Terrain and Weather
Peru's southern coast is desert terrain. There is more variation inland where deserts are interspersed with fertile valleys, gorges, mountains and plateaus. The coastline has a dry year-round climate and is sunniest from December through March. From May to October, the garua mists enshroud the southern coast. As one travels inland, the desert temperatures go from hot to hotter. May to November is cloudy below 650 feet.
Nine miles south of Pisco and just north of the Paracas National Reserve, the Islas Ballestas attract such sea birds as penguins and pelicans and rarer species, including condors at certain times of year, plus a multitude of sea lions. The islands may be toured by boat. Immense 692,000-acre Paracas National Reserve protects the Paracas peninsula, where condors, flamingos and a vast array of seabirds may be seen from viewpoints. June and July are the best time to observe penguins and sea turtles as well as dolphins and manta rays off-shore. The pre-Columbian hillside drawing called El Candelabro is also in the reserve.
Ninety-three miles southwest of Arequipa near the coastal town of Mollendo lies the Mejia Lagoons National Sanctuary, a 1,700-acre ancient floodplain, protected by the Ramsar convention. The variety of ecosystems contained in the sanctuary makes it a haven for over 150 bird species.
Bicycling is allowed in the Paracas National Reserve. Trips here are best guided and range from short beach routes to longer rides for more expert riders. Heading west to the Pacific after it passes through the canyon, the Colca River becomes known as the Majes. The area where year-round rafting is possible offers little in the way of exciting rapids, but the landscape is very picturesque.
Along the rugged chiseled coastline are some palm-lined beaches and some with rough waters and an undertow. To surf off Isla San Gallan, west of the Paracas peninsula, the area must be reached by boat and has the added attraction of sea lion companions. Other beaches of note include Camana which is popular with weekenders, Matarani, known for its seafood, and Las Ninas, Naplo, Chala and Mollendo.
The southern coastal region's most famous archeological site is located just off the Pan-American Highway in the desert plains west of the town of Nazca. Discovered in the 1940s, the Nazca Lines of animal shapes and geometric designs were made by removing the surface stone to reveal the lighter colored soil below. The origin and significance of the Nazca Lines are still a mystery. Scientists believe they may be an astronomical calendar created by the Nazca culture that existed between 50 BC and 600 AD and that the lines were meant to be viewed from above, since it is only from this vantage point that the shapes may be recognized. Nearby are the ruins of the pre-Incan Cahuachi complex, containing thirty pyramids and a sophisticated system of aqueducts. In 2005 at Palpa, a few miles north of Nazca, a ninety sq-mile site of fifty figures and animals was discovered, belonging to the oldest coastal civilization, the Paracas (600 BC to 175 AD), using the same technique as at Nazca. The Paracas people were known for their weavings, the best examples of which are housed in Lima's Museo Nacional and the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera.
The Incas built the Tambo Colorado citadel out of red stone in the Pisco River valley to oversee crop cultivation and maintain control of the region, providing a welcome rest stop for warriors passing through the area. Though much of the original color has faded, the structures are well-preserved.
Ica is the center of Peru's quebranta wine-growing region, most commonly used in the making of the much-loved brandy that makes up the frothy concoction called a Pisco Sour. One may tour the numerous bodegas where the brandy is produced. Ica is also the heart of the country's thriving asparagus-growing region, an important export industry. Some people come here to sand-board and relax at Huacachina Lake, an oasis, on the nearby dunes. The Museo Historico Regional is the city's major museum, providing visitors on Peru tours an introduction to the region's indigenous history. Pisco itself, 148 miles south of Lima on the Pan-American Highway, is an attractive inland colonial town in a picturesque setting. While the city is best known as the name of Peru's national cocktail, it is also where General Jose San Martin first landed to help gain independence for Peru in 1821.
Other major cities near the southern coast include Ilo, a port in the Moquegua Department, and Tacna, located in the Atacama Desert twenty-one miles north of the border with Chile. Chile's forty-six year occupation of the department of Tacna following Peru's 1883 defeat in the War of the Pacific has influenced the flavor of its namesake capital. The Tacna area has many patriotic monuments including the striking landmark, Monumento el Alto de la Aliaza. Tacna street names commemorate the heroes who fought for Peru's independence from Spain and against the invasion of Chile.
Other Sights and Activities
The region's most important wine region is found around Chincha, being known for its Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Bicycling is popular in the upper valley. If your Peru travel takes you to the southern reaches of Peru in the department of Moquequa, you'll find lovely villages and great seafood, especially the river shrimp.
In February the region's best Carnival celebration takes place in Chincha as does the city's famous Fiesta Verano Negro, a celebration of Afro-Peruvian music and dance that continues to grow in popularity internationally after its 1950s' resurgence. In March, the Festival Internacional de la Vendimia Iquena, a harvest celebration with a wine-tasting focus, is held in Ica. In May, Pisco honors the patron saints of fishermen with the San Pedro y San Pablo Festival, consisting of dining on seafood delicacies. National Pisco Day is the third Saturday in September. In October the Senor de Luren Pilgrimage honors the Patron Saint of Ica with a nighttime procession along the city's decorated streets. In December, the Our Lady of Carmen celebration of Chincha fills the city with Afro-Peruvian song and dance.
Southern Explorations offers tour extensions to the southern coastal region to visit Ica and the Paracas National Reserve, to observe the wildlife of Islas Ballestas by boat and to fly over the Nazca Lines.