Driving South from Lima one is struck by just how arid the landscape is. Central Peru is painted in burnt oranges, yellows and greys which contrast spectacularly with the blue ocean and the white waves.
But this all changes when you reach Ica, 185 miles south of the capital, which is as fertile and fecund a valley as you will find anywhere in the world. Ica is to Peru what California is to the US and – fed by year-round sun and an enormous subterranean aquifer – it produces enormous quantities of cotton, asparagus and olives, not to mention the grapes which are vital to the bustling wine and pisco industry.
Ica is a frenetic town, with seriously crazy traffic considering its relatively small size. Three-wheeled taxis (known as ticos) abound, and pedestrians most definitely do not have right of way. The town’s standout attraction is the Museo Regional de Ica, which houses superb collections of pre-Columbian ceramics and artefacts from the Paracas, Ica and Nasca cultures. These include funerary bundles and mummies. Some mummies’ skulls even bear evidence of trepanning, a kind of early brain surgery which was supposed to relieve internal pressure or remove floating skull fragments from wounded soldiers’ heads.
Central Peru was ravaged by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in 2007 and although the most severe damage took place in nearby Pisco, Ica was also badly affected and nearly 100 residents lost their lives. The town’s cathedral, which was constructed from adobe in 1759, was severely damaged by the quake and is currently the focus of groundbreaking "seismic retrofitting" work by the Getty Conservation Institute.
The lagoon at Huacachina, about 3 miles south of town, is a tranquil antidote to the hustle and bustle of downtown Ica. Huacachina is a textbook oasis…palm-fringed and surrounded by enormous dunes, it really does feel like the Sahara. In the 1940s the lagoon became a popular resort for Lima’s elite and the buildings and layout of the settlement give the place a delightful old world feel. But the lagoon isn’t just an extremely soothing thing to look at: the mud from its shores is said to cure arthritis and rheumatism and the sand around the lagoon is also supposed to benefit people with respiratory problems. It’s quite normal to see Peruvian tourists covered in mud or buried up to their necks in sand!
Huacachina is slowly becoming less and less tranquil, and it is a popular stop-off on the so-called Gringo Trail. Local tour companies have started offering dune buggy tours which are a lot of fun if you’re on one of the buggies and extremely noisy if you’re not. These tours usually incorporate a spot of sandboarding too, but if you’re not a petrol head you can rent a sandboard and skip the buggy ride altogether.
Given backpackers’ habits, we recommend visiting Huacachina at sunrise – the temperature is bearable, the morning light is gorgeous and the views from the top of the dunes are incredible. And the backpackers aren’t awake yet!
Ica, not the nearby town of Pisco, is home to the Peruvian pisco industry. Pisco (a grape brandy) is the main ingredient in the legendary Pisco Sour and it is also the subject of an international dispute – both Chile and Peru claim to have invented the cocktail, and neither side looks like backing down anytime soon.
Fortunately conflict will be the furthest thing from your mind when visiting the bodegas on the outskirts of town, which are all delightfully leafy and shaded. There’s none of the hubris associated with the wine and spirits industry in other parts of the world, and you’ll usually get to meet the winemaker, tour the cellars and indulge in some tasting. There are quite a few bodegas to choose from, but three of the best are Hacienda Tacama (which is still irrigated by an Inca canal built by Pachacuti), Bodegas Vista Alegre and – a bit further out town – Viña Ocucaje, which even has a hotel on its grounds.
If you’re dead set on seeing the Nazca Lines, but can’t face Nazca itself (it’s a real tourist trap), you could do a lot worse than base yourself in Ica and arrange a flyover from there. Just make sure you give yourself at least a day to explore the museum, the lagoon and the wineries. You won’t regret it.