How to get there?
Pisco is situated around 150 miles south of Lima along the Pacific coast, roughly 3.5 hours by bus. To get here, most people take long-distance buses on the Lima-Nazca route along the Pan-American Highway. It is possible to get off the bus at Pisco, Paracas or Ica, all towns catering to tourists and offering trips to the Ballestas Islands and the Huacachina Oasis.
One night in any of these towns should be enough to see all there is to see – the Islands in the morning, the Oasis in the afternoon, arriving to Nazca (or returning to Lima) at night. There is no need to book the tours in advance – they can be all bought from local hotels or travel agencies.
Things to see and do
Pisco is a small port town on the southern coast near the town of Ica (Ica is the capital of the department of the same name known for its vineyards and viniculture). Pisco is one of the gateways to the Ballestas Islands, a reserve with large numbers of marine animals and birds.
General José de Martín disembarked in Pisco with his Liberating Expedition in 1820 to start Peru’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish dominance. This event is commemorated by his equestrian statue on the Plaza de Armas.
In August 2007, a devastating, 8.0 magnitude earthquake ocurred off the coast of Peru, leveling 85 % of the Pisco town.
During the tremors that hit the south central coast of Peru and lasted for two minutes, more than 1,500 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. The old adobe cathedral which fronted the square, collapsed, killing nearly 150 worshippers inside. Afterwards, a new, low-rise church was built in its place.
The two most destructive earthquakes in the history of Peru were the earthquake of 1746 that completely destroyed Lima, and the earthquake of 1970. Called the Great Peruvian Earthquake, it started in north-central Peru and killed 67,000 people.
Pisco Sour is a frothy, citrusy drink of pisco, a pale green grape brandy, named after the port of Pisco from which it was first exported. It contains fresh lime juice, syrup and egg whites; it is shaken with ice and topped with Angostura bitters.
Pisco Sour is produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile, and has been the reason of a long-standing feud as both countries claim it as their national drink.
Peru says Chile stole it (along with the territory it gained during the War of the Pacific in late 19th century, when both countries battled for land that included the mineral-rich Atacama Desert). Chileans insist the cocktail was invented in their country.
Distilled in copper pot stills with fresh grapes to proof (50 % alcohol), and not allowed to rest in wood, Peruvian pisco is of a higher quality than Chilean pisco. Chilean pisco can be distilled to a higher proof, brought down by adding water, additives and flavorings, and can rest in wood.
The cocktail, as it’s known today, was invented in the 1920‘s by an American bartender in Lima. After the bar was closed, the tradition was kept alive by the famous Hotel Bolívar in Lima, well-known for serving the best pisco sour in Peru.
Better known as Poor Man’s Galapagos, the Ballestas Islands are a group of rocky islands with a high concentration of marine animals and birds. They are part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected natural area consisting of desert, ocean and islands.
Among the species living here are sea lions, fur seals, Humboldt penguins, as well as large numbers of pelicans, cormorants, Peruvian boobies and Inca terns.
The islands gave the town of Pisco its name – in Quechua, one of two native Peruvian languages, Pisco means ‘bird.’
The islands are only accessible by boat; swimming or walking on them is not allowed. Tours start at 8:00 am, and are best to do in the morning due to lessened winds and fog.
The average price is S/50 ($15). It’s cheaper to book a tour with a local agent since their prices also include transport to the muelle (dock) and a guide.
Nearby the Ballestas Islands are the Chincha Islands, a group of small islands with extensive guano deposits. Once one of Peru’s biggest exports representing more than half of its national income, now, they’re mostly exhausted.
Guano is the excrement of seabirds and bats, used as natural fertilizer due to high contents of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. In the past, it was collected by imported Chinese workers, nowadays it is extracted by mining bridge constructions.
Carved into the hillside above the ocean cliffs of Pisco Bay is the famous Candelabra geoglyph, that can only be seen from the sea. It looks like a cactus, or a three-branched candlestick facing the sky.
It is about 600 feet tall and estimated to date back to 200 BC (even though many believe it is much older). It was created by cutting two feet deep into the hard soil and placing rocks around it. Its purpose, creators and origin are unknown.
The Huacachina Oasis is a desert oasis and a small village, situated 50 miles from Pisco (1,5 hour’s ride), and 5 miles from Ica (a couple minutes’ ride).
Hidden on the very edge of the Atacama Desert, the world’s most arid place, the oasis was created in the 1940’s by Peru’s financial elite who wanted to take advantage of local waters’ supposed healing properties. It fell out of favor in the 1950‘s, but saw a revival in the 1990‘s when the entrepreneurial locals decided to develop its tourism potential. To compensate for the loss of water that stopped seeping into the lagoon in the 1980‘s, water is pumped into the lake from a nearby farm to raise its height.
With plenty of little hotels, restaurants and cafés, the oasis is popular for dune buggy rides and sandboar-ding (ca $20).