Fun in the desert

Four hours south of Lima lies the Ica desert, a moonscape of surreal sand dunes. Paleontologists know this area for the fossilized bones of gigantic whale-eating sharks, sea sloths, and other long extinct marine animals. Oenologists know the region for its vineyards, planted by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Hundreds of bodegas (the other use of the word – not the corner store where you buy your cigs, but rather a winemaking hacienda), from big industrial affairs to small traditional rustic operations, produce the famous pisco white grape brandy as well as a variety of ports and wines. I took a tour that went to one of each operation. As you might expect, the small family producer was much more interesting. Each March during harvest, the grapes are hand mashed. Actually, foot-mashed. I’d love to come back during this time, it sounds like quite a party. We saw photos of the pretty “grape queens” dancing away with dozens of other revelers in the vats – surely the strangest disco that exists. After the grapes are crushed underfoot, they are further squeezed by lowering an enormous 150-year old tree trunk onto the mess. The liquid is then siphoned off for fermentation. The remaining skin and seeds are spread on the ground (basically thrown away) – it’s what you walk on around the grounds. Originally the wine was aged in cylindrical clay containers leftover by pre-Incan cultures who made them for fermenting chicha, but nowadays it’s aged in oak barrels.

Pisco is distilled from wine that has been fermented for 45 days. Whereas in the modern wineries where gas jets and refrigerant are used, the artisanal wineries still distill the old-fashioned way. A large wood fire is kept going under the enormous tank of wine; the resulting vapor is collected in a copper tube which spirals down through a vat of cool water, and the condensed liquid drips out into a clay pot. After all that work, only a percentage of the final product can be sold for consumption. There are three parts to the resulting liquid. The first part out of the distillery, or the “head”, is almost pure ethanol and is sold for industrial cleaning operations. The second part, or the “body” (and here’s where it takes an expert to tell when to change the tap), is sold as pisco for drinking. The third part, or the “tail” or “legs”, is again no good for imbibing, and is used for different industrial uses.

Chile is also known for it’s long tradition of pisco production, and there has been long-standing rivalry and disputes between the two countries over this issue.

After being given a tour at each winery comes the best part – the sampling! I found the different types of pisco to be pleasant, particularly when chilled. They also make a Bailey’s-type liquor from pisco, milk, sugar, and figs which is yummy. But the wine is not particularly agreeable to my palate – it’s all sweet or semi-sweet (owing to the grapes grown around here), and I prefer my wine on the dry side.

But the real reason I came down this way was to see Lake Huacachina, a magical and incongruous oasis surrounded on all sides by huge sand dunes. [If you’re in Peru, pull out a 50 Sole note and look on the back. That’s this place.] Total population: 115. I met an English woman who’s been living here for five years. Wow. With just a handful of restaurants and hotels grouped around the tiny oasis, it’s an ideal spot to relax for a few days. (Or a few years, I guess.) Sunset walks on the dunes.. sunbathing by the pool.. or adventure sports! A number of operators offer inexpensive dune buggy tours combined with sandboarding at sunset. Good fun.

Dune buggy riding is like being on a roller coaster without a track – the drivers take perverse pleasure in gunning the powerful machines up the steep inclines until you can’t see what’s over the crest. Your stomach then drops away as you plunge down 50° slopes at up to 80 km/hr. Apparently they’ve calmed things down somewhat since a couple of tourists died last year. It’s always nice to find these things out AFTER you’ve returned and are safely sitting at the bar.

The two-hour dune buggy tour includes many opportunities for sandboarding. Normally they recommend sitting or lying down on the boards, as that’s safer. Naturally, I insisted on standing up. I’m not sure why, but you actually end up going faster sitting or lying down. And the soft sand won’t cut you the way volcanic rock does when I went volcano surfing in Nicaragua. So I’m not sure why he kept warning me, saying “danger!” over and over.

Luckily we only had to hike up a couple of dunes – for the most part, the buggies drive around to pick you up at the bottom. After we were all worn out and ready to return back to town, all strapped in and ready to go, the driver turned the ignition key, and… nothing. The engine wouldn’t even roll over. Dead battery! Luckily one other buggy was still around, so we weren’t completely trapped out there miles away from civilization with no hope. [Later we asked the driver how he would have described his location had he needed to call for help. Apparently these guys know this dune world so well that he says he would have only needed to describe the bowl we were sitting in and they would have known how to get there. Incredible. Later I even saw some driving at night which is crazy if you ask me, since many of the dunes are too steep to drive up or down and how can you tell in the darkness? I’d end up rolling over or wrecking. But I guess that’s why they have that job and I don’t!]

So myself and the four other guys in the car get out and start pushing (while yes, the two ladies stayed sitting in the buggy). You can probably imagine what trying to push a car in deep sand is like. Fortunately we were on an incline, so we were actually able to get it moving and he crash-started it. Of course, now he had to get out of this bowl he was in. He would take long starts to build up speed, curving this way and that, but could never quite make it up to the crest. Finally the other driver yanked him out and showed him out it’s done – zoomed right up to where we were standing, and.. shut the engine off. Doh! Back to square one. This time it was on level ground, so there was no way just four of us were going to get it moving. They tried backing the other dune buggy up against it and ramming it forward. That didn’t work. Finally everyone from the other buggy and ours gave it our all and got it moving. Hilarious.

The great thing about tours is that you end up bonding with the people you’ve just had this adventure with, which leads to fun dinner and drinking partners that night. It’s a nice way to meet people. Being Saturday night, we ended up at the (only) disco, full of fun people and a bon fire out back, my favorite. Unfortunately the happy hour specials at dinner caught up with me and I had to excuse myself to return to my room and pray to the porcelain god. Geez, haven’t done that in years. I spent the next day recovering at the quaint little library where the friendly librarian kept bringing me picture books to idly thumb through while sitting on their old-fashioned porch overlooking the lake.

The lake itself is green, sulphuric, and meant to have curative properties. On weekends this place really comes alive with locals visiting from Ica and elsewhere to swim and boat. Myself, I wouldn’t touch the lake with a 10-foot pole. With no entrance or exit, it’s stagnant water. And sadly, even in this tiny oasis, people discard their garbage everywhere. What’s that phrase – don’t shit where you eat? Clearly they have a different value system than I have, and it’s unfair for me to impose my standards on their way of life. Still, I find it troubling that they’re not bothered by the trash in such a beautiful spot.

The topology around here is stunningly surreal. On my last night in town I went for a hike up one of the dunes that rises improbably right from the edge of the houses and ended up getting quite a workout. I learned afterward that you don’t climb sand dunes up their face or you just end up sliding backwards for every step you take upward. Instead it’s best to climb the ridgeline, which is both harder packed and often has other footprints you can walk in. I never made sunrise as I had hoped to, but sunset too provides beautiful shadows stacking up on each subsequent ridge. The nearly full moon rose over the city lights bathing the dunes in a soft glow. I sat there for a long time, quietly contemplative and tranquil. I know I’ll be finding sand in the strangest places for months to come. Kind of like when your theatre does a production of the Nutcracker and you keep finding that damn paper snow in every corner well into the next summer.

I almost didn’t make it here – the first time I tried leaving Lima, none of the buses (which normally leave every 8 minutes!) were running, owing to demonstrations blocking the roads around here. I think it was workers striking. Apparently this has been going on all over southern Peru this month – people are reporting on the message boards that Arequipa was locked up a few weeks ago.

I didn’t visit it, but I’m told that the archaeological museum in Ica is pretty cool. They have displays of trepanned skulls and other oddities. Besides trepanning, apparently these ancient cultures would wrap infants’ heads to make them develop conically – foreshadowing SNL’s Coneheads by 1,000 years.

If you come to Huacachina: there are a wide range of prices and options for hotels. The popular Hostal Salvatierra is cheap, friendly, and has a great pool – but the rooms are crap and the beds are worse. Try to negotiate a good price with one of the other hotels and you’ll be happier. The winery tours are not worth it – cheaper and easy to do on your own by negotiating directly with a taxi driver. The dune buggy / sandboarding tours are totally worth it at 30 Soles.

Two hours south of Ica lies the perfectly flat San José desert, famous for it’s cryptic Nazca Lines and the highest sand dune in the world at 2,078m. Not fully appreciated until airplanes were invented a millenia after they were carved, more than 70 giant plant, animal, and geometric figures etched into the desert floor stretch for over 500 square km. Some say the lines were made either by or for extraterrestrials. The consensus among experts, however, is that the lines were symbols used in water ceremonies. [And no, the lines didn’t require advanced technology to be carved. They were made the same way we were taught in Stagecraft 101 to paint a large backdrop that you only have room to work on a section at a time – you pencil a grid onto a small version of the work, then use a grid of the same proportions but n times larger to transfer the work to the large scale.] Interestingly, the lines were created over a very long period of time and by several cultures, from 400 B.C. to 1000 A.D.

I’ve decided to skip seeing this attraction. Although the hair-raising tiny airplane ride would be fun, it’s pricey and a one-trick pony. So I’m headed back into the Andes on a road that will eventually land me in Cusco.


Here’s a video I shot to give you a taste of the dune buggy riding and sandboarding:

There are other ones on YouTube. Here’s a long one that includes tours around Ica, dune buggy riding, and sandboarding.
And here’s one that shows more of the standing-up boarding than I was able to capture.

Written by in: Peru | Tags: , ,


  • Eddie says:

    Hey Josh
    Great! The dune buggy video you shot was a true “MAD MAX” experience. And the picture of oasis town–wow! Did you get there by dune buggy?

    • Josh says:

      Mad Max, great reference! I love the sound on the video. The roaring engine.. which for some reason the other videos on YouTube cover up with music.

      Although the town/oasis looks like it’s in the middle of the desert, in fact it’s only 5km from a city (Ica). There is a paved road which runs between the two that you can’t really see from the angles of the photos. There are more great photos of this strange place here.

  • Rob says:

    Too bad Arequipa is on lockdown, was hoping you’d make it there, as it’s the one place in Peru I think I’d like to go. Cusco should be fun though. I’m glad you met some fellow travellers to drink with as well, considering your previous post. One thing I’ve done when I’ve been by myself is to invite other solo diners at a restaurant to join me at my table, esp. if it looked like they spoke some English. I’ve met some cool people that way—sometimes YOU have to be the change you seek.

    • Josh says:

      Good point, all it takes is pushing one’s comfort boundaries the slightest bit and people respond to the overture.

      Re: Arequipa, I didn’t meant to imply that the city is off-limits or anything. Just a bit of trouble getting there a few weeks ago due to the protests. It’s definitely on my list of places to hit (after Cusco & Sacred Valley) – a lot of people have raved about it.

      • Rob says:

        Great! Take lots of pictures in Arequipa then…as well as Cusco! I liked the travel tips in the latest post, keep them coming.

  • judith johnson says:

    Great pictures. What kind of camera do you have? Great video. Not the sort of descriptions a mother wants to hear, but fascinating. I can see why you’d go down standing up, the woman in shorts looked like she’d be all cut up by sand. Loved the pictures of the winery too Judith

    • Josh says:

      I upgraded to a Canon G10 after dropping and breaking my old Canon in Colombia. The G10 is the best camera you can buy before moving up to SLR’s, which are too bulky for me.
      It’s great, I love it, except – the retracting lens cover is so close to the lens that the slightest pressure (say, when it’s in your bag, even under multiple layers of padding) causes the lens cover to rub against the lens, causing scratches! I now have several small scratches on the lens which are showing up in more and more photos. Does anyone know if it’s possible to repair lens scratches?

  • Nico says:

    ah Huacachina, what a magical place ! as relaxing as a beach town off-season, hey ?
    I was lucky, my buggy driver was a bit crazy but very talented, and we finished in the dark … woooow !
    Have fun in Cuzco and don’t miss Arequipa !

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