Capital bound: Nazca to Lima
Reaching the small town of Nazca having enjoyed an eye-watering 100km descent, it symbolised both a welcome return to oxygen rich air but also stifling dry heat. The next stage of our journey would take us back into the Atacama Desert, which we’d left behind seven weeks before in Chile, as we headed north along the Peruvian coast towards the capital, Lima.
Lounging around a pool in a colonial-style hacienda in Nazca meant we were in danger of never getting back on the road. Forcing ourselves to load up the bikes, we took to the Panamerican Highway with my parents in support for one last day, before they began their journey home.
We started late, and were sweltering as we reached an iron tower 25km from Nazca. Paying 50p, we climbed up for a bird’s eye view of hand and tree symbols etched into the desert, but were glad of our flight the day before, as from the platform we couldn’t get a full appreciation of the scale.
Upon arriving in Palpa shortly after lunch, we decided to call it a day rather than attempt the two sets of hills on the horizon. It was also time to say farewell to my parents after a wonderful couple of weeks with them. Back to just the two of us, we sheltered in the cool of our hostal room and reverted back to our childhoods with delicious local ‘slush puppies’
The following day we were on the bikes for 6am, surprised by how busy the town was – obviously we weren’t the only ones with a similar strategy to avoid the heat. It paid off, as we climbed enjoying the cool early morning sun casting dramatic shadows across the sand dunes, contrasted with the green fertile valley below.
After the first smaller hill the road split in two, one route climbing steeply to a tunnel cut through the top of the hill. The second road was approximately five kilometres further, but we opted for it because it seemed a gentler gradient without the dash through the dark. In the end it was a fairly easy climb, with a nice descent on the other side.
Back on the flat, our eyes were drawn towards watermelons piled high against a roadside shack. The friendly owner removed one from the freezer and carved out two refreshing slices at the equivalent of 20p each. We took another two to go.
The desert now stretched out as far as we could see and shade was a luxury not to be afforded. In the midday heat, truck and coach drivers seemed more encouraging with their horns than usual, giving credence to the phrase only mad dogs and Englishmen. Our early start had paid off as we approached the outskirts of Ica shortly after lunch. Stopping for ice creams and cold water, I asked a restaurateur watering her plants to sprinkle my head too – a pleasure she seemed to revel in.
The heat seemed to be affecting the locals too as a stone was thrown at Laura from a passing lorry and we detected a distinctly bad vibe as we cycled through suburbs with aggressively toned “gringo” shouts. The traffic wasn’t improving our moods either, with the mototaxis (tuk tuks) and combis (minibuses) proving to be a law unto their own. We were glad to avoid the town centre and instead head five km west to Huacachina.
A gringo haven, Huacahina is an oasis set among seemingly impossibly high sand dunes. Back in the mid-twentieth century, it was the holiday destination of choice for Peru’s elite but is now a backpacker retreat with numerous hostels, dune buggies and sandboards for rent. In the late afternoon, the sun was cool enough to struggle up the dune with a sandboard to have a go. Slower and more cumbersome to turn than a snowboard, it was still a lot of fun but exhausting walking back up.
Back on the bikes, we were off early again covering 75km to Paracas for our first view of the Pacific since Chile. Situated in a large national park, the small pretty harbour town is the launching pad for visiting the Isla Ballestas, a group of 20 or so islands teeming with impressive wildlife.
On the early morning speedboat trip we saw sea lions, penguins and plenty of birds to freak Laura out. We had it easy though, as whilst the islands aren’t inhabited, people were working on them, packing up the bird droppings ‘guano’ into sand bags and ziplining them to boats from where they were exported to Europe to be used as an expensive fertiliser.
That afternoon we cycled the 15km from Paracas to Pisco, along a wall of smelly rubbish acting as a barrier from the sea. In 2008, the city bore the brunt of a devastating magnitude 8.0 earthquake that destroyed 80 per cent of its buildings and we were unsure what to expect four years on. We had heard about the ‘walls of shame’ – building fronts erected by the government to give the impression of rebuilding – and from the roof of our hostal we could see that in some areas this was still the case. However, the people were friendly and keen to welcome tourists as they set about rebuilding their city.
Leaving early the next morning, we witnessed for ourselves the seismic activity of the area when a magnitude 4.7 quake occurred off the coast of Pisco, shaking us and our room gently for a few seconds. We couldn’t imagine the effects of a stronger quake.
The coastal road passed through impressive scenery, not exactly how we had imagined. We would climb up through barren sand dunes and then down into lush, green valleys, before heading back into the middle of nowhere.
Now within a few days of Lima, the traffic was noticeably heavier, yet fortunately the road turned into a dual carriageway which afforded us some space on the bikes. There also seemed to be an increase in wealth as we got to within beach resort territory for middle class Limenos. Cerro Azul and San Bartolo were such examples, set around pretty bays, and surprisingly clean for Peru.
Our 9,000km point was celebrated on the sides of the main road into Lima, not the most exciting picture point. But it was a good time to stop to don our high-visibility vests and helmets for the approach into the city.
Having read a timely article about Lima’s traffic situation, we braced ourselves for a busy ride into the capital. Consequently, we’d decided to stay in the Miraflores cliff-top district, south of the historical centre, reducing how far we had to cross. The traffic was busy, though bearable, but the large potholes everywhere did make navigating difficult.
We reached our hostal two days shy of our six months on the road, Lima being our sixth capital city of the trip. Boy, what a six months it’s been. In a good way, it feels as if we have been on the road forever and we are looking forward to the next part of the trip up the north coast of Peru.