An old but busy city with around 170,000 inhabitants, ICA sits in a fecund valley, close to enormous sand dunes some 400m above sea level and around 50km from the ocean. It’s one of the first places south of Lima where you can virtually guarantee sunny weather most of the year.
The surrounding region is famous throughout Peru for its wine and pisco production. The city’s very foundation (1563) went hand in hand with the introduction of grapevines to South America, and for most Peruvian visitors it is the bodegas, or wineries, that are the town’s biggest draw. However, the Museo Regional’s superb collections of pre-Columbian ceramics and Paracas, Ica and Nasca cultural artefacts would alone make the city worth an excursion, despite some damage by the 2007 quake.
Ica’s streets and plazas are crowded with hundreds of little tico taxis, all beeping their horns to catch potential passengers’ attention and making crossing the streets a dangerous affair. Aside from the traffic and the occasional pickpocket – particularly round the market area – Ica is a pleasant place with a friendly and curious population. After a day or less, though, most visitors are ready to head for the relaxing desert oasis resort of Huacachina, a few kilometres to the southwest, a much more exotic and restful haven to pass the hot, sunny afternoons. On the edge of town is the rather ramshackle suburb of Cachiche, known throughout Peru as a traditional sanctuary for white witches.
Founded in 1563, and originally called Villa de Valverde de Ica, the settlement was moved (due to regional earthquake activity) after only five years, and renamed San Jerónimo de Ica. It was subsequently moved several times until finding itself in its present position in a relatively sheltered river valley protected slightly from the coastal weather (especially the mists) by large sand dunes, but still quite a way from the foothills of the Andes to the east.Read More
According to myth, the lagoon at HUACACHINA, about 5km southwest of Ica, was created when a princess stripped off her clothes to bathe. When she looked into a mirror and saw that a male hunter was watching her she dropped the mirror, which then became the lagoon. More prosaically, during the late 1940s, the lagoon became one of Peru’s most elegant and exclusive resorts, surrounded by palm trees, sand dunes and waters famed for their curative powers, and with a delightfully old-world atmosphere. Since then the lagoon’s subterranean source has grown erratic and it is supplemented by water pumped up from artesian wells, making it less of a red-coloured, viscous syrup and more like a green, salty swimmable lagoon; it retains considerable mystique, making it a quiet, secluded spot to relax. The curative powers of the lagoon attract people from all over: mud from the lake is reputed to cure arthritis and rheumatism if you plaster yourself all over with it; and the sand around the lagoon is also supposed to benefit people with respiratory problems, so it’s not uncommon to see locals buried up to the neck in the dunes.
The settlement, still little more than twenty houses or so, is growing very slowly, but one end of the lagoon has been left fairly clear of construction. Climb the dunes at the end of the lake and take in the views from the top early in the morning, before it gets too hot and prior to the noisy dune-buggy runs. On the Salvaterra side of the lake there’s a great little library – Biblioteca Abraham Valdelomar – with a strong ecological focus.
Fiestas in Ica
Fiestas in Ica
There are several important fiestas in Ica throughout the year. The most enjoyable time to be in town is in March after the grape harvest has been brought in, when there are open-air concerts, fairs, handicraft markets, cockfighting and caballo de paso (horse dressage – where horses are trained by riders to dance and prance for events or competitions) meetings. Over the Semana de Ica (June 12–19), based around the colonial founding of Ica, there are more festivities, including religious processions and fireworks, and again in the last week of September for the Semana Turística. On July 25, there’s the nationwide Día Nacional de Pisco, essentially a big celebration for the national brandy (rather than the town of the same name), mostly held in the bodegas south of Lima, particularly around Ica. As in Lima, October is the main month for religious celebrations, with the focus being the ceremony and procession at the church of El Santuario de Luren (main processions on the third Sunday and following Monday of October).
The witches of Cachiche
The witches of Cachiche
In the down-at-heel suburb of Cachiche, history and mythology have merged into a legend of a local group of witches. The story dates back to the seventeenth century, when Spanish witches were persecuted for their pagan beliefs during the Inquisition. Seeking religious refuge, the witches emigrated to Lima, where they were also persecuted for their beliefs before finally settling in the countryside in particular the Ica Valley, in a village called Cachiche. For hundreds of years, the Cachiche witches operated in secret until the 1980s, when there was a renewed interest in alternative health practices and even the Peruvian presidents of the 80s and 90s openly consulted them about health matters. The popularity of Cachiche healing methods grew even more when a powerful congressman was dramatically cured of a terminal illness on TV by a Cachiche witch. Similar to witchcraft and shamanism along the Peruvian coast, Cachiche practices involve the use of San Pedro, a psychedelic cactus containing mescaline.
The best way to escape Ica’s hot desert afternoons is to wander around the cool chambers and vaults, and sample the wines at one of the town’s bodegas or wineries. Many of the region’s best wine and piscos can be sampled from stores in and around the Plaza de Armas in Ica, but if you have the time, it’s well worth visiting the producer haciendas located outside the town centre.
Vista Alegre Daily 9am–4.30pm; 056 222919. This well-known bodega, one of Peru’s best, is based in an old hacienda still chugging happily along in a forgotten world of its own. There’s usually a guide who’ll show you around free of charge, then arrange for a wine- and pisco-tasting session at the shop. You don’t have to buy anything, but you’re expected to tip (around $2–5 a person or small group).
Bodega Tacama Daily 9am–5pm; 056 228395, tacama.com. Bodega Tacama is a large and successful wine producer located about 3km from the centre of Ica. The vineyards here are still irrigated by the Achirana Canal, which was built by the Inca Pachacutec (or his brother Capac Yupanqui) as a gift to Princess Tate, daughter of a local chieftain. Apparently it took 40,000 men just ten days to complete this astonishing canal, which brings cold, pure water down 4000m from the Andes to transform what was once an arid desert into a startlingly fertile oasis. Clearly a romantic at heart, Pachacutec named it Achirana – “that which flows cleanly towards that which is beautiful”. Guided tours and tastings are available.
Bodega Ocucaje Mon–Fri 9am–noon & 2–5pm, Sat 9am–noon; 056 408011. About 35km further south of Ica, the oasis of Bodega Ocucaje is one of Peru’s finest vineyards. You can stay here at the Hotel Ocucaje and explore the surrounding desert, particularly the Cerro Blanco site where whalebone remains have been found.