Seen from the road, the shanty towns themselves scarcely seem to live up to their dodgy reputation, appearing more like actual villages creeping up the sandy slopes, complete with gardens, markets, and scrupulously clean inhabitants. The day my tour group left Lima to travel by bus south to Pisco, everyone seemed to be heading for work in the city, the men uniformly dressed in crisply spotless white shirts. Our guide informed us the government will pay for the roof for a school if the school itself is built by the shanty town community. The theory behind this program seemed to be to encourage and implement a ‘self-help’ philosophy in these communities. The road to Pisco itself afforded variations of these townships, interspersed with irrigation areas to develop the country’s agriculture and reforestation schemes.
The tour’s boat trip to the Islas Ballestos left from the harbour of Paracas and took us through a slightly choppy and decidedly polluted Pacific to the islands, where our group spent a couple of hours cruising around gazing at oblivious sea lions as they alternated between basking in the sun and playing, their babies watched patiently by expectant turkey buzzards. A few Humboldt penguins were huddled together against the sea spray, looking philosophical, as I believe all penguins do. Boobys, terns and pelicans (noticeably greyer and less photogenic compared to those on the western side of the Pacific) and their pungent guano completed the mix. For those not interested in wildlife, the islands themselves sport some impressive rock formations – shaped by the granite remaining after the softer undersides have been washed slowly away to create dark, moss-spattered arches and sea caves which looked more chiselled out and slab-like than eroded away. The ocean is greener and more brooding than the Pacific I am used to in Australia. I used more film than I had intended to try to capture its brittle, gleaming and jade-like surface.
The mystery and appeal of Nazca, the next destination on our tour, seems limited to its geoglyphs, lines and animal and bird shapes carved into the desert floor somewhere between 200 and 700 BCE. To see them, travellers have a choice – risk losing your breakfast in a light plane flying over the geoglyphs, or see them from only slightly above the ground. However, taking the time to visit the Museo Maria Reiche and its knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides helped to explain a lot more about the local climate, geography and the various theories about the purpose and meaning of the lines themselves, which range from a religious significance such as fertility symbols to a giant astronomical calendar. It also provides a respite from the searing heat outside, with the viewing platform itself almost too hot to visit even by mid-morning. With visits to the Chauchilla Cemetery and its excavated mummies and skeletons in their tombs, and a traditional ceramic factory where pots bearing designs from the lines are made using nose sweat to keep the clay moist during its shaping, Nazca has much to offer, least of all the possibility of visiting an oasis further into the desert for a swim and an Inca Cola.