Nazca, Huacachina and Paracas

23rd December 2008, Peru
Nazca, despite being a hole, was pretty action packed. We arrived on the night bus at 6am, managing not to have been hijacked or incurred any violent robberies as was suggested in the book. I read the warning about travelling at night on that route AFTER arriving!

After dropping our stuff and having breakfast we headed straight off in a taxi to Cementerio de Chauchilla (200BC) which is the grave robbed cemetery out of the latest Indiana Jones film.

This visit was extremely interesting not only as I could tick off another box in my I Spy: Cemeteries in the Desert book, (trains AND pre-Inca religious mummies) but also because it was so old and well preserved, - well some of it at any rate...

Having already diverted from the Panamerican Highway we seemed to drive through desert for quite some time, when in the middle of nowhere the driver stopped. The guard from the cemetery appeared and was wedged into the boot behind us! We then drove for another 20 minutes or so across the desert till we stopped at a shack in howling winds and mini sand tornadoes. We then realised why the guard doesn't hang out there. It was soooo creepy!

We were the only people there and there was a network of graves in the ground with mummies inside, 2000 years old and perfectly preserved with giant dreadlocks and bits of skin still on their bodies, dressed in finely woven cloth with the colours and pattern as bold as ever 2000 years on!

They were all sitting in the foetal position and facing East where the sun rises ready to be re-born. There were mummified babies in there too, lying down with their skin stretched over their tiny rib cages like oven ready chickens.

All the gold masks and other valuables had been taken away but there were ceremonial ceramics in the graves with them and bits of corn and corn mills made of stone for them to take to the afterlife.

This whole thing was totally open to the elements, with nobody guarding it. I couldn't believe it! What's more, when the grave robbers had found and ransacked the other graves back in the 1960´s, they threw all the bodies and mummies across the desert. There were so many, nobody bothered to clear them all up and they were still strewn willy-nilly across the desert.

We were walking along in our flip-flops saying "oh, there's a bit of embalming cotton stuck between my toes" and "oh dear, I've just got a splinter from a bit of 2000 year old sacred mummy femur" Ridiculous! Plus there were chunks of pottery and bits of incredible ancient weaving just lying around poking out of the sand. Only the gold masks and trinkets were considered to be of any value, we could have just picked up and taken anything we wanted as a souvenir but thought it might be a bit weird and wrong, the whole place was so creepy!

On the way back we visited a pottery and the man threw some intact pieces of 2000 year old pottery at us - presumably robbed from the graves but not considered of too much value. With what seemed like his last breath he gave us an explanation of how it was traditionally made, demonstrating how the pots were polished using nose grease and showing us some of the original brushes, made with baby hair and used to paint with natural pigments.

We then popped into the gold mining museum where the curator was asleep and drunk out of his head on Pisco (local brandy) but he happily showed us his collection and played us a slurred song on his guitar. Part of the process involved the drunk man waving around a plastic drink bottle full of mercury, easily enough to wipe out the whole of Nazca, probably more!!

Apparently Nazca is really suffering due to the economic situation. Nobody is buying minerals and all the miners are out of work, sales have dropped by 70% this year and it's only China buying them and tourism that's keeping people wonder the curator (a miner) was so drunk!

In the evening we went to the Maria Reich planetarium, which was very interesting but not very convincing, to find out a few theories about the Nazca lines and how they correlate to the stars, before our visit.

For those who don't know, the Nazca lines are giant geoglyphs, shapes in the desert, mostly lines and geometric shapes but also many giant animals like monkey, whale, spider and even a heron – (actually more likely to be a flamingo) and an astronaut (WAS god an astronaut??) They are only visible from the air and were discovered in the 1920's by pilots flying over. So nobody knows their purpose but many theories abound; that they are a giant calendar relating to the stars; that they are a reminder to the gods to bring water - it only rains for around half an hour a year in the Nazca desert; that they were used for ceremonial walking; that they were landing pads for aliens; or whatever. They are very lucrative for Nazca with flights at $55 a pop and hoards of tourists flying over!!

The flight the next day was amazing! I nearly cried, mostly because I was so scared! We had a four seater plane and the pilot flew over each geoglyph so we were at a 45 degree angle, i.e.face down, flying over it once on each side. There are lots of them and by the end I was struggling to look at much and feeling very queasy but it was so worth it. I'll never forget it.

After Nazca, we headed for Huacachina, an oasis in the middle of dunes joining on to a national park.

There is nothing to do there apart from relax and go sandboarding and dune buggy riding in the giant dunes which was brilliant. Riding in the dune buggy feels like flying as you have nothing to gauge your speed against. There are no landmarks, just piles of sand as far as you can see and the buggy drivers drive like nutters! It was a brilliant adrenalin rush and when we stopped to do the boarding, we managed to stand up all the way down the dune.

But the best was when he took us to the highest, steepest dune he could find - and damn it was big, like a skyscraper! He made us lie on our bellies on the board and explained how to hold on, what to do with our legs etc. Rhi asked "how do we stop?" but he just replied "no stop" and pushed her over the edge! It was so much fun but we had sand in every orifice, I am still finding it a week later!

We then got a bus to Paracas next to Pisco on the west coast to visit the marine reserve Islas Ballestas or the poor man's Galapagos - we prefer the title small Galapagos. Here the man from our hotel invited us over to his place to see his penguin! It was a great line which turned out to be actually true. He has a penguin in his utility room, which fired projectile poo at Rhi. Apparently he was washed up as a baby in El Nino and they tried to take him back to the islands but he didn't want to go!

Taking advantage of being by the sea, we had a seafood feast with fish, mussels and scallops in parmesan which was delicious.

The islands were amazing, but a bit like a scene out of Birds, I've never seen so many birds in my life! There were boobies, pelicans, cormorants, penguins... and lots of sea lions too! But all in their thousands! The stench of ammonia from the guano was overbearing even from the boat.

Next stop was a beach resort called Cerro Azul which was pretty much deserted as everyone is at home with family at this time of year so we had the beach to ourselves. It was like being at the even poorer man's Galapagos or in a nature documentary. We saw pods of dolphins frolicking in the surf whilst we were having breakfast on the beach, before taking a walk the length of the beach (3.5K each way) without seeing anyone apart from some naked fishermen on the rocks at the end. We watched lines of pelicans flying over the surf scooping fish in their beaks. There were hundreds of orange fist-sized crabs running all over the beach which Minton sized up as ´ginger on ginger´. We also found a washed-up dolphin, a washed-up sea lion and thousands of washed-up baby pelicans looking like little Christmas turkeys. We managed to make it a festive walk though when we saw a crab with sandy claws!!

Finally, we found a live baby pelican, more of a teenager really, and by luck I also found a pile of washed up fish further down the beach which I carried back and fed to the baby pelican till it started to choke on one and I panicked and ran away.

In the evening we inadvertently ended up gate crashing an office Christmas party in a beach hut restaurant and they kept trying to get us to salsa dance with them!

All in all a good bit of nature in action and good to spend a bit of time by the coast but still not feeling over - festive!!

Nevertheless sending lot of Christmas love. Hope Sandy Claws brings you a dead baby pelican for your dinner.

Love Kate xxx