Pisco (the place), Nazca, Arequipa

5 September – ballestas islands and the desert

A relatively early start after a good night sleep and hot shower involved heading to the port in Paracas to do a boat tour of the ballestas islands and it’s avian inhabitants (pelicans, booby birds, vultures and penguins) during reproductive season which is now, as well as the sea lions! For the pelicans:

  • Yellow head means reproduction
  • White means not reproduction
  • Grey heads means juvenile 

Wingspan can be more than 2 metres making it one of the largest birds here

Whilst we were making our way by boat to the islands we were joined by a couple of curious sea lions and surrounded by what I think were the cormorants which flew alongside us at a similar speed (up to 30mph) and every now and then you saw one dive into the water head first to grab some food. 

We were also shown a curious formation known as the candelabra which is 140m long facing north. It is a bit of a mystery as nobody knows who when or why it was made, there are a few theories on the matter. 

1. Native Peruvians trying to represent the holy plant cactus 500 years old

2. Or made by pirates around 400 years ago to meet here to attack the pisco port

3. Liberty expedition soldiers, leader was a free mason and argument was it was given to the soldiers the wrong way up but it’s kind of similar to free mason

4. Aliens!

There are old reports of it being a metre deep but now it is disappearing as it fills with sand and now only about a foot deep, but as seems to be a theme here there is limited money for such maintenance so it may disappear. 

200-300 workers come to these islands every 12 years to harvest the guano produced by all the birds which makes for good fertiliser and was Perus biggest export for a lot of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

…If you are looking up to the sky, please please please keep your mouth shut…

A nursing sea lion pup fell in and we saw it’s mum jump in after it and lead it out! 

Next we went to a tradicional pisco factory and learned how the famous drink was made. The name comes from an old Quechua word meaning beak as the ceramic pots they make it in resemble beak in shape. It’s made from grapes, effectively distilled wine and the place we went to made both. As a result of the warm climate I understand the wine they make is always relatively sweet and you have to go to chile to get the real dry ones where it’s colder. 

Our guide for the factory, Lucia, brought round after round of various products of the factory including some choice names such as “panty-dropper” and “baby-maker”. Lucia cast a look to Ricardo when checking the size of the measures to which he responded emphatically:

Más, más, emborrachalos (more, more, get them drunk!)

We also got lots of practice with some toasts:


A bajo

Al centro 

A dentro

(Up, down, centre, inside!)

Crema bendita

Divino tormento 

Que haces afuera 

Vente para dentro!

(Holy cream, divine storm, what are you doing outside, come inside!)

After merrily having lunch by the Huacachina Oasis we headed out to the desert for some thrilling dune buggy rides as well as my first go at sand boarding. The sand boards didn’t really work for standing up like a snowboard but instead it was all about getting dropped off at the top of massive dune and lying on your belly and bombing straight down. 

We did this for a while interspersed with the occasional drink and updates for Peru’s game today from some very excitable locals. 2-1 up but down to ten men, with 15 minutes to go…! Nail biting stuff as the minutes clicked down impossibly slowly. 

Están comiendo…. (literally: they are eating their underwear, but meaning something like they are on the edge of their seats)

Sufre Perú! (Hold on Perú!) 

Acabó! (It’s finished!)

One of the guys (Chuti) gave us some more drink from his personal supply as we celebrated the victory. I don’t want to speculate on exactly what it was, but can comfortably say that it was more potent than even the 42% liquor from earlier in the day. 
 We headed back to the oasis to pick up our overnight stuff and then again into the desert as night fell and eventually reached camp where two of the locals Chuti and Hugo started setting up the tents and BBQ. 

Me: podemos ayudar? (How can we help)

Chuti: Toma! (Drink!)

Roger that!

They had made what I think was a really nice chilcano basically pisco, lemonade and lots of lime juice with crushed ice. So we had sipped on a couple of these whilst working up an appetite staring at the flames licking at the impressive array of kebabs, chicken pieces, chorizo and potatoes on the grill. Hugo applied a new secret basting he’d apparently been working on and we were ready to eat. 

It was amazing, I ate so much. We passed the rest of the night with music (the odd shape being thrown here and there, sadly Melvyn the Maltese guy’s twerk didn’t make another appearance this time), stargazing, chatting and managed to get some more Spanish in which I’d been missing a bit since leaving Karina in Lima… before turning in. Benefit of being a lone traveller here, my own tent and the best night sleep camping I have ever had! (I avoid tents like the plague and had been dreading it a bit, but it was alright in the end). 

6 September – Nazca lines and Chauchilla (warning, a bit gruesome)

Surprisingly awake and shockingly hangover free, we had breakfast back at Huacachina and headed onward to see the famous Nazca lines vía another comfortable coach. 

After thinking we hit some pretty huge dunes last night…Sierra blanca here (meaning white mountain) standing 2,089m above sea level is the tallest sand dune in the world. 

There is no water in Nazca, but ancestors 1,500 years built the underground aqueducts that are still used today. Mining copper and gold are the main economic activities as well as tourism. 

Nazca lines: essentially these are a vast array of lines across the desert in Nazca. Some of these resemble shapes whereas others are simply dead straight lines that go for vast distances. They are described as being enigmatic as no one really knows how or why they got there or what they mean. However, when you see them the detail of the figures or the perfect geometry is such that can’t help feel there was some kind of of method to the bizarreness. 

1927 the lines were discovered and it was believed that they were religious. It was hypothesised for example that when short of water people gathered and asked the gods for water and also fertility if the fields, the hummingbird (one of the figures drawn) for example is associated with fertility. 

Maria Reiche (a Germán) studied the lines for over 50 years (!) concluding it is an astronomical calendar and can be used to predict weather of the year. for example there are a couple of lines that point directly to the point of sunset:

– 21st June winter solstice 

– 21st December summer solstice 

I admire her perseverance but do wonder when it’s time to draw the line so to speak and move on to other things in life. 

Another theory that people simply did not have the technology to make the lines and so they were made by aliens. I feel that somewhat less effort went in to coming up with this one. 

Later we went for a look around Chauchilla, a huge ancient burial site around 2.5km long and 0.5km wide where you can look around a few open graves and see the mummified remains of people from over a thousand years ago. Graves face the east as sun god was a main good and believed to give new life. Bodies are all in the foetal position as we enter this world in such a position and so it was believed we should do the same for the after life!

Whilst there are many unearthed graves where the bodies apparently remain in good condition, those that are on display outside have been bleached by the sun on them since the grave robbers (Huakeros) got involved and wreaked havoc around 50 years ago. Burial teams included food and drink and valuable pieces depending on the status of the recently deceased that would in theory accompany them to the next life… and these made for easy pickings once initially uncovered in recent times. 

There is a lot of debris all around the site as the robbers would smash any plain items, favouring the intricate and fine pottery instead. What’s more is you also see a load of shattered bone, as sometimes it was possible to find gold inside the actual bodies themselves. For example, our guide told us about how even now his family, when someone dies, put a gold coin in the mouth to pay the toll to get to the after life… reminiscent of other more classically known mythologies too. 

The grave of a noble lord was recently discovered and it was found that when he died his supporters killed his family and some guards and they decided that he’s an important person and would need all this in the next life, so sucked to be them for sure. 

I didn’t have much of an appetite that night for some reason but had a delicious light dinner before we headed off to catch the overnight coach to Arequipa!

7 September – Arequipa

A chilled day in Arequipa to try and relax a bit after the last two nights of it having a bed. I am so tired that I just feel asleep in 10 minutes but then woke myself up snoring so didn’t actually get much rest!

I went out earlier for a wander and picked up some zampoñas (Peruvian pan pipes) as well as visiting the nearby park and taking a quick look at the famous monastery there. I got back to the hotel and eagerly loaded up YouTube to try and learn the song “el condor pasa” – a very popular and traditional song upon which Simon and garfunkel based one of their songs. Alas, I have clearly bought a “recuerdo (souvenir)” version… 

I went back and met up with Ricardo and the others before we headed out in a group to see some specific sites. This is the place Ricardo grew up and so knew the history as well as any tour guide and animatedly told us the heritage of the city plaza de armas, monasterio de catalina and the iglesia de la compañía. 

It’s know as the white city because of the white volcanic rock used in the buildings here… and there was a time where 80% of the city’s population were Spanish. The architecture is heavily influenced by the Spanish as what happened was kids from the settlers would grow up there then go back to Spain to study architecture and craftsmanship but come back to put their skills to use. It can even be seen on some Catholic Churches some inca figures subtly woven in that clearly have nothing to do with Catholicism when pointed out but remained in the hearts and minds of those newly trained kids. 
I bought myself a dashing “chullo” made from baby alpaca wool (not actual from al paca babies but it’s a different cut) ready for the cold heights of the next day. 

We went and visited the markets which are nothing like I have ever seen. The fruit selection is incredible and I had no idea that what we can get in the UK is laughable when compared to what is actually available in other parts of the world. Ricardo picked up a whole load of various different fruit for us to try at dinner. Chirimoya (tasted like custard apple), granadilla (literally grenade because of its look, but is sort of like an orange passion fruit inside) and membrillo (kind of like a slightly dryer apple with a hint of pineapple) were my favourites… hoping that’s not the last time I’ll have them! 
We had lunch at a traditional place (with palomino in the name) that Ricardo know about from childhood that that the tourists don’t really know about. Recotto relleno (stuffed pepper) was so good, basically a red pepper stuffed with especially tasty chilli con carne topped with a chilli and melted cheese. I also tried some pig trotter amongst a couple of other tradicional things! To drink we had chicha except the fermented alcoholic version this time mixed with dark beer, which went down very easily indeed. 
8 September – colca canyon day 1

We rose fairly early and got a bus from Arequipa towards cocoa canyon which would be the basis of the next two days of the tour. We experienced some breathtaking scenery with volcanoes and snow capped mountains following yesterday’s snow. I saw my first volcano where something was actually happening! Fortunately nothing dangerous. 
Chachani 6000+ metres

Misti – still active volcano, and could potentially wreak havoc with the surrounding area. Our jide happily told us that where our hotel was (14km away) it would take 10 minutes for the pyroclastic flow to get us. 

Picchu picchu – I need to find out what this means as it’s name is shared with the famous one we are seeing later on

We also saw Sabancaya active volcano with ash clouds coming out at the time

The Dormant ones erupted a long time ago and that is the best fertiliser, springs are used to irrigate and because of the perfect conditions they can harvest 3 times a year. 

Shanty towns outside the city of Arequipa, properties are deliberately unfinished so that tax does not need to be paid on completed buildings. However our guide Gina told us that people are not poor though as they have business and sometimes several properties. She is clearly anti this way of life and points out the rubbish that is just thrown out of windows, lack of infrastructure and the point that children are not given educational aspirations here as the parents take the view that they are making money in their way without an education so why is it needed? 
We get pulled over for doing nothing more than being an apparent tour bus and after arguing a bit, the driver hands over 10 soles (about £2.50) and the officer goes away… Gina remarks at the clear corruption. 

A question is asked about the impact tourism has on places like this as well as the reserve we are going to. Obviously there is money coming in, but when tourists hand over money to kids who are on the street selling trinkets of for photos. “Education is free and mandatory here [only to a certain age I believe], but doing this the kids grow up thinking this is a job”

She is also environmentally focused and condemns the people offering tourists the chance to hold a bird for example. “Birds should be flying not taking photos” so shan’t be doing any of that then!

We start ascending quickly and Gina passes us some coca leaves and sweets. There are 14 alkaloids in the leaves and these ones don’t have much of the type that is used in cocaine but they do have the others that help for the sickness and stomach settling. General advice for dealing with altitude sickness 

Comer poquito

Caminar despacito 

Dormir soltero…

(Eat little, walk slowly, sleep alone…)

Al paca jerky or dried potatoes forms the basis of what the mountain folk live off. The potatoes they leave out in the cold and the sun and this dries out the potatoes. Once treated, apparently these potatoes can last 50 years! Then you simply put it in water for some days ahead of cooking. 

Quinoa back in the day never used to get eaten but since the first man on the moon ate a similar food it became popular and is now around 12 times more expensive here so is quite a popular crop. 

The al pacas and llamas are friendly and will just chill by the road throwing you the odd stare and in some cases walking over to you… with the vicuñas proving a bit more elusive. We saw lots of flora and fauna specific to each band of altitude and stopped off for an inca tea which is made with coca leaves and two other plants with healing properties. I also treated myself to a “golpe” bar (literally meaning “hit”) which I reckoned would help later if the coca leaves wore off! I guessed it was like a boost bar. 
We stopped off at Corporaque a small village, population around 4,000 making it the largest of the 14 villages situated in the colca valley. The fields where they grow the crops are stunning and in the terraced format that makes for efficient irrigation. Then after headed to the thermal spas for a dip in the 37-39 degree waters heated from the underground lava flows. 
After a quick stop on the way where a local shopkeeper managed to understand me enough to sort out the next week of my phone coverage (success, I didn’t need to borrow a local’s credit card!) we headed to our hotel and dinner. 

9-11 September – Colca canyon day 2 and back to Arequipa then on to Cusco

We woke up early to watch the condors at the condor cross view point and it is quite amazing how big they really are. They simple don’t have the strength to beat their wings enough to reach the necessary altitude for spotting carrion to eat as they are so large. Instead they glide round in circles gaining height by riding the thermal inclines. The canyon is a great spot for this. 

We then headed for a nice walk along the cliff edge and heard a few stories and conjecture for a few deaths at the canyon in recent history which was also pretty gruesome before heading off for lunch and back to Arequipa. 

The next couple of days were fairly chilled out and involved an incredible ceviche restaurant (I loved a couple of pieces despite hating fish it was that good!) as well as the night coach to Cusco at 3,500m up… another rough nights sleep! We walked around a bit to see the city but will be back here in a few days. I am rushing this a bit now so I can go to bed as we are up at 3 to start the salcantay trek tomorrow and I’ll be without internet for some time… hopefully some of the photos upload properly. Next few days will be tough so wish me luck!

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