July 02, 2004

Following the footsteps of Von Daniken

I stayed in Lima all of a night and a morning - just long enough to head down to the South American Explorer's Clubhouse and pick up a travel guide to Argentina. Yes, Argentina! Looks like I'll be spending about 2 weeks in the northwestern part of it to finish off my trip. Frank's flying in to Santiago and heading that way at the end of July.

The road around the Lima area is nothing short of bizarre. The region is desert, nothing but sand interrupted by the occasional rock, roadside shop or rusted skeleton of a car. The sand begins right at the ocean and immediately rises up at what must be the steepest angle sand can possibly rise up at before reaching the highway, which somehow manages to defy physics and stick to the precarious surface beneath it. It looks as though a bit of a wind would just blow all the sand out from under the road, leaving it free to plunge into the waves below. The sand slope, hundreds of metres long and sloped at what must be a perfectly straight angle of about 40 degrees, give or take, funnels whatever happens to be so unfortunate as to land on it right down to the beach - garbage, random debris, and even the odd and unfortunate car. Adding to the mystique, at this time of year a thick coastal fog envelops the area at all hours of every day. Sand hills and oncoming cars fade in and out of view, and often there's nothing but grey. Overall it's downright spooky.

Three hours of this southwards took me to Pisco, where I stopped to visit the Islas Ballestas. Hazy memories of grade 6 geography still manage to associate Peru with anchovies and guano, and here I find the guano. I don't think I've ever seen so many birds in my entire life put together, never mind in one place at one time. Squadrons of them arc across the sky in every direction, looking like a bad Jetsons rush hour. The noise - and the smell - are overwhelming.

The guano is still a lucrative business but is only harvested every 7 years. In the meantime, the birds are left alone while the guano deepens. To protect against theives, two guards live on the islands full-time. This prompts two questions: First of all, is there a worse job in the world than living on a deserted island and guarding a big smelly pile of shit? And second, what could possibly possess an aspiring thief to conclude that the best path to riches would be to buy a boat and fill it with shit before making a stealthy and odorifirous getaway, instead of, say, stealing diamonds or robbing banks? Or, for that matter, picking off innocent and unsuspecting camera-waving tourists, all gazing blankly at the sky while crammed into small and easily-commandeerable boats?

I turned inland from Pisco and gained just enough elevation to rise above above the coastal mists, emerging from the haze in the desert town of Ica. You could have told me it was the Sahara and I hardly would have known different. To the west, dunes hundreds of metres high dominate the horizon. I stayed in the oasis town of Huacachina, 4 kilometres to the west and right amongst the dunes. The town is nothing more than a small circle of hotels, restaurants and palm trees surrounding the apparently man-made lagoon. The area wasn't entirely unfamiliar - the image of the oasis also appears on the back Peru's 50-Soles bill, which I take a close look at on a daily basis to check for counterfeit banknotes. I hiked up to the top of the highest dune in sight, which was harder to do than you can possibly imagine, and was treated to a view of endless dunes stretching towards the setting sun. Quite the sight.

Huacachina, definitely smack in the middle of the backpacker trail, is famous for desert dune buggy rides and sandboarding, and I definitely gave both a shot. The dune buggy tour was a blast. The contraption holds around 15 people, and whenever we crested a dune, the driver just punched the throttle on the downslope. In Canada or the US, you'd have to sign a waiver, strap down your 5 seatbelts, wear your safety glasses and sign away your children's souls to ride one of those. In Peru you just have to hold onto the seat in front of you until your knuckles turn white.

The ride came with a free sandboarding lesson and a few runs down some big dunes, so soon we pulled to a stop on top of a nice untouched slope of sand. The lesson was over quickly - it consisted of a guy yelling "¡Vamos!". Lesson complete, I pointed 'er downhill.

Sandboarding is a lot like taking a beach and pouring it into your eye. Take snowboarding, make the snow abrasive, take away all semblance of control, and there you have it. There seems to be no such thing as being able to turn - you just point downhill, take a deep breath and go, and hopefully the dune ends before you take a spill.

Four more hours south and my found myself in Nasca, home of UFO landing strips, messages to higher forms of intelligence and communications with the gods - also known as the Nasca lines. I caught a ride in the back of a 6-seater Cessna, and we took an acrobatic and stomach-turning tour over the bleak expanse. So far, this has been one of the highlights of the trip - the lines are quite the sight. Laser-straight rays and animal figures cover hundreds of square kilometres. If there was one negative, it was that the sheer emptiness of the plains cause you to lose your sense of perspective, making it difficult to tell how big the shapes actually are. Some of the animal figures are as long as 300 metres, but you wouldn't know it from the air. If there was a second negative, it would be the poor girl beside me who became separated from her breakfast.

In the area, I also visited a restored Nasca cemetary (the Nasca are a pre-Inca people of the area) and an ancient Nasca aquaduct. The aquaduct was actually also quite a highlight - it was constructed 1700 years ago and still brings water across the bone-dry desert to the farmers and the city. There are a series of 29 of them, built as deep as 12 metres below the desert, all still functional due to their good design and their maintenance by generations of farmers.

Early this morning I arrived in Arequipa, Peru's second-biggest city. Today it rained, so today I write.

Posted by major at July 2, 2004 01:23 PM

just wait until you bus in northern chile (or maybe norhtern argentina too). Nothing but desert for much longer than around Lima, about 12 hours worth or more

Posted by: benf at July 3, 2004 08:33 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?