Just a few hours south of Peru’s capital Lima, along the pan-American highway, is the Ica province. It has to be said that at first glance this area looks a bit dusty and barren, especially as you drive along a ragged coast dotted with chicken farms and sandy hills covered with small shacks marking out claims to land. But this is an area of natural and archaeological significance, with the added bonus of being where the Islas Ballestras are and potent alcoholic drink called pisco is made!
Reached from the small towns of Pisco or Paracas in the Pisco province, and often referred to as “the poor man’s Galapagos”, these uninhabited islands and the ocean around them are one of Peru’s natural reserves. They are compared to the Galapagos in Ecuador due to the rich and diverse population of animals that can be found there. These animals gather here due to the unique environment created by the cold but nutrient rich Humbolt current.
Now, we have actually been to The Galapagos and the answer is that it doesn’t compare, but we did see some huge populations of sea lions and guanay guano birds which were very impressive. The noise of the barking and honking seals and their young was almost deafening!
We also saw pelicans, Peruvian boobies, red-legged cormorants, Inca terns and one solitary Humboldt penguin.
These islands are also of historical significance due to the role they played in the guano industry. Guano (or Peruvian gold due to the high price that it used to fetch) is basically the accumulated poo of the birds who nest there and it’s actually an amazing natural fertiliser due to its high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. The Incas knew and exploited this more than 1,500 years ago and during the 19th century there was a wholesale scuffle between the US, Peru and various other interests for control of this lucrative trade – that is until it was overtaken first by saltpeter and secondly by industrial fertilisers.
Most of the metres deep built up guano has now been removed, so current harvests rely upon the existing population of birds. This is great news for the birds and the marine life as it means that there is a vested interest in their conservation, especially as guano is still desirable in organic farming.
Paracas National Park
On the boat ride to the Islas you will pass the Paracas Caldelabra, a geoglyph attributed to the ancient Paracas culture that resembled a candelabra or a tree. Carved deep into the rock, the glyph can be seen from many miles out in the ocean on its rusty pink rock face. Check out this post for some more information on this geoglyph and other archaeological finds on the coast of Peru.
Often combined with a sailing to the islas is a visit to the Paracas National Park where there is a museum on the pre-Colombian Paracas culture (including deformed conical skulls and trepanned skulls) and an epically alien red sand beach.
The Pisco province of Peru is famous for, er, you guessed it, pisco! Pisco is a brandy made from grapes and is often used as a base liquor for cocktails such as the famous Pisco Sour, although if you are macho enough you can drink it straight.
We visited a small family run pisco factory called Bodega Tres Esquinas where we received a tour of the pisco making process and a tasting of (several!) piscos and other artisanal products like jam. We were surprised at how different the temperature got as we went inland from the coast, it really was sweltering, and getting tipsy on pisco didn’t help!
Huacachina oasis is just that, a lagoon rimmed with palm trees and greenery, overshadowed by towering sand dunes. It’s quite a touristy place, with many people visiting to bathe in its allegedly magical/healing waters (unfortunately full of rubbish). The main attraction for tourists however is dune buggying or sand boarding. We chickened out so didn’t really get the chance to go up onto the sand dunes (and climbing them on foot is seriously hard!). We still think it’s worth a visit, but wouldn’t advise staying longer than a few hours as part of a wider excursion.
We visited all of the above in one day with a small tour group and our final activity the next morning was to be a flight over the Nazca lines, which we wrote about separately here.
So, an excursion to the Ica province in Peru is well worth the trip, due to the variety of its attractions. We are probably always saying this, but Peru is so, so much more than Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Of course that can’t be missed, but if you just give other areas half the chance, we guarantee that they will knock your socks off!