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The many surprises of a Peruvian road trip

Driving through the Andes to coastline, the writer encounters pre-Incan scribbles, a healing pool, and precious bird poo

The Andes, as seen on the way from Abancay to Nazca. Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta
The Andes, as seen on the way from Abancay to Nazca. Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta

Speeding down the smooth tarmac road draped around the Andes mountains like a black satin ribbon, I revelled in sliding the car, a Nissan Versa, through a series of hairpins and tight corners. The road from Abancay to Nazca in Peru is perhaps one of the most exciting I’ve ever driven, with fantastic snow-capped views. It was so much fun, in fact, that by the time I reached the plains close to Nazca by noon, I felt the car’s brakes had suffered considerably. To let them, and myself, recover a bit, I decided to make an unplanned night halt.

Nazca is a nondescript desert town, not the sort of place I would normally stop at, but it has innumerable hotels and great restaurants. This is because of the artwork sketched in the desert by a pre-Incan civilization over 1,000 years ago. Called the Nazca Lines, they refer to the geometric lines drawn across the desert and also to the mysterious animal geoglyphs that accompany them.

The perplexing part about these lines and shapes—about 300 of them over a 500 sq. km area—is that they can only be seen in their entirety from the sky. The fact that you could be standing among them and not even know they exist, adds to their mystery.

Luis, the proprietor of the hotel I managed to book at the last minute, convinced me to taking a sightseeing flight over the Nazca Lines. It was a beautiful day, and he helped me find an hour-long flight for $70 (around Rs4,438). Within 40 minutes I was at the airport, getting my passport checked and being weighed before boarding a little six-seater Cessna with three others. The pilot handed out barf bags, just in case, as he would have to bank left and right frequently to ensure passengers on both sides of the plane got great views of the lines 3,000ft below.

But I was too distracted to feel any nausea. As we took off, I saw that while the area surrounding Nazca was quite green, there was brown desert beyond. Once we were over the desert, the co-pilot pointed out the first geoglyph, the whale. Then came the astronaut, named for his fishbowl-like head. Next up were the monkey and the hummingbird. In 2014, activist organization Greenpeace had placed a message next to the latter, hoping to draw the attention of world leaders attending a UN climate summit in Lima. In doing so, they walked all over this Unesco World Heritage site. When archaeologists do so, they wear special, weight-dispersing padded shoes to prevent damage.

The lines have suffered damage in the past too. When we flew over the tree, bird and lizard, I noticed that the latter’s tail was cut in half by the Pan-American Highway that runs across it. This is because not many, barring the locals, knew of the existence of the Nazca Lines when the construction of the road was started in 1938.

There are many theories about how and why these lines were made in the sixth century. Archaeologists, mystics and scientists have suggested everything from aliens, ancient balloonists and superhumans to the divine. The designs remain a mystery.

Street art in El Chaco.

After Nazca, I drove 146km (two-and-a-half hours) north to Huacachina, a laid-back village where Bob Marley and The Beatles croon over loudspeakers about love and psychedelia. It’s built around an emerald oasis, ringed by palm trees and surrounded by golden sand dunes. Travellers laze around the lake that is said to have curative powers, alternating between sunbathing, boating or sipping pisco sours at the bars on the promenade. More active visitors trudge up the steep dunes for about 45 minutes, before zipping down on sandboards. I took the easy way out by booking a seat on a dune buggy. The driver took us to the very top of a dune, from where I slid down the steep slope, and waited to be picked up to be driven to the next. We ended at a vantage point, watching the setting sun paint the landscape yellow and orange. The cafés and pubs come alive after sunset and the thump of 1970s’ disco music goes on late into the night.

The last strains were fading when I left for El Chaco, 75km away, in time to catch the 8am boat to Islas Ballestas. Called the “more affordable" Galapagos, the Ballestas islands are home to rich and varied avian and marine life. The 2-hour tour from Marina Turística de Paracas doesn’t disembark on the islands but passes close to them. On the 30-minute one-way journey to the islands, the boat, which has no cabin, was bombarded by guano, seabird droppings. Tourists exclaimed their disgust. However, one should remember that this precious bird poop caused a clash between Spain and its former colony Peru in 1864. By the 1850s, Britain was importing 200,000 tonnes annually (the number went up steadily) of the nutrient-rich guano, a more efficient fertilizer than cow dung. Much of this came from Islas Ballestas and Peru’s other bird-filled islands. Realizing their monetary value, Spain occupied the Chincha Islands in 1864, until it was evicted after a two-year war. The guano continues to be harvested and exported today—albeit peacefully—by Peru’s ministry of agriculture.

Exploring the islands’ bays and natural arches from the boat, we saw numerous bird species, including the Peruvian booby and pelican, Guanay cormorant and Humboldt penguins. We were also fortunate enough to see a few dolphins.

By the end of it all, I was congratulating myself on ignoring all those who had warned me against driving around Peru. The roads had been fabulous, the traffic orderly, and Google Maps had guided me perfectly. And as happens with all great road trips, I had enjoyed scenic sights and made unexpected discoveries.


Plan your trip

■ Peru’s eased visa requirements for Indian nationals mean that you can get a visa on arrival if you have a visa with a minimum six-month validity from any of the following countries—the US, Canada, the UK, Australia or any Schengen country.

■ Both Budget and Avis car rentals are present in Peru and are easy to book in advance online.

■ Google Maps works perfectly in Peru and I bought a prepaid SIM card that gave me 6 GB data for less than Rs1,500

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