Peru’s Historical-but-not-tropical Coast

One of the things I love unequivocally about Central America is the beach.  The coastline of this part of the continent, from Mexico to Panama, is simply stunning.  On the Caribbean side are the reefs, islands, and cayes of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras (plus more idyllic scraps of land in Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and Panama’s Kuna Yala).  And on the Pacific side are the less-relaxing (but no less-appealing) volcanic grey-black beaches and powerful breaking surf.  Plus, being both in the tropics and at sea level, the climate’s hot and the water’s warm.

And the tropical vibe continues into South America, on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Colombia, and the Pacific coast of Ecuador.  But, somewhere between southern Ecuador and northern Peru, the landscape changes dramatically; and swaying palm trees, golden beaches, and blue seas abruptly become desert wastelands, barren sand-dunes, and freezing waters.

According to a holidaying marine biologist that I meet on my coastal travels (who I complain to about the distinctly un-tropical look and feel of the place, despite us being only 5° south of the Equator), it’s all because of the Humboldt Current (named after the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt) – it runs virtually the length of Peru, bringing cold water up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and causing any moisture to condense out over the sea, depriving the coast of rainfall.  Which is why the entire Pacific coast of the country looks more like something out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie than a tropical tourist brochure.  Coming down from the Andes mountains to the coast for the first time, I’m struck by the change, as lush green hills full of trees slowly become dry brown landscapes of small stunted shrubs.  Settlements that consist of brown adobe buildings appear out of the shimmering heat-haze like Tattooine from Star Wars (complete with their inhabitants wrapped up to protect against the sand and sun, like Jawas or Tusken Raiders).  It certainly doesn’t look like the tropics anymore…

But what the northern coast lacks in sun and fun, it makes up for in ancient culture.  Some of South America’s most impressive archaeological remains have been found here, and to see some of them, my first stop is the city of Chiclayo.  It doesn’t have any attractions per se (unless you enjoy maniac taxi drivers and a constant cacophony of honking car horns); but it’s close to two small towns that have museums that contain some of the incredible finds from around the area.

A short collectivo ride out of Chiclayo, along the dusty desert highway, is the small town of Lambayeque.  There’s even less to do here than in Chiclayo, except visit the town’s two museums.  The oldest (although still quite new) is the Museo Arqueológico Brüning, which for many years housed the remains of the Sipán culture, which thrived here 1500 years ago.  Since it lost most of its collection to a newer museum nearby, it now holds mostly ceramics – which doesn’t sound very exciting, except that, not only are many of them exquisitely-made, plenty of them seem to be of the erotic variety.  I can tell which is the room with the sexy pottery in, as it’s cordoned off from the rest of the museum, and currently filled with giggling schoolchildren.  I can’t say I blame them for snickering – the last time I saw so many breasts, penises, and vaginas was on  Some of the vessels are so well-adorned with genitalia it’s difficult to see how they could’ve actually been used – imagine having a cup of your favourite beverage, and every time you lifted it to your mouth to take a drink, you got hit in the face with a shagging couple, or a big hard cock, or a pair of ceramic tits.

Lambayeque’s other (and newer and bigger) museum is the Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipán, an imposing Corbusier-esque construction in the form of a bright red pyramid.  It contains the tomb and funerary goods of one of the kings of the Sipán culture (nicknamed El Señor de Sipán) – including an enormous collection of gold and silver objects (such his solid gold flip-flops), some amazingly-detailed jewellery (including a weird triangular shield that hung from his nose and covered his mouth – apparently so the plebs would never see his manky teeth and realise he was human just like them), and the mummified remains of the man himself (complete with his equally-dessicated retinue of several women and his pet llama).

Also just outside Chiclayo is Ferreñafe, another nondescript town covered in dust, sand, and wandering dogs.  It’s main (well, only) attraction is its Museo Nacional de Sicán, devoted to the Sicán culture (not to be confused with the Sipán culture, which came earlier in time but in the same area).  Like the Sipáns, the Sicáns left several pyramids (which are now not much more than eroded hills in the desert); and like the Sipáns, they were highly-skilled metalworkers; and they also filled their tombs with not just the dead body, but an assortment of finely-worked gold, silver, and copper grave goods.  The story of the archaeologists who discovered these tombs in the 1980s, the grave-robbers and black-marketeers they were up against, and the historians who pieced together the story of these pre-Spanish (pre-Inca, in fact) cultures, reads like the script for an Indiana Jones film.  And probably a better one than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Four hours south of Chiclayo, along the Pan-American Highway, past more one-storey adobe houses that seem to grow organically out of the sand, is Trujillo, founded by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro himself, nearly 500 years ago.  And baking slowly in the surrounding desert are more ancient sites, including Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, and the largest adobe city in the world, once home to over 60,000 people.  Like the Sipán and Sicán sites near Chiclayo, time and weather have taken their toll on the buildings, and there’s not much left other than empty courtyards and eroded walls.  But the size of the place is astounding, and wandering around the weathered remains of the buildings, with sand-dunes and palm trees in every direction, is more like North Africa or the Middle East than South America.  The Chimu people who built Chan Chan also left plenty of skillfully-made artesanias (housed in the site museum), and numerous irrigation canals (which are still used today, to water this barren landscape).

The road from Trujillo to Chan Chan ends a short while later, at the beach resort of Huanchaco.  And I use the words ‘beach’ and ‘resort’ very loosely.  Perhaps in the summer months of December to April, when it’s possible to swim in the sea without dying of hypothermia, it’s pleasant.  But the barren cliffs that end abruptly over the brown rubbish-strewn beach don’t exactly scream tropical paradise, and the half-finished cinder-block houses make the place look more like a refugee camp than a resort.  I know I’ve been spoiled in places like Tulum, Caye Caulker, and Roatán, but Huanchaco ain’t my idea of a holiday destination.  That feeling is intensified when I put my foot in the water to find that the sea is bone-chillingly cold.  Still, what better spot than the coast to sample some authentic Peruvian ceviche?  It’s not like Belizean ceviche (which is quite dry, and is mixed together with cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes, and served with tortilla chips); and nor is it like the ceviche in the rest of Central America (which can be quite soupy, with lots of tomato sauce, and which often comes with crackers).  The Peruvian version is more like a milky-white soup, sharp and citrusy and spicy.  And it comes with a piece of corn-on-the-cob and several potatoes, to make much more of a full meal than a snack.  But it’s delicious, and the fish is some of the tastiest and tenderest I’ve ever had.  The soupy liquid (which is a combination of fish juice, lemon juice, salt, pepper, chilli, cilantro, and water) is bizarrely-called leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, and is considered a hangover cure / aphrodisiac.  For reasons which I still can’t fathom.

Back into the desert, and south of Trujillo is another complex of pyramids, las Huacas del Moche, these ones built by the Moche people between 400 and 600 AD (the site also includes another excellent museum).  La Huaca del Sol (the Temple of the Sun) is off-limits to tourists; but la Huaca de la Luna (the Temple of the Moon) is open, and is full of courtyards and patios surrounded by colourful friezes, all covered in anthropomorphic faces with goggle eyes and feline fangs.  Although I’m not sure which is more terrifying – the scary faces on the friezes or the sight of the local hairless dogs roaming around.  With their hairless bodies (bald except for an occasional mohawk tuft on their heads), they look like they’ve been specially shaved – although at least they don’t have fleas…

Heading south, and the Pan-American Highway thunders past Sechin (a 3000-year-old temple whose walls are covered in gruesome carvings of torture and death), and Caral (the remains of a 5000-year-old urban centre that’s probably the oldest city in the Americas).  And south of the capital Lima (a typical Latin American city, but one where the sun disappears behind endless grey clouds for more than half of the year) are more towns seemingly lost in the desert.  If anything, the landscape here is even more barren than in the north coast, as it slowly merges with Chile’s Atacama Desert to become the driest place on the planet.  The landscape is more lunar than earthly, and cities appear out of the brown sand like Saharan oases, each one needing constant irrigation to support any greenery.

The city of Ica sits in a fertile valley, surrounded by the unlikely sight of desert vineyards, the heavily-watered grapes producing Peru’s famous spirit Pisco.  The wine that’s produced here isn’t up to much (it certainly isn’t as good as Chile’s or Argentina’s, and I doubt there’ll be any wine snobs jumping on planes to Peru any time soon); but the Pisco brandy is famous across the continent.  And when mixed with lemon juice, sugar, crushed ice, and egg whites, to make a classic Pisco Sour, it’s a very quaffable tipple.

On the outskirts of Ica is the oasis village of Huacachina.  More than anywhere, this place resembles something from The Arabian Nights transplanted to Latin America –  endless sand-dunes roll away into the sunset from a palm-tree-surrounded lake.  Except that, instead of Scheherazade enthralling her gullible husband with her nightly tales, this oasis is full of suntanned gringos and gringas reading their smart-phones and tablets, plus numerous local tourists bouncing over the dunes in enormous (and noisy) buggies.  In order to get away from all these annoying humans (and get out into the empty landscape, which is calling to me like a desert siren), I climb the biggest dune I can find and plop myself on it for the sunset.  I can barely hear the wasp-like buzzing of the dune buggies up here, or the excited shrieks of the tourists being thrown around in them.  And after watching the psychedelic sunset, I can just lay on my rented sand-board and slide back down to the village in minutes.   Which is followed by several hours of picking sand out of every one of my nooks and crannies…

Finally, at the bottom of the coast, near the Chilean border, in a landscape so parched it would make a Martian thirsty, is Nazca.  Another nondescript town, but one that’s full of tourists, all here to see the famous Nazca Lines.  One of the great mysteries of South America, the Lines were constructed by the Nazca people between 1000 BC and 500 AD (and there aren’t just endless lines, but enormous geometric shapes and huge animal figures too).  The Lines were made by the simple process of removing the dark stones from the surface of the desert, thus exposing the lighter soil below.  But apart from that little nugget of information, nobody really knows for sure much else about the Lines (even researchers who’ve spent years studying them).  The fact that the designs are so big they can only be appreciated from the air has led various people to put forward all manner of ‘theories’, from alien runways to rudimentary hot air balloons, astronomical calendars to prehistoric running tracks.

There are a couple of natural and man-made miradors (lookouts) along the highway that bisects the bleak pampa that the Lines are etched on, so you can get a glimpse of them by climbing a rocky hill or a rickety metal tower.  There are also the much-lesser-known Palpa Lines, a set of geoglyphs etched into a hillside north of Nazca, near the town of Palpa.  And you can check out Museo Maria Reiche, the spartan home of the German researcher who spent her life trying to decipher the Lines’ arcane meanings (and came to the conclusion that they were calendars for the agricultural seasons).  But the best (and most expensive) way to see the Lines is to fly over them.  Numerous crashes (and their concomitant fatalities) over the last ten years have meant that (finally) the local aviation industry has made some changes.  And the only things I suffer from are some motion sickness during the short flight (as the small plane repeatedly, and furiously, banks left and right, to give every passenger an albeit brief look at the shapes), followed by a rapid lightening of the wallet afterwards.

There’s more to Nazca than the Lines though, including some still-functioning aqueducts (essential to watering this parched landscape), and a cemetery full of mummies and skulls (the climate along the coast meant that many of the local cultures had a thing for drying out their dead; they also were heavily into skull deformation and trepanning!).  But for me, it’s away from this fascinating-but-not-very-tropical coast, and back into the mountains…


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