for a few hours. But you don't get to drink the Mad Dog; we just break the bottle on the floor to provide the proper atmosphere.

That evening, we hopped a bus to Pisco (the town, not the drink). We heard Pisco was a great starting point for excursions to Las Islas Ballestas and Las Paracas National Preserve, and it is, but that's pretty much the only reason we stopped there. The bus took us most of the way along the Pan-American Highway, and we took a taxi from the highway into the town. As soon as the taxi dropped us off in the center of the Plaza, an army of travel agents started swarming to sell us an excursion. We went with a couple of well-dressed men who had a small office in the Plaza, and they set us up with a good price for admission, travel, and accommodations in Pisco that night. It worked out really well.

An earthquake ravaged Pisco in 2007, so the church was mostly abandoned and boarded up. (along with half of the town). We explored some of the wreckage, found a rather exciting black market, and had some pretty decent food while watching a soccer game in a local cantina. Brice tried to explain it to me, but I still only understand the basics.

The following morning, we left our hostel and headed for the coast in a van full of tourists. The dock for Las Islas Ballestas hosted a flock of very angry pelicans and a flock of very eager boys trying to sell us fish to bait them with. It was kind of disgusting, but Brice fed them a bit so I could take some pictures. We boarded the boats in the middle of that gorgeous, sunny day and started our tour. Brice had the theme song from Gilligan's Island stuck in both our heads by the time we left the harbor.

Our first stop was the Candelabra, an interesting geoglyph made by pirates to indicate safe harbor, and then we cruised out along the beautiful coast to the islands. This thing is massive; it's over 180 yards long! But getting back on track: Las Islas are one of Peru's greatest resources. Tourists love to look at the wildlife, and the wildlife -mostly birds - leaves a rich deposit of guano that is exported for fertilizer. The birds were so thick in places that you couldn't see the rock underneath them. We saw more pelicans, boobies, Inca Terns, and penguins. Yes, penguins. No one believes that part, but they were SO CUTE. You're looking at a photo of the candelabra right now because Brice thinks that's more exciting than penguins.

Las Islas also house dozens of sea lions and Pacific bottle nose dolphins, which we saw in abundance. I loved watching the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks, especially the babies. When it was time to turn around and go home, we followed a pod of dolphins in to the harbor. They seemed to be playing with each other most of the time, and we saw some of them jump almost entirely out of the water. Absolutely breathtaking.

The boats returned us to shore, where we spent a bit of time doing touristy-things on the pier. Then we got back into the van and drove a bit further up the coast to Las Paracas National Reserve. Las Paracas had dozens of beautiful beaches and some interesting fossils, but our favorite part was the lunch break.

The sea food was fresh and... well, sea food. In the broadest sense. I think I ate a barnacle. But after lunch we went climbing on some of the rocks along the coast, and that was really fun! We saw sea urchins, crabs, and a wrecked boat. I only fell down once, and the scar's still there (she says bitterly, seven months later). Before we left the park, we stopped to see a flock of Chilean flamingos. I don't know why the Peruvian government is so worried about protecting Chilean flamingos, but we weren't allowed to get within half a mile of the stupid things. Decidedly not the highlight of my day.

One long, long bus ride (and a changeover in Lima) later, we found ourselves in Trujillo: a large city on the northern coast of Peru. I missed some of my meds that night and was in a complete daze, so I bought myself a bed in a small hostel to sleep it off while Brice killed time in the city. We met back up in the Plaza de Armas at noon, insulted each other a bit over lunch, and started looking for a minibus to Chan Chan.

Since I haven't yet, let me take this moment to tell you all something about combis and minibuses in Peru: if it's a busy time of the day, don't plan on having room to breathe. In fact, there is a very good chance you won't even be inside the vehicle -- they might just make you hang out the door and hold on. These rolling sardine cans provide cheap, reliable transportation, though and we really couldn't beat the price for one-way fare out to the ruins.

When they dropped us at Chan Chan, they really dropped us right in the middle of Chan Chan! The ruined city spans for nearly 8 square miles, and we had to walk about one mile, through an archaeological dig, to get to the tourist center. The portion of the ruins open to tourists is tiny, largely because it's an entirely adobe structure. That means that every time it rains or the wind blows, parts of the buildings erode away. For a city that old, it means that most of Chan Chan is nothing more than a series of low-walls and lumps.

But the place they show the tourists looks fairly well preserved. They managed to shelter some of the walls from the weather, and both their size and detailed carvings left a really huge impression on us. These things dwarfed any man-made structure we had seen so far, and I think Brice really enjoyed wandering around in the labyrinthine passage ways. We visited the remains of a royal tomb in the middle, and saw a man-made lake. The size was simply unbelievable.

We decided to go on to Cajamarca, in the northern mountains, after Trujillo, but couldn't get a bus until the following morning. We found a hostel, went out to a movie (Terminator: starring Batman), and crashed for the night.