Desert coastlines have always intrigued me. Two seemingly different environments, yet they make an appearance together on occasion. They are an odd couple. They are no peanut butter and jelly or tea and scones, but they work.
Once we left Lima’s city limits, where green lawns, bushes of flowers and palm trees were on sprinkler system life support, the frigid air of the Humboldt Current made itself known, sucking the landscape dry. The Pan American cut alongside mountains of jagged rock. Chipped away from cliff faces, broken boulders lay scattered, some caught in place during their spiraling decent through loose gravel, others making it to the Pacific Ocean where they sat in piles. Where the mountain was too immense, the road tunneled its way through the innards of the beast.
Brad could hardly focus on driving, his eyes darting from the road to the waters below. “Oh I bet there are so many fish down there”. And yes there were. Small villages hung off the edge of the mountain, seemingly selling only seafood.
We had come down with a bad case of seafood obsession after our arrival in Lima, with ceviche and fillets of grilled fish as our lunchtime staples. The most mind boggling experience was in the Lima market at the intersection of two walkways. The past has shown that in Latin markets, vendors group together by product type. The fruit stands in one walkway, the flower arrangers in another, and comedores in a cluster, vying for your dollars. Yet, as we rounded the corner, unexpectedly there sat a cevicheria in a maze of smoothie stands. It was bustling. Elbows pinned to our sides, we shimmied into the seats of two barstools and ordered the standard bowl. What came out, however, was nothing near standard. Two bowls overflowed with chunks of fish, clams, and vegetables marinated in lime juice. Cancha, popped maize kernels, fresh herbs, and a brothy spicy aji sauce transformed the dish into a hot steaming stew. I’d go back in time for this meal.
Back on the coast, we chose a random seafood joint and filled up on more ceviche.
With our tummies full, we drove on. Just as the highway began to stray from the coast, we veered off to Paracas National Park, stationed on a hammerhead shaped peninsula. In all directions, valleys of hard packed sand unrolled before us. Sand dunes freckled the landscape, windswept and dusted on one side with a spattering of white shimmering salt. The road disappeared and the desert appeared before us like a skateboard park. With no dotted lines to steer in between, donuts formed in the sand and tracks crept up the side of steep dunes. Brad, like a kid with his favorite Matchbox car, took Nacho to his limits.
Yet, Nacho was no Matchbox car, which, with the flick of a wrist could jump rivers and fly through the air. Nacho was a different breed; more of a house on wheels than a sports car, sputtering to a stop before ever mounting a sand dune.
“Quick Sheena! Take a picture. I can’t hold Nacho here much longer”. Poor Nacho would lose traction and Brad would gently reverse him back down to safe ground.
Our campsite was spectacular. The valley of desert broke off at the coast, exposing sediment that had formed in flaky sheets of rock. The rocks ended abruptly and a sweeping coastline of red beach took its place, teeming with birds and the occasional seal. Like a rice cracker, salt formations pockmarked the ground and gaping crevices fell down to the red sand.
Without reference points, the landscape was deceptive. Everything looked close. Nothing looked steep. We spent a morning, out of control and laughing, running down the sides of the sand dunes, nearly front flipping with every leap.
To the East of Paracas, we continued on down the freeway through the Ica desert, a land of more sand dunes and dirt formations. Just as our throats became parched from the heat, we were granted with fields of grape vines. A checkerboard of vineyards began popping up, leaving the sheets of sand behind, until they were eventually overtaken by the town of Ica. Shipped all throughout the world and to every nearby village and city, they are the world’s best producer of pisco, a white grape brandy, produced since the 16th century with the arrival of the Spaniards. Pisco, while commonly drunk alone, has also been the main ingredient in a variety of mixed drinks, with the most common easily being the Pisco Sour. Here is the traditional recipe: blend 3 oz pisco,1 oz lime juice, ½ oz sugarcane, 1 egg white, and 4 ice cubes.
While in Ica, we stopped at a small bodega called El Catador. We were shown the pisco making process which, in one long run on sentence goes like this: grapes are crushed under a huge adobe platform with a 150-year old huarango trunk (here our guide insisted he take our photo), the juice is poured into clay containers called botijas de barro, and then distilled in boilers of copper basins.
While eating handfuls of purple speckled corn, we sampled all the varieties of pisco. We left with a bottle of “love potion” pisco, which our guide insisted was so smooth and sweet, and that we’d drink the whole bottle before realizing it, resulting in the inevitable.
Our drive continued on. Farther South, we entered the flat pampas of the San Jose desert , an ancient sketchbook containing 70 pages of plant and animal figures, all within a range of 1000 square kilometers. The media used: scraping of dirt. Sometime in the past (no one knows exactly when), canals 20 centimeters deep were scraped into the manganese and iron rich surface. What gave way below was a layer of lighter colored rock. In the 1970s, when Peru discovered these drawings, the Pan American highway already ran straight through one of the figures. For travelers, this made for a very quick sightseeing adventure. We veered off the highway and travelled up a set of rickety set of stairs to a lookout tower. From above, we could see three sets of Nasca lines: a set of hands, a lizard, and a tree.
Pretty cool. All in a day’s drive.