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Southern Coast

From vineyards to arid coastal desert, surf beaches to rolling sand dunes, the area south of Lima is wild, contradictory, and fascinating. Jump a bus on the Pan-American Highway, which cuts a black ribbon of concrete south all the way to Chile, and you’ll see mile after mile of nothing but sand, cactus, and wind-torn brush clinging to the stark, rocky earth.

It seems arid and inhospitable, yet keep traveling and you’ll begin to discover the reasons why this region has been home to some of the world’s most amazing ancient civilizations. Lush desert oases hide among the sweeping dunes, fertile river valleys tuck swatches of green into the gray folds of the mountains, and amazing wildlife lounges offshore on rocky islands.

This region was home to the Nazca, a pre-Colombian civilization that created the enigmatic Nazca Lines. The mystery of how, why, and who they were created for is unexplained, although theories range from irrigation systems to launch pads for alien spacecraft.

This is also where the Paracas culture arrived as early as 1300 BC and over the next thousand years established a line of fishing villages that exist today. The Paracas are long gone, and the Inca Empire conquered the region in the 16th century, yet the Paracas left behind some of Peru’s most advanced weavings, ceramics, stone carvings, metal jewelry, and thousands of eerie cemeteries in the desert.

Yet it’s not all ancient civilizations, pottery, and mysterious drawings. With a sunny climate, great wines, and charming fishing villages, this region has been a favorite holiday destination for generations of Limeños anxious to escape the big city. It’s also been a commercial hub. For years during the mid-19th century, the region was the center of Peru’s riches, which took the rather odorous form of guano—bird droppings (found in vast quantities on the islands off the coast of Paracas) that are a rich source of natural fertilizer. Shipped to America and Europe from the deep-water port of Pisco, the trade proved so lucrative that there was even a war over it—the Guano War of 1865–66 in which Spain battled Peru for possession of the nearby Chincha Islands.

Today the region capitalizes on its natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and enigmatic archaeological sites to draw tourists from all parts of the world. When the earthquake struck the coast of Pisco on August 15, 2007, it was a double calamity for the region. Settled above the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, southern Peru is no stranger to earthquakes, and Pisco town has been destroyed several times over the course of its history. Tsunamis, some 7 meters (23 feet) high, often accompany the quakes and can splash in as much as 1 km (½ mile) from the coast. The 2007 quake that leveled much of Pisco and left the fishing industry in tatters due to boat damage also severely affected the region’s tourism. As people struggled in the aftermath to rebuild houses, churches, hospitals, and roads, reduced tourist numbers have further strained the precarious economy.

POINTS OF INTEREST

LUNAHUANÁ

Flanked by arid mountains, the beautiful valley of the Río Cañete cuts a swathe of green inland from Cañete to reach the tiny but charming town of Lunahuaná, nestled against the river. It’s the center for some of Peru’s best white-water rafting. The season is from December to March, when the water is at its highest, creating rapids that can reach up to Class IV. Most of the year, however, the river is suitable for beginners. Rafting companies offering trips line Calle Grau in town.

TAMBO COLORADO

Tambo Colorado is one of Peru’s most underrated archaeological sites. This centuries-old burial site, extremely well-preserved in this bone-dry setting, was discovered beneath the sand dunes by Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello in 1925. Dating back to the 15th century, Tambo Colorado or Pucahuasi in Quechua (Huasi means “resting place,” and puca means “red,” after the color of the stone it was built from), is thought to have been an important Inca administrative center for passing traffic on the road to Cusco. It was also where Inca runners waited to relay messages. With runners waiting at similar stations every 4 or so miles, messages could be passed from one end of the country to the other in just 24 hours.

HUAYTARA

Catch your breath and drive up to this beautiful modern Catholic church built on the foundation of an Inca temple 9,200 feet above sea level.

PUENTE COLGANTE

If you have time, drive up the road past Tambo Colorado to this suspension bridge. The original wooden bridge built in the early-20th century and a newer one installed in 2004 span the riverside by side. If you’re brave, cross the older version.

PISCO

Lending its name to the clear brandy that is Peru’s favorite tipple and a source of fierce national pride, the coastal town of Pisco and its surroundings hold a special place in the national psyche. It’s the point where the Argentinean hero General San Martín landed with his troops to fight for Peru’s freedom from Spanish rule. It’s the city from which pisco was first exported, and it’s also an important seaport that had its heyday during the 1920s when guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer) from the nearby Islas Ballestas was worth nearly as much as gold.

Modern-day Pisco shows little evidence of its celebrated past. Instead, what you’ll find is a city struggling to get back on its feet after the disaster of August 2007, when a magnitude 8 earthquake shook the town for three minutes. Disregard for planning permission, illegal building extensions, and the use of adobe (mud brick) as the main building material had left a vast number of Pisco’s buildings unable to withstand the quake, and hundreds of lives were lost as homes, churches, and hospitals collapsed during the tremor.

PARACAS

After the 2007 quake, Paracas quickly leapfrogged Pisco as the most important tourist hub on the south coast. Several major coastal resorts from big-name chains like Doubletree and Libertador (now part of Starwood) have since opened and others are planned. The small-town feel and cluster of petite inns and restaurants around a central fishing pier are still there, though for the passing tourist the exploring options have quadrupled. Apart from being the launching point for trips in the Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas, this is a good base for pisco tasting or dune-buggy riding near Ica and for trips to the Nazca Lines.

BEACHES

Most beaches at Paracas are rugged and scenic, top-notch for walking but dangerous for swimming due to rip tides and undertow. Beware in the shallows, too—there are often stingrays and giant jellyfish. Calmer stretches include La Catedral, La Mina, and Mendieta, as well as Atenas, a prime windsurfing section. Dirt roads lead farther to Playa Mendieta and Playa Carhaus. Small, open restaurant shacks line the more popular beaches.

ICA

A bustling commercial city with chaotic traffic and horn-happy drivers, Ica challenges you to find its attractive side. Step outside the city center, however, and you’ll see why this town was the Nazca capital between AD 300 and 800, and why the Nazca people couldn’t have picked a better place to center their desert civilization. Set in a patch of verdant fields and abutted by snow-covered mountains, Ica is serene, relaxing, and cheerful, with helpful residents—likely due as much to the nearly never-ending sunshine as to the vast selection of high-quality wines and piscos produced by dozens of local bodegas. This is a town of laughter and festivals, most notably the Fiesta de Vendimia, the wine-harvest celebration that takes place each year in early March. Ica is also famous for its pecans and its high-stepping horses called caballos de paso.

The city center’s colonial look comes from its European heritage. Ica was founded by the Spanish in 1536, making it one of the oldest towns in southern Peru. The city suffered badly in the 2007 earthquake, however, and sadly many of the colonial-era buildings, including most of the famous churches, were damaged.

Today Peru’s richest wine-growing region is a source of national pride, and its fine bodegas are a major attraction. Most are open all year, but the best time to visit is February to April, during the grape harvest. The Tacama and Ocucaje bodegas are generally considered to have the best-quality wines, and the Quebranta and Italia grape varietals are well regarded.

The city’s excitement also heightens for such festivals as February’s Carnival, Semana Santa in March or April, and the all-night pilgrimages of El Señor de Luren in March and October. Other fun times to visit are during Ica Week, around June 17, which celebrates the city’s founding, and the annual Ica Tourist Festival in late September.

WINERIES

If you can’t imagine anything better than sampling different varieties of wine and pisco at nine in the morning, then these winery tours are most definitely for you. Most wineries in the Ica region make their living from tourism and as a way of boosting sales devote a good portion of the winery tour to the tasting room. Tours are free, although the guides do appreciate tips.

HUACACHINA

Drive 10 minutes through the pale, mountainous sand dunes southwest of Ica and you’ll suddenly see a gathering of attractive, pastel-color buildings surrounding a patch of green. It’s not an oasis on the horizon, but rather the lakeside resort of Laguna de Huacachina, a palm-fringed lagoon of jade-color waters whose sulfurous properties are reputed to have healing powers. The view is breathtaking: a collection of attractive, colonial-style hotels in front of a golden beach and with a backdrop of snow-covered peaks against the distant sky. In the 1920s Peru’s elite traveled here for the ultimate holiday, and today the spacious resorts still beckon. The lake is also a pilgrimage site for those with health and skin problems, sand boarders who want to tackle the 325- foot dunes, and budget travelers who pitch tents in the sand or sleep under the stars.

NAZCA

What do a giant hummingbird, a monkey, and an astronaut have in common? Well, apart from the fact that they’re all etched into the floor of the desert near Nazca, no one really seems to know. Welcome to one of the world’s greatest mysteries—the enigmatic Nazca Lines. A mirage of green in the desert, lined with cotton fields and orchards and bordered by crisp mountain peaks, Nazca was a quiet colonial town unnoticed by the rest of the world until 1901, when Peruvian archaeologist Max Uhle excavated sites around Nazca and discovered the remains of a unique pre-Colombian culture. Set 1,961 feet above sea level, the town has a dry climate—scorching by day, nippy by night— that was instrumental in preserving centuries-old relics from Inca and pre-Columbian tribes.