In Huanchaco, a small beach town on the Pacific, fishermen still use caballitos de totora --small, reed fishing boats that date from the Mochica culture of the first millennium. Carrying little more than a net and paddle, these fishermen return from the sea with scores of fresh dolphin and sea bass. Their way of life, virtually unchanged over the centuries, is a reminder of the abundance of coastal Peru, which flourishes in spite of--or is it because of?--the absence of modern conveniences.
This was the last stop of my trip along the coast of Peru in December and January. I'd always wanted to visit Peru (I'm living in Ecuador), and so I embarked on this coastal journey, which yielded much more than striking ocean vistas, although there were plenty of those. Depending on which side of the Pan-American Highway I was on as I traveled by bus, this stretch of Peru reminded me of coastal California, with dramatic cliffs plunging into the Pacific, or the Sahara, with high sand dunes and stretches of barren flatlands creeping inland for miles on end.
Along the way, I met lots of other travelers, and we often linked up to see a region that has been a study in geographical and social contrasts since long before the Inca Empire of the 15th century or the Spanish conquest of the 16th.
In coastal Peru I found dramatic glimpses of archeological treasures as well as recreational pleasures.
Lima, the capital, was a good place to get oriented before embarking on the Pan-American Highway. Offering guided tours in English and Spanish, El Museo de la Nacion (Museum of the Nation) provided a superb introduction to pre-Inca cultures. These include the Moche (100 to 700), whose Sipan burial grounds were discovered in 1987, and the Nasca (100 BC to AD 500), whose enigmatic "Nasca lines"--large sand drawings etched into the ground--were brought to light by German scientist and mathematician Maria Reiche.
From Lima, I headed south to Pisco, about three hours from the capital. Pisco, which has a small-town charm, is a jumping-off point for travelers on their way to the Islas Ballestas, or Ballestas Islands, a smaller version of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, although the animal life there isn't as unusual and there aren't as many of them.
Still, the Ballestas Islands are not nearly as expensive to reach or as far from the coast. A three-hour trip to the islands, including a knowledgeable English-speaking guide, cost me a little more than $7.
At the Ballestas Islands, which consists of three large islands and many islets, our boat came within a few feet of shore, and playful sea lions swam right up to us. Landing was prohibited to protect the delicate area, which teems with thousands of sea lions, cormorants, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies and occasional Humboldt penguins. With all the bird activity, it was no surprise that, aside from tourism, the island's other industry is the collection of guano (bird droppings) for use as fertilizer.
After visiting the islands, several of us paid $2 more to visit the Reserva Nacional de Paracas (Paracas National Reserve), a short bus ride from the shore. The reserve, established in 1975, protects more than 215 species of migratory birds, some of which come from as far away as the Arctic Circle and Tierra del Fuego. It was named after the Paracas culture, which, like the Nascans, left glyphs carved into the surrounding landscape. The Paracas drawings include a condor, a monkey, a two-headed bird and a man pulling a llama.
We were exposed to sand of a different sort on the next day's journey. Sandboarding, the desert equivalent of snowboarding, is all the rage in Huacachina, about 90 minutes south of Pisco. Here the perfect wave is crested at the top of the 800-foot dunes, and from that vantage point, you can fully appreciate the rolling swaths of sand that undulate across the Peruvian landscape. Patient instructors are available--and necessary for beginners. Renting a board costs a little more than $1 an hour, wax included, and the price of instruction was a tip at the end of the session. (Tip well; these guys work hard to make sure your first sandboarding experience isn't your last.)
The facilities at Huacachina are still basic; the "sandlift" to the summit doesn't always work and wasn't on my visit, so my thrilling trip down was preceded by an arduous hike to the top.
My next stop on Peru's south coast was Nasca, which attracts many tourists who just want to see the lines. But I also found other attractions. A group of us arranged a tour of the pre-Inca Chauchilla Cemetery about 15 miles from Nasca. A combination of mummification and extremely dry climate has left the human skeletons, on display inside excavated tombs, well preserved. The deceased were buried in the fetal position in the apparent belief that the posture would hasten rebirth in the afterlife. Besides skeletons, the grave sites also contain original pottery and clothing buried with the bodies.
With about 1,000 miles of coastline, Peru has many fine beaches. Two of the best we saw are at Mollendo and Mejia near the Chilean border. Mollendo, the larger of the two towns, is booming to try to accommodate the growing number of sun worshipers who want to enjoy the spectacular waves, fine sand and crashing surf. Mejia, 15 minutes from Mollendo, is for beachgoers who want to get away from it all. These beaches are less populated than Mollendo's, and with only a handful of motels, the town is mainly home to full-time residents whose apartments and townhouses are near the breakwater.
The Santuario Nacional Lagunas de Mejia (Mejia Lagoons National Sanctuary) is home to 197 bird species, 80 of which are present year round. Six biological zones make up the sanctuary: the fronting Pacific Ocean; the beach; the inland lagoons parallel to the coast; the mouth of the Tambo River; the riparian areas on either side of the river; and the nutrient-rich sand strips next to the lagoons. With observation stands and guided tours available, viewing the birds was easy and enjoyable.
We made the transition from bird-watching to bone watching by traveling to the north coast by bus. One of the most significant archeological sites in northern Peru is the Moche civilization of Sipan, near present-day Chiclayo. The Moche flourished in the deserts of the north coast between 100 and 700. They built large flat-topped pyramids, made of millions of mud bricks, used for rituals, palaces and royal burials. The Sipan ruins include two large mud-brick pyramids that look melted with the passage of time.
What I found extraordinary about the site, however, are the royal burial grounds adjacent to the pyramids. They were discovered in 1987, after a huaquero (grave robber) tried to pillage them. Fortunately he was stopped, and archeologists were able to unearth intact tombs of the Moche hierarchy.
The most notable is the "Senor of Sipan," a Moche warrior-priest who reigned in the 2nd or 3rd century BC. Around the senor's sarcophagus were the remains of eight Moche people, including three young women thought to be concubines. A guard buried above the senor was found with his left foot amputated, in the apparent belief that he would stay to protect the grave site rather than accompany the senor in the afterlife. The senor was also buried with a warehouse of jewelry and artifacts made of gold, silver, ceramics, shells and semiprecious stones, many of which are on display at the Bruning Archeology Museum in nearby Lambayeque.
About 35 miles from Sipan lie the expansive pyramids of Tucume. The Lambayeque culture, which developed around 700, built these adobe buildings after the collapse of the Moche. The complex's 26 structures served numerous functions, from housing to animal and human sacrificial sites.
South of Tucume, near Trujillo, we visited the Chimu ruins of Chan Chan. As the Chimu's political, religious and administrative center, Chan Chan was made up of nine palaces, several smaller huacas (shrine-like structures), agricultural sites, cemeteries and residential housing areas.
Before being conquered by the Incas around 1460, the Chimu kingdom stretched more than 600 miles along the Pacific Coast, from modern-day Lima to Tumbes near the Ecuadorean border. The $2.85 admission price at Chan Chan includes access to the Tschudi Palace, the best preserved and restored of the nine palaces; Huaca el Dragon; Huaca la Esmeralda; and the on-site museum. Private guides can be hired at each of the locations for about $8 to $10.
Chan Chan is on the road to Huanchaco, a beach town. Watching the fishermen there deliver their quarry to the land, I could sense the continuum of life.
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Guidebook: Tracing Peru's Coast
* Getting there: Varig and Lan Chile fly nonstop from LAX to Lima. There is direct service (one stop, no plane change) on AeroMexico and LACSA, and connecting service (change of planes) on American. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $627.
Within Peru, the major domestic carrier is Aerocontinente, 651 Avenida Jose Pardo (Miraflores), Lima, telephone 011-51-1-242-4260. Several major bus companies cover coastal Peru. Two of the largest are Cruz del Sur and Ormeno, both based in Lima. Cruz del Sur is at 531 Jiron Quilca, tel. 011-51-1-424-0040.
Ormeno is at 177 Avenida Carlos Zavala, tel. 011-51-1-427-5679, fax 011-51-1-470-5474.
* Where to stay: (all room rates are per night, double occupancy): In Lima: Sheraton Lima Hotel and Casino, 170 Paseo de la Republica, tel. 011-51-1-315-5000, fax 011-51-1-315-5015 ($170); Lima Marriott, 615 Malecon de la Reserva (Miraflores), tel. 011-51-1-217-7000, fax 011-51-1-217-7002 ($185); Gran Hotel Bolivar, 958 Jiron de la Union, Plaza San Martin, tel. 011-51-1-428-7672, fax 011-51-1-428-7675 ($90); Hotel Espana, 105 Azangaro, tel./fax 011-51-1-428-5546 ($10).
In Pisco: Regency Plaza Hostal, 123 Progreso, Plaza de Armas, tel./fax 011-51-34-535-920 ($20); El Candelabro Hostal, Jiron Callao y Pedemonte, tel./fax 011-51-34-532-620 ($24); Hostal San Isidro, 103 San Clemente, tel./fax 011-51-34-536-471 ($15).
In Nasca: Hotel El Mirador, 436 Tacna, tel. 011-51-34-523-121, fax 011-51-34-523-741 ($20); Hotel Alegria, 168 Lima, tel./fax 011-51-34-522-444 ($7).
In Mollendo: Hostal La Villa, 366 Avenida Mariscal Castilla, tel. 011-51-54-535-051, fax 011-51-54-532-700 ($69); Hostal Asturias, 478 Avenida Comercio, tel. 011-51-54-532-782 ($3.50).
In Chiclayo: Hotel Inca, 622 Avenida Luis Gonzales, tel. 011-51-74-235-931 ($25). In Trujillo: Hotel Libertador, 485 Jiron Independencia, Plaza de Armas, tel. 011-51-44-232-741, fax (51-44) 235-641 ($108); Hotel Pullman, 879 Jiron Francisco Pizarro, tel. 011-51-44-205-448, fax 011-51-44-203-624 ($29); Hotel Trujillo, 581 Jiron Grau, tel. 011-51-44-244-241 ($10).
* Travel agencies: Several travel agencies in Lima can help arrange trips in the capital and throughout Peru.
Two of the best are Lima Tours S.A., Belen 1040, tel. 011-51-1-424-5110, and Viajes Laser, Avenida Benavides 1180 (Miraflores), tel. 011-51-1-241-5567, fax 011-51-1-241-7431.
* Where to eat: For traditional Peruvian cuisine in an elegant setting, dine in Lima at El Senorio de Sulco, Malecon Cisneros 1470 (Miraflores), local tel. 441-0183 (entrees $10 to $20). For seafood in Lima, go to Punta Sal, 948 Avenida Conquistadores (San Isidro), tel. 441-7431 (entrees $8 to $15).
* For more information: Promperu, Peru's tourism service, is in the Ministerio de Industria building in San Isidro, 50 Calle 1, tel. 011-51-1-224-9355, fax 011-51-1-224-3323.