South of Lima, a beautiful dry desert stretches the entire 1330km to Chile. In places just a narrow strip of desert squashed between Andes and Pacific, it is followed diligently by the Panamerican Highway. The region harbours one of South America’s greatest archeological mysteries – the famous Nasca Lines – as well as offering access to coastal wildlife and stunning landscapes. Once home to at least three major pre-Inca cultures – the Paracas (500 BC–400 AD), the influential Nasca (500–800 AD) and the Ica culture – this region of Peru was eventually taken over by the Incas. Today, Nasca and Paracas are very much part of the tourist trail and are often visited en route between Lima and Cusco.
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Once beyond Lima’s beaches, the first significant town is Cañete, which is of little interest itself, but is a gateway to the attractive Lunahuana valley, well known as a river-rafting centre as well as for its vineyards. Just south of here, near the town of Pisco and the emerging coastal resort of Paracas (previously known as El Chaco), Paracas National Reserve and the offshore Islas Ballestas take a couple of days out of most travellers’ time, offering an exciting mix of wildlife – including sea lions, dolphins and sharks – boat trips and ancient archeology.
Just inland from Pisco, the adobe Inca remains of Tambo Colorado are an interesting diversion, perhaps rounded off by a great seafood dinner at the fisherman’s wharf in San Andrés. Hidden in sand dunes just outside the city of Ica, the resort of Huacachina combines peaceful desert oasis with sandboarding. A couple of hours’ drive south, the geometric shapes and giant figures of the Nasca Lines are etched over almost 500 square kilometres of bleak pampa. Nasca also offers access to the outstanding, rare vicuña reserve of Pampa Galeras (in the Andes above Nasca).
Further south, just before the town of Chala, Puerto Inca is a stunning but still relatively undeveloped beach resort, at one time a coastal port for the nobles of Inca Cusco. Once past the town of Camaná, south of Chala, the Panamerican Sur highway runs inland to within almost 40km of Arequipa (see Chapter Three), where there’s a fast road connection into the city. From here the highway cuts south across undulating desert to the calm colonial town of Moquegua, a springboard for the region’s archeological heritage, before heading south another 150km to Tacna, the last pit-stop before the frontier with Chile.
Around two hours’ or so drive from Lima brings you to the busy market town of CAÑETE. This is not an obviously attractive town in itself, despite some colonial flavour, but the surrounding marigold and cotton fields and easy access to the nearby district and small town of Lunahuana grant it a certain appeal. In many ways, Cañete and its surrounding area is the nearest place from Lima where you can get a feel for the rural desert coast and there is almost constant sunshine year round. New roads extend nearly all the way from Lima, but this particular valley has not yet been overdeveloped or populated with factories or pueblos jovenes (shanties).
Mollendo and Mejía
Serving as a coastal resort for Arequipa and home of the Reserva Nacional de Mejía, a marvellous lagoon-based bird sanctuary, MOLLENDO is a pleasant old port with a decent stretch of sand and a laidback atmosphere. This is a relaxed spot to spend a couple of days chilling out on the beach and makes a good base from which to visit the nearby nature reserve lagoons at MEJÍA, also known as the Reserva Nacional de Mejía bird sanctuary, just south of town.
Situated on the northern edge of the Atacama Desert, most of which lies over the border in Chile, the MOQUEGUA region is traditionally and culturally linked to the Andean region around Lake Titicaca, and many ethnic Colla and Lupaca from the mountains live here. The local economy today is based on copper mining, fruit plantations and wine. More interestingly, for those partial to spirits, Moquegua has a reputation for producing Peru’s best pisco. Historically, this area is an annexe of the altiplano, which was used as a major thoroughfare first by the Tiahuanacu and later the Huari peoples. In the future, it may well be the main route for the gas pipeline out of Peru’s eastern rainforest regions to the coast. Right now, though, located in a relatively narrow valley, the colonial town of Moquegua has winding streets, an attractive plaza and many of adobe houses roofed in thatch and clay.
Few non-Peruvians come to Moquegua to visit the local attractions, as most are in a hurry to get in or out of Chile. That said, the area has plenty of little-visited but interesting sites, from wine and pisco bodegas and volcanoes to petroglyphs and archaeological remains. All of these require personal car transport, or, better, going with a local tour company.