If you can only visit one area in Peru it should be–well, Cusco, obviously. Enjoy the antiquity museums, an amble among Incan ruins, some of the world’s finest food, and if there is time, buy the obligatory fedora and take the bus and train to Machu Picchu.
Your next travel destination, however, should be Ica.
Ica is one of the most wonderfully situated locales in the world. Ica offers wine, witches, sand dunes–which you buggy ride up and sandboard down–and an easy gateway to the Nazca Lines and the marine and evolution wonder-world of the Ballesta Islands. You can enjoy all of this comfortably for about $40 a day.
The outskirts of Ica is wine country. There are dozens of verdant vineyards open free to the public. You can easily while away an afternoon sampling very sweet varietals, snapping idyllic pictures of a farmer’s children stomping grapes, wondering where their feet have been–wishing you had used the spit bucket.
Visit witches and goblins.
If you are interested in paranormal superstition, folklore, or enjoy the effervescence of being totally creeped out, visit the friendly witches of Cachiche and enjoy an amble through Witch Park. Have a fun suspension of disbelief as the locals explain the mythology surrounding an acre of sideways growing trees.
The ancestors of Cachiche originally fled Spain for Lima to avoid religious persecution. When Lima also persecuted them they hid in the backcountry of Ica and would kill soldiers who would search the forests where they worshiped and performed rituals. Quickly, stories of cannibalistic trees and goblins spread through the region and the superstitious authorities simply stopped looking for them. They did not publicly advertise their existence again until the 1980s when alternative medicine and practices became a national diversion for the Peruvian wealthy.
Though they are sincere in their shamanism-like beliefs, you should probably not indulge in their common use of San Pedro–a mescaline cactus which causes psychedelic experiences.
If palm readers, tales of ghoulies, and possibly the only place better than Vegas to read a Hunter S. Thompson novel, prove insufficiently exciting, Huacachina is a five minute taxi ride away.
There you can do this:
Huacachina, a desert oasis village surrounded by two-thousand foot sand dunes, is one of the most agreeable and adrenaline inducing places in the world!
For about $10, a Thyroid-chewing maniac, riddled with mescaline and a nervously confident belief in a better afterlife, will speed you up and down sand dunes at clunky and slippery 89 degree angles deep into the nothingness of desert. Once there, he will remove you and a modified surfboard from the buggy, hand you a candle, offer vital safety tips in an indigenous dialect impenetrable by even the most advanced foreign language comprehension, get back into his buggy, and drive away into the distant horizon.
An uncomfortable moment passes.
Luckily, you have gone on this adventure with a half dozen other visitors, and though none of you speak the same language, through a life or death game of charades, you gradually understand that you are to wax the modified surfboard with the candle, place it on the ground, and promptly attempt suicide by sandboarding down a thousand foot-sand dune.
After receiving emergency medical care, you are then to limp a half mile in knee-deep sand at which point you will come to a two-thousand foot cliff of sand. Prostrating yourself on your belly, you sandboard yourself down the cliff at approximately three times the speed of sound. You make it to the bottom a solid two seconds before your screams arrive. You do this several more times.
After the final plunge you then walk up a mountain where, if he didn’t wreck and die on his way there, the buggy driver will be patiently waiting, eating a cactus, inhaling two cigarettes at once, and drinking a fifth energy drink.
It is the most unapologetically reckless fun possible.
On your return to the village, there is a quick stop where everyone takes pictures of each other with the entirety of Huacachina below. Then the sun sets.
Huacachina is where your hotel should be. Options range from $5 a night flophouses to $30 for downright luxury.
I stayed at Hotel Curasi for less than $20 and got a huge comfortable bed in a large and immaculately clean room with air conditioning (its a desert remember), a hot shower, and for bedtime, a satellite television with English channels. The hotel also comes with a restaurant, an ice-cream shop, a Tiki bar, and a refreshing swimming pool with shaded Chaise lounges. The honest family-management can get you any tour and even arrange your transportation back to Lima.
The view from my room was reminiscent of a National Geographic cover.
It is why I travel.
Huacachina has two roads, two shops, one (broken) ATM, an internet cafe with three computers, a colonial public library with one handsome room, a handful of tourist kiosks, a bricked-up public restroom, and a population of about 120. It has at least 20 hotels, restaurants, and bars.
That’s a ratio of six residents per bar. Since the most distant hotel from the most distant bar is a three minute walk around an oasis-lake promenade, getting lost is a chore. Since there are no cars, unless you plan on hotwiring a dune buggy, DUI is not a possibility. The most expensive cocktail is $3 and potent enough to appear in a Ron White standup. The relaxed locals don’t take advantage of inebriants and if a tourist rips you off, there is no where to run and the village custodian will bring you back your stuff.
It is, in essence, an Alcoholic fantasyland.
It is also the location of the only real nightlife in the region and the tour operators, for ludicrously small sums of money, will transport you to any of the region’s attractions. A witch and wine tour will set you back about $8. You can even use Huacachina as a base for a flight over the Nazca Lines ($100, includes the plane ticket). For $15, I instead opted for Paracas and the Ballesta Islands.
Its a hard 5AM wake up for a caravan drive through desert, vineyards, jungle, and ultimately, the sea. Paracas is home to a vast national park and bird sanctuary, and its pleasant tourist-shop laden port offers speedboat tours of one the great zoological oddities of the world–the Ballesta Islands.
Each part of the Ballesta Islands experience is fueled with high-octane awesomeness.
First, you are in speedboat zooming through choppy waters and getting soaked as powerful engines whir and wine to announce our arrival to the local habitats. Every few minutes flocks of thousands of pelicans darken the sky, drown out the audio-world with their squawks, and occasionally, poop all over you.
The vast strait isolating the Ballesta and its Galapagos-like genetic grab bag of evolution-confusion flora and fauna is a cornucopia of marine life brimming with exotic fish, sharks, whales, and dolphins. Even on a bad day you’ll probably luck upon a dolphin or an Orca abruptly greeting you by jumping from under the perfect aquamarine surf.
For a ton of outstanding reasons the Peruvian government does not allow tourists to step onto the islands and habitats, but even staying the required safe distance affords a view and orchestra performance of seals, sea lions, penguins, Peruvian Boobies, Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and Guanay Comorants.
While you may need to know what you are doing to find some of the particularly rare bird species, there are tens of thousands of seals and penguins bobbing around. In fact, the best way to find the rarer species is to try to find a square inch of land that is not being fought over by a seal or penguin.
Admittedly, there is an odor problem.
When I visited I was fortunate enough to arrive during the Ica Wine Festival. Although I was warned from going by locals who said that the Festival was rife with crime, I took special precautions, went anyway, and quickly observed that it was not true. I was prepared for a sort of Endtimes-death maneuvers situation, what I found instead was families having fun on carnival rides, politicians making grand speeches, dozens of vendors offering free samples of pisco (the local hooch) and wine, and several pigs slowly crisping on spits.
It was what you find in an American county fair with one eminently agreeable difference. Instead of pigs, cows, and horses on display this fair brandished condors, pumas, parrots, and even a pair of near extinct Andean Titi monkeys.
The straight from the spit pork was exactly as good as you would assume and the bottle of Pisco I bought at the fair ($10 for the best of the best) did not survive the night as it was shared with Hungarian revelers back at the hotel.
There is one place in Ica you should not go and that is Ica itself. There is one antiquity museum worth a look, but besides that it has nothing to offer visitors but the odd restaurant or dingy hotel. An Earthquake devastated Ica in 2007 and the city proper never recovered. It is said that it is the only city in Peru without a Cathedral adorned square. It is busy, it is crowded, you shouldn’t go there unless you have an excellent reason. When you catch a wine tour it will pause briefly amongst the hustle and bustle so you will be confident that you don’t want to go there alone.
Four days based in Huacachina is sufficient to allow for an aerial visit of the Nazca Lines, a speedboat trip to the Ballesta Islands, winery tours, spooky stories, sand dune racing, and many excellent meals and inebriations with at least one afternoon left for lounging by the pool, staring into the desert, and relishing your Indiana Jones moment.
Consider making a week out of it by adding three days in Lima, one of the great world capitals in its own right.
But, yes, visit Machu Picchu first.
Fly to Lima and take a taxi to the Cruz Del Sur bus station ($30, 1 1/2 hours). Ica is a comfortable four hour, $8, bus ride from Lima. By American standards its a luxury coach and you will be able to watch movies with English subtitles the whole journey. From the Ica bus station, take a taxi to Huacachina. It will cost $2. Finding a hotel takes seconds, but ask to see the room first and do compare as quality varies wildly. Don’t even consider booking ahead. Very cheap tour operators on the outer ring of the village will provide quality transportation and tours to wherever you want to go. Buggy rides can be arranged anywhere with anyone and leave at dawn and dusk. Most of your meals will also be in Huacachina and basically everywhere does it great. $4 gets you a steak bigger than your face, five pounds of garlic potatoes to ward off the vampires of Cachiche, rice, and a drink to recuperate from any near-death experiences. There is also the obligatory pub which offers pizzas and chicken-tender plates so generous in portion that the table might break beneath its weight.