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.

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