Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Peru's Desert

If you read the atlas you{ll learn that much of southern Peru is a desert, but nothing puts that so firmly in mind as a ride along the Pan-American highway south from Lima. From the second floor of our behemoth Cruz del Sur bus, we looked out over an ashy-tawny expanse of mainly sand,  interspersed with small stones and rocks, and ranges of mountains - the Andes!- moving in and out on the eastern horizon.

Sometimes we ran closer to the Pacific, where towns like Pisco lay at the end of dusty spur roads. This area was subject to a major earthquake five years ago, which accounted for at least some of the battered and crumpled look of what we saw. The country performed a wide-scale simulation of earthquake (sismo) preparedness strategies on the anniversary.

Our destination this day was Ica and Huacachina. The former revealed itself to be an agricultural center for the production of onions, celery and grapes, particularly the grapes from which the Peruvian form of brandy known as Pisco is made. Agriculture in the desert, you might wonder how they manage. I saw an Israeli breakfast in a restaurant, so maybe those desert-renewal experts are in town helping out.

So far the water  has been mainly from wells tapping underground streams draining from the Andes, and from Andean rainfall running down riverbeds during three months of the year. The actual annual rainfall here is measured in scant fractions of an inch.  But they are running short, the wells are getting deeper, the rains not as reliable, and it is a wonder that an estimated 220,000 people can support themselves here. Among the things we were told, and, as usual, there is no knowing what is really true  is that there is a strict prohibition on the construction of any new well, but also that the Chileans (who seem to be the villains in many matters) are buying up land and planting cheap grapes to flesh out their own wines. 

Huacachina is an oasis just a few kilometers from Ica. The oases (?) of my imagination rise up from flat desert, whereas here the oasis is a fold among high surrounding dunes, but it is a classic, pretty little lagoon that you can walk around in twenty minutes. It is surrounded by palm trees, and small hotels and restaurants. The attraction here, other than the sheer shock of the scenery, is that one might go sandboarding, or careening up and down in a dune-buggy. We clambered up to one of the tops to take in the sunset and on the way were overtaken by a squad of incredibly fit military types who ran through the sand like it was asphalt.

The lady at the hotel Curasi told me that there used to be seven oases like this in the area; hers was the only one left, and they been topping it up with water from a truck for several years now. Her family had been waiters in the restaurants, saved their money and were able to built their hotel on the proceeds, so they have a sure interest in keeping the oasis irrigated.

Like everywhere else we have been in this Peruvian winter, it is pleasant during the day, and two-blanket chilly at night. And I forgot to mention that in this up-side-down hemisphere, the toilets, given the chance, do in fact flush clockwise.

Ica has a flag-raising ceremony in the downtown Plaza de Armas every Sunday morning. These were among the many schoolchildren, boys and girls,  taking part. They enjoyed having their picture taken, and wanted more!

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