April 20 – 30, 2003
Overnight Bus to Nazca
I immediately regretted my decision to spend my night on a second-class bus just to save a few bucks. There was no overhead storage for luggage, so I had to cramp my backpack in front of me. For the rest of the night, I had to sit with my legs folded. The guy next to me fell asleep even before the bus started to move. He had a revolting smell that was only possible from a deep dislike for shower. I could only manage to crack open a tiny gap of the window, and I stuck my nose as deep into the open gap as possible.
I became disillusioned from the awful smell and my tiring sitting pose. Every ounce of my energy was spent on keeping me sane through the ride. Time and distance became some abstract concepts that were extended to the infinity. All I could see was darkness at the other side of the window.
But no matter how bad it got, this too would pass. When the sun finally rose up from the horizon, my whole spirit was lifted up. The end was in sight. Before long the bus arrived in Nazca at six o’clock and I was released from this dreadful experience.
Flying over the Nazca Lines
A dozen or so men eagerly approached me the moment I got off the bus. They were touts from the numerous tour agencies across town, and they had no other targets but me as I was the only traveller insight. I turned and headed for the other direction, and walked until only a single tout was following me. Exhausted from the lack of sleep, I still managed to bargain hard with him before agreeing to a price similar to what my guide book suggested.
He drove me to where he worked, a basic B&B style operation with a large garden and a room that served as the tour agency office. There was a TV playing a video of the Nazca Lines in a loop. No other customer could be spotted. The tout told me to have a seat and then he was gone. I didn’t find my situation to be very assuring, but I figured I could at least take a nap here. Half an hour later and just before I dozed off, he returned and asked me for the payment. After we finished the paperwork, he drove me to an airstrip, where I boarded a five-seat propeller plane with three others (I vaguely remember they were Germans).
Since the Nazca Lines are geoglyphs over the Nazca Desert, the most logical way to view them is from the air. The engine of our tiny plane emitted a deafening noise, and in no time we were in the air. The famous figures were soon visible – the hummingbird, the spider, the monkey, the llama, the lizard and the astronaut. Our pilot rotated the plane at 45 degrees continuous to ensure passengers from both sides could see each of the major figure. After one too many tight turns, I grabbed the paper bag near my seat and puked into it.
I didn’t find flying over the Nazca Lines to be very enjoyable, and that’s not because I ended up puking inflight. Taking a two seconds glance at each of the figure before moving on to the next one, over a dirty window and in a constant side to side swing, was quite stupid. A slower moving object, like a hot air balloon, might be more suitable for a site like the Nazca Lines.
My tour included a visit to the nearby Chauchilla Cemetery. Our group was merged with many other groups into a forty people unit. The cemetery was discovered in the 1920s, but had not been used since the 9th century AD. Prior to 1997, there were human bones scattered around the site because of extensively looting over the years, but the cemetery was since then better protected and the bones were restored to the tombs. I knew rationally the site was better off in its protected and restored state, but it would be insanely fun if the bones were all over the place like in the past.
The mummies at Chauchilla Cemetery were in remarkable conditions. Unlike the Egyptian mummies, these bodies were directly exposed under the hot and dry climate of the desert. Many bodies had skin and hair remained on their skulls and were dressed in embroidered cotton clothes.
The two-hour tour of Chauchilla Cemetery was unexpectedly more interesting than flying over the Nazca Lines. Everyone else was wearing short sleeves in the desert heat, but I still had on me the thick pullover I wore to Colca Canyon. I didn’t care at this point if I looked like an idiot.
Everyone returned to Nazca town centre on several vans, and I was on my own again. I had starved for so long, I wasn’t even hungry anymore. My mind told me I still had to eat, so I walked around the dusty and charmless town to search for food. Almost everything was closed on Sunday, but at last I found a small place where a few locals were eating. I somehow ordered a dish of deep fried chicken with rice.
There was really no reason to continue to linger in Nazca. My next stop was Ica, a two-hour bus ride to the north. I met a middle couple from New Zealand on a main avenue, and we decided to share a hired car to Ica to save some time. The search for a ride took longer than expected, but we were finally on our way at 5:00pm.
The Kiwis were on a two month-long trip around South America. After finding out I was from Vancouver, the lady told me she also grew up in Vancouver before moving with her husband to New Zealand. She asked me to call her son, who stayed behind in Vancouver, and to tell him the couple was doing fine on their trip.
The car had a malfunctioned door on the driver’s side, and every so often the driver had to stop and close it. We still got to Ica under two hours, and we each went our way at the bus terminal – they were heading to Lima, and I planned to chill out at Huacachina, the nearby oasis, for two days.
I flagged down a mototaxis (a kind of rickshaw taxi) amid of the chaos outside of the terminal. The ride was expensive ($2 USD). We slowly left the Ica’s heavy traffic and turned to a quiet country road. Soon I saw a tall sand dune and a guy was sandboarding his way down in the dark.
I was dropped off at the first intersection in Huacachina. The whole town was quiet and dark. I walked towards the oasis and checked for accommodation along the way. Having a good sleep was a priority, so I skipped the two hostels with music blasting out from the front door. At the edge of the town was Hosteria Suiza, although being more expensive than I had preferred offered a quiet setting that I decided was worth the cost.
Three days without taking a shower was quite an unpleasant feeling and that’s my number one priority. Unfortunately the expensive room apparently didn’t come with a functional washroom as either the pipes or the showerhead was clogged by sand, but no matter how long it took nothing could stop me from taking a shower.
It had been a long day. I declared I needed a break from my trip and sat down at one of the hostel’s bar and threw down some Pisco Sour (A South American cocktail with a liquor called pisco. Despite sharing the same name as the town Pisco, this liquor is distilled from grapes in the Ica region).
My break continued. I didn’t even bother with sandboarding. I just wanted to sleep, read, record my journey, and drink more Pisco Sour at night.
Sandboarding in Huacachina
It was hard to believe, but I woke up to the fact that I would be leaving Peru tomorrow night. And I still needed to cover a distance of more than 300 km. It was already eleven in the morning, so I had to quickly get moving.
I checked out of my room, but there was one more thing to do in Huacachina – sandboarding. Despite reading online and in my guide book how totally awesome sandboarding was supposed to be, I thought it was quite a retarded thing to do. Still, I had to at least try once.
The biggest problem was I chose to attempt ascending a steep slope of sand under the midday sun instead of doing so yesterday in the late afternoon. It wouldn’t be enjoyable just to walk under in this heat, let alone to do something I wasn’t enthusiastic about to begin with. I took a single run, which was a grind because unlike snow, there was plenty of friction between the board and the sand. It took me longer to push my way down than to climb up the sand dune. I guessed with more practice sandboarding could be fun, but I would stick with skiing and snowboarding for the rest of my life.
After I got off the slope, I dragged the board back to Hosteria Suiza and lied down on a bench near the side entrance. I felt dizzy and my heart was beating rapidly, signs that I was having a heat stroke. I wanted to drink some water, but I couldn’t muster up the strength to get up. I recovered after lying down for half an hour.
I returned the board, then I grabbed my backpack and set out for Ica. The owner’s wife was about to go to Ica as well, so she gave me a ride to town. Without even scrolling around the oasis once, I had left Huacachina.
Back in Ica, another long bus ride awaited me. Another foreign town appeared in front of me at the end of the ride.
Compared to Nazca, Pisco was similar in size, a little cleaner and equally drab. I had planned to stay at Posada Hispana Hotel, but the place was full, a first in this trip. The girl at the front desk suggested me to come over for dinner and drinks, but first I had to find another place to stay.
I found a $10 USD place that looked like a dump several blocks away. Across from my lodging was an internet cafe, and I spent the rest of the afternoon online as there wasn’t anything to do in Pisco.
I went back to Posada Hispana Hotel and signed up for a tour to Islas Ballestas for tomorrow. I ordered something to eat, then spent the rest of the night chatting away with the girl I talked to earlier and a couple from the Netherlands.
Most people visit Pisco for the Islas Ballestas, a group of small islands has been coined by some as the Galapagos of Peru. The hundreds of thousands of birds that roost on these islands, including Guanay Cormorants, boobies and pelicans, are particularly notable because the guano (excrement) of these birds has great value as fertilizer, and many Peruvians are hired in the winter to scrap these excrement off the rock of the islands for export. Thus the Islas Ballestas can also boast the claim of being covered by the most expensive feces in the world.
A van arrived to pick up the group members from several different hotels and dropped all of us at a pier. There was a guy from Hong Kong in the group who was also flying out of Peru tonight, so we agreed to take the bus to Lima together after the tour.
We waited quite awhile for the tour guide to finish whatever he was doing. The two boats were ready at ten, and we set sailed under a cloudy sky, a first since the early morning in Machu Picchu.
Shortly after leaving the pier, on our left on the Paracas Peninsula, a large cactus-like geoglyph called El Candelabro was carved on a hill slope. The origin of the figure remains a mystery, although there is suggestion that the figure is less than a century old and is created as a tourist attraction.
We could hear the high pitch moaning sound of the seals on the Islas Ballestas as our boats closed in on the islands. We stayed on our boats because visitors were not allowed to land on these islands. I was amazed by the number of sea lions gathered around these tiny islands – there were at least a couple of dozens of them. Of course there were also hundreds of Guanay Cormorants and several pelicans. Much of the rock of the islands were covered by the birds’ white coloured guano. Last but not lest, I also saw a few Humboldt Penguins. The sound from all these animals was tremendous, like an orchestra of very high pitch noises.
Reserva Nacional de Paracas
After everyone got back on land, we continued the second part of our tour on a 4WD bus to Reserva Nacional de Paracas, a peninsula that has a desert landscape. The bumpy dirt roads added to our discomfort from poor ventilation on the bus because our guide forbade us to open any of the window in fear of the desert sand getting inside the vehicle.
We made two stops – the first one at a viewing tower to observe a flock of flamingos crowded at a shoreline. Even with a pair of very cheap plastic binoculars provided by the tour, the flamingos were hardly visible. I guessed whoever built the tower didn’t want to disrupt the habitat of the birds, but being so far away really served no purpose at all. For all I could tell, I was merely looking at pink dots on a beach.
We also stopped at La Catedral, a giant rock formation along the coast, and the beautiful stretch of seashore beside it.
The tour ended at 4:00 pm. Everyone was dropped off at Pisco’s main square. My new buddy and I went to the bus station and bought the bus ticket to Lima. We agreed to meet up an hour later, then we headed back to our respective lodgings to grab our backpacks.
That’s it. I had to hurry up so I wouldn’t miss the bus to Lima.
My trip to Peru was almost five years ago, but I can still recall every tiny detail during the trip. Since then, I have always had the urge to backpack by myself to some far out destinations like Guatemala or the Middle East, but never have the time or will to carry the plan out. I really wish I can do something similar within the next few years.
Regrets about the trip? Obviously it was a shame I didn’t own a digital camera back then. Itinerary wise I should have skipped the first few days of the summer semester and made the trip to last for at least two weeks. With the additional time I could either do the Inca Trail or take the train to Puno and Lake Titicaca. I also think I should have interacted with the locals more.
I have learned much from this experience. While Machu Picchu was everything I had expected, the real highlight of my trip was traveling through the Sacred Valley. I have learned to plan a trip for the major attractions, but leave enough time for the unexpected. What I seek from traveling is not the generic postcard view that everyone aims for, but something uniquely personal like breathing the air or walking the land of this faraway land. That doesn’t mean I will purposefully skip the attractions, but I have recognized these iconic sites are not the only reason why I fly across the world for.
I have learned my own traveling pace. I understand I will never be someone who will leave home for a year and backpack around South America. As my trips will never be several months long, I need to learn what I want to experience in a limited time frame in a foreign land.