Friday, June 10, 2011

Ica – Dunes, boards, and palm trees

Time to explore the real Peru! Our first stop is Ica 300km (186 miles) south of Lima. The drive there put us right back into culture a number of ways. First the bus ride: it all starts with a check-in counter for our luggage and a metal detector before boarding. Then comes a security guard taking pictures of all passengers with a digital camera – security measure, we think?

Talking about security: the buses location is GPS monitored; any deviation from the route, or unscheduled stop, and the police get alerted! Wow, not sure if we should be relieved or worried?

The bus itself is very modern: it has well functioning shock absorbers, air conditioning, and an upper and lower toilet. The seats are clean, have no torn upholstery and recline comfortably. There are seatbelts (which have to be used by law) and a hostess serves complementary sandwiches and drinks. The bus has a motor that purrs like a kitten and two drivers that take turns every 4 hours.

As soon as the bus leaves a safety and information video is shown on the many screens... We truly were in shock. Flying on domestic flight in the US is less comfortable than this bus, and we are only in the Imperial class. There are two classes higher for the longer trips. We can't wait to see that! By the way, the cost for our 4½ hour journey: 11 dollars.

Our second cultural shock was to see the pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) outside of Lima, they were not as bad as we thought they would be, but definitely a completely different side to Lima from what we've seen so far. There is a big difference between the have and have not's.

Sand dunes surround Ica
Our third culture shock for the day was to see the simple mud brick shacks on the roadside. On the way to Ica, they made the shantytowns back in Lima look like an affluent neighborhood. Is this the real Peru? We have a lot to yet discover.

We arrived with relief in Ica. Not that we were happy to get out of the bus, quite the opposite, we could have continued for a few hours, watching some more movies, enjoying the smooth ride – incredible what a difference proper shock absorbers can make ;-).
We were relieved to see that Ica was not as posh as Lima but also not as basic as the some of smaller towns that we passed through on the way here. Ica looked just about like an average town in the Guatemalan highlands; even the dry and cool climate is similar.

Earthquake damage:
one of many collapsed roofs
Ica is well known for wine and Pisco, the Peruvian national booze. Although the city is in the middle of the desert it is actually quite green. The Ica River is flowing through the city and provides the area with plenty of water to grow acres and acres of grapes. The city itself is a great contrast from Lima: Run down buildings, dust, noise, pollution, rubbish... all the things that Lima did not have are here in Ica.
Earthquake damage:
one of many damaged churches
The town was also looking a bit scruffy because it was shaken pretty badly in August 2007 by an earthquake with an 8.0 magnitude. Many of the buildings have deep cracks, crumbling walls and the church on the main plaza even has a dome that reminds us of the leaning tower of Pisa.

This may sound strange, but exactly all this gives Ica a certain charm. It's not the place where you would take the family for a summer vacation. But as a traveler, it is these kinds of places that offer a realistic insight into a country.

Once the morning fog clears, the city's colors are intense and the temperatures are at a comfortable 20°C (68°F) – although we still feel cold when we don't move our bodies much or stand too long in the shade. Hence, it's time to take out the walking shoes.
The Tuk Tuk squardron
The walking was a bit of a challenge though, it was more of a navigation in-between an stampede of Tuk Tuk's. We've never seen so many of them in one single place – not even in India. But talking of India. The Tuk Tuk's here are either imported from India or made under the licensing of Bajaj, and they have the same signature noise and smell as the ones in India too. The streets of Ica are filled in a blue smoke layer constantly exuded by the poorly tuned 2 stroke "lawn mower" engines that make that infamous "tuk tuk tuk tuk" sound. Although here, they should be called "Toot Toot's" for the constant honking that goes along with them... again we have a déjà vu moment – feels just like in India.

This environment puts us right back into the "comfort zone" of what we gotten used to in Central America. People here may be a little more affluent than in Central America, but it's still a long way from the decadent luxury that we've seen in Lima.

Do Peruvians have a sweet tooth?
We enjoy eating at the comedors (eateries) and rubbing shoulders with the locals. These places have set menus written usually on black chalk boards. They include choice of a starter, main and often a drink. But somehow what is written on the boards perplexed us. We have to re-learn the food alphabet. We could comfortably order food in Central America with our knowledge of Spanish, but here we don't understand a single thing – it's like during our first days in Guatemala. And who in the world can figure that "tallarin" is spaghetti, and "fideo" means the same thing– spaghetti?

We are glad, though... that the food is quite different from Central America (we have somewhat become tired of that). So now we can start to explore all the goodies here. Thankfully we didn't order the Cau Cau on our fist night, we thought it might be a Chinese noodle dish... turns out it's tripe! We soon learned that Peruvians love innards, we better learn the food alphabet fast.

Huacachina, a little desert oasis
We only spend one night in Ica and then head to Huacachina 5 km (3miles) west of Ica.
Huacachina is a tiny oasis surrounded by sand dunes. It looks almost artificial, but the lagoon in the middle is actually feed naturally by underground water. Huacachina used to be the playground of the country's Elite but has since been invaded by backpackers. Many don't even stop in Ica and head straight there... we think that's a shame.

Mandatory tourist shoot
Anyway, all the backpackers are drawn here by the towering sand dunes that provide a perfect playground for Sandboarding and Dune Buggy rides. So guess why we are here?

We expected to stay only for one night, but liked the atmosphere here and also felt really comfortable in our hotel called "Curasi", so we stayed two nights. Our hotel is not one of the many places where the backpackers hang out and party all night long. There are many party places here to accommodate the younger backpackers.

Can't blame us for staying an extra day
The pool looked very inviting but with the cold nights in this part of Peru, the water temperature must have been something like 16°C (60°F)... brrrr. We only dipped our toe into the water... while some other people were swimming happily in the pool. Either they are nuts or came from the Andes where 16° is probably considered to be "toasty".

Day 2 in Huacachina also meant time to hit the dunes. We booked a 2 hour tour that included a 20-plus kilometer Dune Buggy ride with Sandboarding runs in-between.
Our Dune Buggy can't jump...
but we can!
Our Dune Buggy seats 9 people plus our driver Ricardo... we are a heavy load. But despite the size of the buggy and weight of all of us, we manage to go quite fast over the dunes. The most fun part of course is the high speed downhill sprints followed by the feeling of your body being compressed into the seat when the dune levels out at the bottom. We wish that we could go as fast up the dune and then "fly" over the edge... but we are either too heavy for that, or Ricardo is too wimpy.

A much wilder dune buggy ride:
Oregon coast Sept 2009

We were Dune Buggying before in Oregon some 2 years ago. There the buggies are smaller and the drivers wilder... Hard to imagine that a ride in a Dune Buggy is a lot wilder in the US with all the safety consciousness and risk of lawsuits. Up there we were given a ski mask to keep the flying sand out of our eyes. The ride was totally wild with several high jumps, super steep descents, sideways drifts... and a few near roll over incidents. If you ever go to the Oregon coast check out Sand Dune Frontier. We were covered head to toe in sand...for many days to come!

Woman vs. Sand
But back to the Dune Buggy tour here in Huacachina (where we didn't need to wear ski masks and were not covered in sand while riding). In-between the Buggy route, we stopped at the top of some dunes to board down the other side. There are two methods to board. The beginner's position is lying belly down flat on the board and slide straight down. :-S

Time to face the sand
We, of course, opted for the advanced technique... standing up like on a snowboard. Only problem is: there is no snow and these are not real boards. While the boards were inspired by snowboards, the bindings are only some loose fitting Velcro straps that go over your shoes. The boards are simple wooden planks with a raised front and back, plus some Formica glued to the bottom. The Velcro straps weren't tight enough for Julane's shoes so her feet moved around quite a bit.

We soon learn the hard way that Sandboarding and Snowboarding may be somewhat related but are by no means the same. We had a tough time avoiding close encounters with the sand. We soon made up for the lack of flying sand during the Dune Buggy ride... one sandboarding ride and we achieved the head to toe sand dusting ;-)
Despite a number of falls, we didn't give up and slowly got the hang of it, check out our Video below for some both Dune Buggy and Sandboarding scenes.

At the end of our tour, we had lots of sand in our shoes, pockets, hair, and ears... oh yeah: mission accomplished!

Preserved for eternity:
Mommy mummy with baby
 Since we really like Ica, we didn't want to leave the area right away and decided to return for one more night before heading on south. This time we visited the Museo Regional de Ica which displays pottery and fabrics of the various ancient civilizations near Ica.
These skulls are real!
and have nothing to do with
Hollywood's "Coneheads"
A highlight is the section that shows mummies that are well preserved including the skin and the hair. There are also a number of deformed skulls – some elongated for beauty purposes. This achieved by bondages that are applied from childhood.

And finally a visit to Ica is not complete without a tasting of Pisco a grape brandy that popular all over Peru. Unfortunately we were too late to visit one of the vineyards but instead got a nice tasting of various brands and types at one of the local Bodegas, that was called D'Wong – it is us, or does that sound Chinese to you too?
We settled to buy a bottle of the Pisco that Julane liked the most... she will have to carry this one in her backpack for our next leg of the journey. It's a short trip this time to Nasca.