30th September-4th October 2018
After my week spent exploring ruins in the north I was forced to return to Lima to see a dentist because one of my fillings had fallen out. I initially tried to get it sorted in Huanchaco, but I didn’t do my research and ended up with a dodgy dentist who did a really bad job. The experience was almost a parody and there were several warning signs which should have sent me running. First, I was told to meet him at a dimly-lit street in Huacachina at night – that should have been the first giveaway. He greeted me by getting out of a car, and there was someone else inside of it whose face I never saw and who just sat there throughout the whole procedure – which was rather ominous. The ‘dentist’ escorted me into a house, where a family was currently eating dinner and through to a ‘clinic’ at the back, which was just some dingy room. The equipment looked passable, but a little old. He did wear gloves and apply all the correct cleaning agents, but he kept texting someone on his phone between drilling at my tooth, which wasn’t very hygienic. By the time I realised he was not fit for purpose it was already too late – he had drilled further into my tooth and I needed him to fill it so that the nerves were at least covered till I could get a proper job done. I suspect that the ‘filling’ was done with bad ceramic as it was coarse and he didn’t bother to shape it out properly. It fell out a couple of days later.
I was told by a friend to go to Lima where the dentists are more professional, and I was passing through there any way on my way to the south, so it just meant spending an extra night. The lady recommended to me was very meticulous and did a great job.
So, lesson learned. Always do some research if you need to get dental work done in Peru as some of the smaller, older clinics – especially in the more rural areas – can be a little sketchy.
The following morning I was back on the road again on a bus heading south, to one of the driest deserts in the world. Throughout the next few days, I would be passing through one of Peru’s busiest tourist trails and visiting places mostly frequented by those on a short holiday. I noticed the difference in the atmosphere immediately. There were not as many local restaurants, instead lots of pizzerias and steakhouses. Streets were lined with travel agencies selling tours at laughably inflated prices. The people were different too. The locals were pushier, and the tourists a different demographic. One thing I have noticed in South America is that whenever I go off the beaten track and do something a little adventurous most of my companions are German, French, and other backpackers from the mainland of the European continent. As a Brit, I am a minority. But, as soon as enter the tourist trail, I suddenly find myself swarmed with other Brits (as well as Americans and Aussies). I am not mentioning this in a judgemental way but rather as matter-of-fact, as I do find it interesting that people from different nationalities tend to be more drawn to different places and activities.
My first stop along my route through the desert was Paracas, a seaside town which is a launching point to the nearby Ballestas Islands, known for their birdlife. I was loaded up onto a boat with a dozen or so others and taken to the islands the next morning. As we approached, I was already seeing lots Peruvian boobies soaring through the sky. By the time we actually reached the island, there were so many species it was impossible to register them all. Cormorants, pelicans, Turkey vultures, snowy plovers, and many others, as well as sea lions.
But my attention was mostly drawn to the Humboldt penguins (video here).
It wasn’t just about the wildlife though. There were some interesting rock formations too, and we passed by a mysterious geoglyph whose origins remain unclear to historians.
When the tour was over, I packed my bags and left. There wasn’t really anything else in Paracas which interested me now that I had seen the islands. There were some other lighter attractions, but they were all quite expensive and none of them seemed worth the money nor the time. I felt like I had seen the best of this area and it was time to move on. I got onto a bus heading to Huacachina.
Huacachina is an oasis. I arrived around noon and took some time to wander. The oasis is quite pretty, even if it looks like it is being strangled by the collection of hotels, shops and restaurants competing for space around it.
I wanted to go on a ride in a sand buggy – which seems to be the main activity here – but most of the touts by the side of the water tried to sell me tours heavily-loaded with gringo tax, so I walked away and I climbed one of the nearby sand dunes to admire the view.
On my way down, I happened to get chatting to one of the dune-buggy drivers themselves, and he gave me an offer which was much more reasonable.
The ride through the dunes was thrilling if a little terrifying. The drivers purposefully accelerate across bumpy ridges and plunge down the slopes to make it exciting. They seem to know what they are doing and enjoy their job. I have a video here.
We were also taken sandboarding, of which I have another video.
And then, after another ride through the desert, we were taken to see the sunset.
It was only later on, once I had returned to my hostel, I found out there was a controversy surrounding these trips not too long ago. Apparently, there was an incident where some tourists died and all the dune-buggy rides were halted for a while as the authorities performed an investigation. They have since introduced some regulations to make it safer, but it is something to bear in mind if you are considering taking one of these trips.
I had a good time in Huacachina but, just like Paracas, I found it a little soulless and once I had finished my tour I didn’t feel any need to stay. I moved on the next morning.
In Nazca, I finally found somewhere in this desert I didn’t mind the idea of kicking back and spending some time relaxing as well as sightseeing. Unlike Paracas and Huacachina, it had personality and seemed to have other industries outside of tourism. I wandered around the town that first day and went to the local market to buy some groceries. I was staying at Nanasqa, a new hostel on the outskirts, which had a lovely atmosphere and a great range of tours run by their son, Roy.
They also sort out trips to fly over the Nazca Lines (and unlike most of the other hotels in Nazca they do not rip you off, they give you a reasonable price without any bargaining) which was what I did the next morning.
It is an interesting experience. Not just seeing the lines themselves – of course, seeing one of the world’s greatest enigmas is memorable – but I have never been on a small aircraft before. It was tiny, with only four passenger seats, and it was a rocky journey as the pilot had to pivot to get the best angles for us to see the geoglyphs. I very rarely get motion sickness but even I was glad I had a small breakfast that morning. I have taken a series of videos which can be viewed on these links (The Monkey, The Hummingbird, The Condor and The SpiderThe Condor and The Spider, and The Tree, The Hands and The Lizard).
Later that afternoon, I and some of the other guests at Nanasqa were loaded up into a van and taken to see some of Nazca’s lesser-known sites.
First up was Chauchilla Cemetary, which is the only place in South America one can glimpse ancient mummies still within their original graves.
People of the Nazca civilisation were buried in the foetal position, facing towards the sunrise and surrounded by many of their possession. Some of the pottery found with them by the archaeologists even contained food. All of these factors suggest that the Nazca people believed in reincarnation. Curiously, most of them have very long dreadlocks. Historians surmise that the only time in their adult life they were permitted to cut their hair was if they got remarried after being widowed.
Much of this site was actually trashed by graverobbers, who took many of the artefacts and left the skeletons behind. Archaeologists have done their best to repair the damage but, even now, the future of this site’s preservation seems questionable as everything is exposed. Let’s hope they come up with a more long-term plan one day. I think this is one of those occasions where more tourism might actually help, as paying visitors give the Peruvian government more incentive to ensure its longevity.
Next, we were taken to Cahuachi which was the former capital of the Nazca civilisation. Excavations have revealed a series of chambers and pyramids, and it is believed that this place was mostly populated by intellectuals, artisans and priests during a time when the distinction between science and religion was blurred, and its people were the masterminds behind the geoglyphs and Nazca’s aqueduct system. Just like the Moche and Chimú peoples (whose relics I visited last week), the Nazca civilisation was at the mercy of the El Niño phenomenon, and it led to their demise.
Roy brought out a bottle of locally-made pisco for us to try and we took a little break to drink some before we moved on to our final attraction; Cantalloc.
Cantalloc is part of Nazca’s aqueduct system, which is the secret as to how they managed to exist in one of the driest deserts in the world. It very rarely rains here but once in a year water flows from the Andes through a series of rivers, and the Nazca people found an ingenious way to stem its flow so that they could use it to irrigate their land all year round. It has – unlike many over vestiges of their civilisation – withstood multiple earthquakes because they discovered a technique of using curved stones and still remains functional today which is very impressive.
To finish off my time in Nazca, I made a visit to the Astronomical Observatory, which had a slightly blurry but informative presentation about the geoglyphs and the many interesting theories as to why they were created. The resident astronomer was very enthusiastic and took us outside to show us some of the constellations. We also got to peer into his telescope when he showed us Mars, Saturn’s rings, and Titan.