Down the coast – Peru Part 1

The hills surrounding Lima

There are some sites that embody the concept of archaeology for me. I’ve been to a few (Acropolis of Athens, Chichen Itza) and still have some on my bucket list (Egyptian Pyramids, Stonehenge). This is the first in a series of four posts about my journey through Peru to one of these iconic sites: Machu Picchu.

Cristo del Pacífico looking over Lima’s district of Chorrillos

We arrived into Lima at 12:45am local time. It seemed like a long time since leaving the Rockies. The airport and customs were easy enough to navigate and when we stepped out into arrivals there was a woman holding a sign with my name on it. I was still wearing my down jacket (I had left the end of Canadian winter) and the coastal air around me felt hot. We were bustling into the taxi by 1:30am and I could tell I was in for a wild drive through a sleeping city (I was correct).

Lima street art in the Barranco district

Lima is huge.  It is the capital of Peru and has a population of about 9 million people. I live in a town of 5 thousand so the pace and volume of such a large urban centre caused a bit of culture shock. We were staying in the Miraflores district (established by the Spanish in the 16th century) on the edge of the central plaza Parque Kennedy. The park is busy with foot traffic during the day and with an artisan and craft market in the evenings. To the south and also on the coast is the bohemian district of Barranco which has lovely colonial architecture, graffiti art and flocks of Black vultures. It was a nice spot to have a cold beverage and watch the sun set over the Pacific.

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

Perhaps against my better judgement, on our second day in Lima we took the city bus from Miraflores to the historic centre – the Cercado de Lima district. It was humid and the bus was crowded to sardine can proportions. But, we made it, the price was right, and I felt like I had accomplished something many tourists would not attempt. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the oldest colonial district in Lima and within the old city walls contains the Presidential Palace (1535 AD), the Basílica y Convento de San Francisco (1674 AD) and the Cathedral Basilica of Lima (1535 – 1649 AD).

Lima old city wall, Parques de la Muralla

After exploring the busy historic centre, Parques de la Muralla was a welcome shady and quiet place for a picnic lunch. Underneath our picnic bench lay the remains of the old city wall which is restored and displayed as part of an outdoor museum. The final stop in the historic centre was the Barrio Chino. Lima’s China Town developed in the 1850’s during an influx of Chinese immigrants, many of whom came to Peru as contract labourers to work in the sugar plantations or for railway construction. The Barrio Chino grew around large Chinese commercial import companies which attracted smaller businesses, shops and temples to the district. Today the revamped area is marked by an archway gifted to the barrio in 1971 by the people of Taiwan. When you walk through it you are bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells of Chinese-Peruvian culture, best experienced by trying one of the Chifa restaurants.

Barrio Chino, Lima

I was keen to see more of Peru so we jumped on an early bus headed south to Paracas. On the way we stopped at Tambo Colorado, an Inca adobe complex in the Pisco River Valley. The site is amazingly well preserved, including the vivid yellow and red painted walls, and we were lucky enough to be the only ones who had stopped there to look around. The walled complex is roughly u-shaped and made up of a series of terraces and structures that surrounds on three sides a central plaza facing a sacred mountain. The most likely purpose for the 15th century AD site is that it was used as an administrative centre by the Inca elite to control the main route from the coast into the highlands. It is an incredibly well built and still impressive site.

Tambo Colorado

The next day was another early start, this time to head out to sea. The Ballentas Islands National Reserve is a major tourist attraction just off the coast of Paracas which can easily be visited by tour boat. On the way to the islands you pass the 180m/595ft tall El Candelabro prehistoric geoglyph that is cut into the northern face of the Paracas Peninsula in Pisco Bay. The site has been dated to 200 BCE and likely was created by the Paracas culture before the arrival of the Inca culture to the area. Motoring around the islands you can see a variety of bird species like pelicans, booby’s, Humbolt penguins, and (when we visited) a sea lion nursery! From the sea we traveled straight into the desert landscape of the Paracas National Reserve where condors soared above the red sand.

El Candelabro

Peru is certainly a country of diverse landscapes and next I found myself in an oasis resort in the middle of a sea of sand dunes. Huacachina is a natural oasis and tourist hotspot that is now known for dune buggies, sand boarding and sunsets. The legend of the lagoon is a classic one involving a beautiful maiden observed by a hunter while bathing and who dropped her mirror when she fled, thus creating the lagoon. In the 1940’s the oasis was developed as a spa retreat for wealthy Peruvians from Lima – and the village retains a crumbling vestige of this retro elegance.  Not being one for dune buggying, I opted for sunbathing on the rooftop terrace, enjoying some Peruvian cuisine at a lagoon-side café and hiking up to the top of a sand dune to enjoy the sunset.

Huacachina Oasis

The next stage in the journey was a long one that involved an overnight bus through mountain passes. It started with a Pisco vineyard tour and tasting outside of the city of Ica where we learned about the fermentation process and how pisco differs from European style wines: sugar and time! We then continued further south until reaching the famous Nazca lines where we could see the Lizard, Tree and Hand. These huge geoglyphs are surprisingly shallow when seen up-close, they are only 10-15cm (4-6 inches) deep. The Nazca Lines were made between 500 BC and 500 AD by the Nazca culture who removed a layer of reddish-brown pebbles from the ground to reveal the yellow-grey soil beneath. It is this stark colour difference that makes the figures stand out so clearly.

Nazca Lines – the Tree

It was incredible to see part of such a geographically huge (the Nazca lines as a group covers approximately 50 km2 / 19 miles2) and renowned archaeological site up close. I tried to keep this enthusiasm during the further 12 hour bus journey from the town of Nazca into the Andes Mountains. Next stop: the Inca heartland.

Sea lion nursery, Ballentas Islands Reserve