Ica is known as an area of sand, sea, oases and valleys. It is the cradle of Peru's Creole culture, saints and medicine men, where the best pisco brandy is distilled and where religious fervor is strong in the worship of the Señor de Luren or the Yauca shrine. The sandy wastes of this area gave rise to major pre-Colombian Civilizations, leaving traces that have survived the ravages of time and wind erosion.
The city of Ica, capital of the department of Ica, founded in 1563 by Luis Jerònimo de Cabrera, still features superb colonial constructions such as the Cathedral and centuries-old mansions.
The road to lca provides the traveler with a variety of attractions. First stop along the way is Chincha, a balmy valley that combines festivals and tradition and is the heart of a culture forged by the descendants of African slaves brought to work the cotton plantations. A few kilometers further lies the Paracas National Reserve, the only protected area in Peru that includes a marine eco-system. One can take boatrides, from the pier at Paracas out to the Ballestas islands, spot sea lions, Humboldt penguins, flamingos and sea birds.
South of the city of lca lies the Huacachina Oasis, and a few kilometers ahead, the Nazca lines, an extraordinary legacy bequeathed by the ancient people of the Nazca culture. This enormous network of lines and drawings of plants and animals covers an area of some 350 square kms and provides an unforgettable experience for those who fly over them.
Ica celebrates three major events: the Wine Festival (Ica is home to many vineyards which produce excellent wines and pisco) and the festivals of the Señor de Luren and the Virgen del Carmen of Chincha. This is a good time to try typical Ica dishes and sweets, as well as to visit the town of Cachiche, famous for its folk healers said to be able to cure all kinds of ills.
:: PARACAS: BETWEEN THE DESERT AND THE SEA
Just a few hours south from the city of Lima, in the department of Ica, the desert and the sea come together in spectacular fashion in Paracas.
The cliffs that fringe the beaches are teeming with life: millions of birds that live here year-round, and thousands of others that fly from the Northem Hemisphere and from further south, ranging from guano birds to Húmboldt penguins. Boats set out from the port to tour the Ballestas Islands, giving visitors a chance to gaze at the sea lion colonies.
One can reach the port of Punta Pejerrey, by cars where you can look across the hillside at the candlestick-like figure of the Candelabro, carved into the sand with a similar technique to the Nazca Lines, although possibly of a different origin: theories range from pirates marking a treasure hiding place to soldiers fighting for Latin American independence from Spain. The road leads to the on-site museum, back on the traditional circuit, and the ruins of the burial grounds of the Paracas culture (700 BC), whose weaving skills have been admired the world over. A trail leads down to a protected bay, the natural habitat of flamingoes. These scarlet-and-white birds inspire the colors of the Peruvian flag, and are not to be disturbed. Further south lie the striking Cathedral and Mendieta natural rock formations.
At sunset, the Paracas coast spins through a range of colors, the signal for nostalgic visitors to return to the city.
:: PARACAS NATIONAL RESERVE
Paracas, wedged in the middle of the coastal desert in the department of Ica covers an area of 335.000 hectares and is the only national reserve that protects part of the Peruvian sea which is chilled by the cold Humboldt current. This unique area is home to some of the world´s richest fishing grounds, made possible by marine upswells that bring to the surface vast masses of plankton, a vital food supply for hundreds of fish species.
Paracas is also home to guano-producing bird species and large colonies of sea lions. It is a haven for dozens of visiting migratory bird species and endangered species such as the marine wildcat or chingungo, the Humboldt penguin and pink flamingoes. The area also saw the rise of the Paracas culture, a major pre- Colombian civilization who left a legacy of superb textiles and items of pottery whose quality continues to astound visitors.
:: NAZCA: THE AGE-OLD MYSTERY OF THE LINES
Centuries ago, 50 square kms of desert floor were covered by vast drawings, figures of mammals, insects and deities, just two hours from Ica. The Nazca Lines, discovered in 1927, are the most extraordinary legacy left by a culture that flourished in 300 BC. These lines are a series of complex designs up to 300 meters (984 feet) long which can only be seen in their true dimension at an altitude of at least 1500 feet.
The Nazca culture is believed to be incapable of manned flight. Still the question remains as to how they crafted the drawings, what technology they used, and what purpose the lines served. Theories abound regarding these mysterious etchings, ranging from landing strips for aliens to a giant seismograph. The most probable theory is that of María Reiche, a German researcher who dedicated her life to studying the lines. Ms Reiche believed that the lines were part of a vast astronomic calendar whose figures marked different solar phases. Ms Reiche. affectionately nicknamed the Angel of the Plains by the local inhabitants. was the first to discover the ancient technique of digging into the tough and dry desert floor and covering the track with stones brought from distant sites. The component of natural plaster existing in the area helped to preserve the drawings for thousands of years. The hummingbird, the spider. the condor and the monkey, are among the more than 30 figures etched into the plain.
The Nazca Plains (four areas in total: Palpa, Ingenio, Nazca and Socos) lie in the department of Ica, some 460 km (285 miles) south of Lima. The lines that decorate the desert floor like an embroidery of the gods have been declared a Mankind Heritage Site by UNESCO and the ancient mystery of the figures still waits to be unraveled.
• Sopa seca. Noodles with shredded chicken, seasoned with annatto, parsley and basil. Served as an accompaniment to carapulcra.
• Carapulcra. Stew made of freeze –drie potato and pork, with annato, dried aji chilli pepper and ground peanuts.
• Guiso de palllares verdes. A spicy stew of green lima beans with milk. Egg and chisse.
• Tejas. Small sweets made of nuts, sweet black bean paste, grape jelly, chirimoya pste and other seasonal fruits.