Getaway Fact sheets
You are here: ninemsn > Travel > Getaway > Fact sheets
Peru's Pacific coastline
Sea Lions on Islas Ballestas
Best preserved Inca fortresses


Thursday, June 26, 2003
Lima is on the middle of Peru's Pacific coastline on the edge of coastal desert. The Spanish made it the commercial heart of the country in 1535 and today 10 million people live in the sprawling city.

Lima is on the middle of Peru's Pacific coastline on the edge of coastal desert. The Spanish made it the commercial heart of the country in 1535 and today 10 million people live in the sprawling city.

Much of the population is made up of people from extremely poor areas, particularly the highlands, trying to make better lives for themselves. The result is that Lima is a noisy, crowded, polluted city with shanty areas which have no electricity, water or sanitation, creating beaches of unpleasant cesspools, in turn necessitating almost daily health warnings.

Between April and December garúa, a coastal fog blots out the sun and covers the city in a fine grey mist. During the short months of summer smog makes everything rather sticky and unpleasant.

Unlike most other South American capitals, Lima is not a beautiful, sophisticated city, although it is vibrant, and is the country's only true metropolis. Its people are friendly and it certainly has excellent dining, nightlife, other entertainment and a very good selection of some of Peru's finest museums, so all is not lost.

The city's history is a turbulent one. Once a quiet, affluent Inca city on the banks of the Rio Rimac, it housed enormous quantities of gold, silver and architectural masterpieces. When conquered by the Spanish, it was stripped of its precious metals and its beautiful buildings destroyed. After the wars of independence from Spain in the 1820s, other cities gained importance and Lima's declined.

As if that wasn't enough, it was almost entirely wiped out by an earthquake and hastily recreated itself in a manner as ornate as the locals believed sophisticated European cities were, and many of the city's elaborate buildings and plazas come from this era. The town centre is in the colonial checkerboard style surrounding the Plaza de Armas which is flanked by the Palacio de Gobierno, the cathedral and other buildings of importance.

The lively Jiron de la Union is a major pedestrian-only thoroughfare lined with many shops. Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Martin, Parque Universitario and Parque Italiano are pretty areas with planted gardens and plenty of police presence making them generally safe during the day.

Just over 200km south of Lima is Pisco which was once the domain of holidaying locals. It shares its name with the famous white-grape brandy produced in the verdant oasis of Ica and most visitors use it as a base to see the wildlife of the nearby Islas Ballestas and Peninsula de Paracas, as well as enjoying its points of historical and archaeological interest.

Pisco is an oasis in barren and sandy surroundings thanks to water from the Pisco River. It wasn't until 1925 that the Peruvian archaeologist JC Tello found that the drifting dunes held the secrets of Paracas burial sites. The culture lived there from 1300BC until 200AD and produced the finest textiles known in the pre-Columbian period.

Not very much is known about the early Paracas culture except that it was influenced by the Chavin Horizon, an early artistic and religious historical period. More is known of the middle and later Paracas cultures known as Cavernas and Necropolis, named after the main burial sites.

Paracas Cavernas, the middle period, is characterised by communal bottle-shaped tombs dug into the ground at the bottom of a vertical shaft to a depth of six metres or more. Several dozen bodies — most likely family groups — were buried in the tombs, wrapped in coarse cloth and accompanied by funereal offerings of bone and clay instruments, decorated gourds and well-made ceramics.

The roughly rectangular and walled Necropolis yielded 400 funerary bundles, each containing an older mummified man wrapped in many layers of weavings. They are thought to have been noblemen or priests, but of more interest to visitors these days are the remarkable textiles. Their average size is around 1m x 2.5m, but one piece measures 4m x 26m. They have a wool or cotton background embroidered with multicoloured and exceptionally detailed small figures, repeated again and again until often the entire weaving is covered by a pattern of embroidered design. Fish and seabird motifs are popular, as are zoomorphic and geometric designs.

While there are excellent examples of Paracas mummies, textiles and other artefacts in Lima museums, the Museo JC Tello in the Pisco-Paracas region is excellent, as is Museo Regional in the departmental capital of Ica.

Knowledge is quite vague about what happened in the area during the thousand years after the disintegration of the Paracas culture, but a short distance to the south-east, the Nazca culture became important for several centuries. This in turn gave way to the Wari influence from the mountains, and after that empire disappeared, the area became dominated by the Ica culture which was similar to, and perhaps part of, the Chincha Empire. They were conquered by the Incas and today it is a melting pot of Spanish, Indian and African descendants of cotton farm slaves.

The Incas built a remarkable settlement which is one of the best-preserved early sites in the desert lowlands. Some walls are painted red and there are many examples of Incan architecture — trapezoid-shaped niches, windows and doorways in buildings made from adobe bricks. Those interested in such things find the 50km inland trip well worthwhile.

The Peninsula de Paracas and nearby Islas Ballestas are the Peruvian coast's most important wildlife sanctuaries, particularly for their bird and marine life. Resident and migratory birds, many endemic to the Humboldt current, nest in such numbers on the off-shore islands, the quantities of their nitrogen-rich droppings (guano) are large enough to be sold as fertiliser. Large sea lion and fur seal colonies are also found on the islands.

The most common guano-producing birds are the guanay cormorant, terns, gulls, the Peruvian booby and pelican and they are seen in colonies of many thousands. Less common are the Humboldt penguins on the Islas Ballestas and the magnificent Chilean flamingos in the Bahia de Paracas.

For many visitors to Peru, the tiny hummingbird is the most wonderful sight. There are 120 species with delightful names to match their beauty — green-tailed goldenthroat, spangled coquette, fawn-breasted brilliant and amethyst-throated sunangel. The tiny creatures can beat their little wings in a figure-eight pattern up to 80 times a second, so producing a hum, as well as allowing them to hover when feeding, or even fly backwards. At the other end of the scale, Andean condors can be seen gliding majestically on the cliff thermals. Their wingspan can be three metres and they are glossy black, except for a white neck ruff, silvery patches on their wings and flesh-coloured, unfeathered heads.

From Ica through the small oasis of Palpa, famous for its orange groves, the land rises slowly through arid coastal mountains to Nazca which is 598m above sea level. In 1996 an earthquake destroyed 70 percent of the small town, killing several people and demolishing its small but important museum.

Like Paracas, the ancient Nazca culture was lost in the desert sands and forgotten until the 20th century and a Peruvian archaeologist excavated the sites and was astonished to discover he was dealing with a culture distinct from any other. The few pieces of Nazca ceramics in existence before his discovery had been unclassified, so different were they from anything else.

After 1901, thousands of ceramics were unearthed, sadly mostly by huaqueros (grave robbers) who plundered burial sites and sold their finds to individuals or museums. Despite their looting and destruction, archaeologists have been able to construct what is believed to be an accurate picture of the Nazca culture.

It evolved as a result of the disintegration of the Paracas culture around 200AD, the Nazca culture is divided into three periods: 200-500AD, 500-700AD and 700-800AD. These periods coincide with ceramics studied by archaeologists. Because they are better preserved than cloth or wood and often adorned with everyday life representations, they are important tools in unravelling the past.

Nazca ceramics depict plants and animals, fetishes and divinities, musical instruments, household items and people. They are vividly coloured with greater variety in naturalistic designs than later periods and their distinctive style is soon recognised by even casual observers.

The most extraordinary thing the area has to offer are the famous Nazca Lines, like a giant blueprint left by ancient astronauts. No-one knows who built them, or why, but there have been some wild explanations for their existence, ranging from ancient gods being responsible, a landing strip for returning aliens, a celestial calendar used for rituals and related to astronomy, or even a map of underground water supplies. It is believed they were etched on the desert sands 1500 years ago.

First spotted from commercial airlines in the 1920s, there are two designs — figures of beings and things and geometric lines. While huge geoglyphs are found in numerous other countries, the Nazca geoglyphs' numbers, characteristics, dimensions and cultural continuity as they were made and remade throughout the entire pre-Hispanic period set them apart from any other.

On the pampa, south of the Nazca Lines, the lost city of the line-builders, Cahuachi, has been uncovered. It was built around 2000 years ago and mysteriously abandoned 500 years later, the residents covering it so carefully before they left, not even a small mound remained. New discoveries are giving an insight into the Nazca people and helping unravel the mystery. It is emerging as a treasure trove of the culture, yielding paintings, pottery, weaving and body remains wonderfully preserved in the dry soil.

The lines are best viewed from an aeroplane or hot air balloon, and both can be arranged in Ica, Nazca or Lima.


From Peru's capital, Lima, to Pisco and Nazca


Qantas flies three times a week to Santiago on Lan Chile codeshare services with connections to Lima.

World Expeditions has 21-day trips, including return flights and accommodation starting at $7035 from the east coast; $7361 from Adelaide; $7815 from Perth and $7843 from Darwin, per person.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

World Expeditions
5/17 York Street
Sydney 2000
Ph: (02) 9279 0188 1300 720 000
Fax: (02) 9279 0566

To book a flight, visit or call 13 13 13.

Related links


Brochure Search

Free electronic brochures with information, resources and holiday ideas for unique getaways.

Select a destination:
Sign up nowTo Receive the free Getaway newsletter