Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Trip to the Coast & Desert - Ica ...

The bus took a long time getting out a crowded Lima, and it was a good 4 1/2 hours before we rolled into Ica. I was pretty beat, so shelled out 25 soles for a comfortable hotel room with a private bathroom, and crashed hard (that's less than $12 NZD / $8 USD, by the way - Peru is cheap, you should visit!).

Next morning I did a bit of exploring round the centre of Ica, confirming my impression that in Peru what is known as "the coast" shares certain characteristics. Ica was as chaotic, dity and haphazard as Lima, though obviously on a much smaller scale (200,000 inhabitants). Three-wheeled taxis, similar to the model made famous by Mr Bean, dashed comically round the uneven streets, adding to the feeling of disorder.

This is the hottest part of South Peru - inland away from the cold sea, and at an altitude of only 500 metres. Still not as blazing as you'd expect at this latitude - only really hot between 10am and 5pm, and refreshing outside those hours. But enough to give the town a heavy, lazy feeling.

I visited the Vista Alegre bodega (vineyard) 5 minutes from the centre of Ica and was taken on a tour to see how they make the wine and pisco. It finished with an opportunity to taste the various products, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wine. I had formed the impression of Peruvian wines, perhaps with some prejudice, as being unsubtle and oversweet. A bit of sweetness is indeed unavoidable, given the lack of a real winter, but these wines were smooth, eminently drinkable, and swimming with aromas of herbs, fruits and spices. I would have bought a bottle, but it's pisco that is the most "typical" product of Ica, and so I opted to take a bottle of the classic Sol de Ica to present to Paola's family, with whom I was to spend Christmas dinner.

The charms of Ica central somewhat exhausted, I headed the 5km out to the oasis and tourist haven of Huacachina. A little pool fringed with palm and orange-flowered acacia trees, the oasis is surrounded by enormous sand dunes, which have become extremely popular for sandboarding - one of the things I had to tick off my tourist list. I didn't particularly like the vibe of the hostel where I stayed, though - it had a transient, slightly seedy feel, and I thought the young guys who ran the reception and travel agency were rather insolent. Yes, that's the word - sometimes I really think I'm getting *old*.

The next day it was off with a group of other palefaced tourists to go sandboarding on the dunes. The ride in the buggy was a bit of an adventure in itself, as we plunged vertically up and down the steep ridges and hollows. This is probably all kinds of disaster for any ecosystem exisiting in the dunes, but I put that out of my head like a good tourist.

The sanboarding itself was a bit of a laugh, the dunes high enough and the sand hard enough to get some speed going, but the boards didn't allow much manouvering and got sandlogged before reaching the bottom. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, with my few experiences snowboarding, I was one of the least incompetent, though still took plenty of tumbles on teh way down.

On the way out to Hucachina the taxi driver had told me about a local legend - the village of Cachiche and its "seven-headed palm tree". Cachiche is said to be the centre of witchcraft in Peru, and diabolical influences are responsible for the form of this particular palm, which has grown in twisted loops, repeatedly burying itself in the sand and sprouting another leafy crown. According to the legend, there was a local witch, who lived to th age of 106 and is supposed to have cured the stutter of a local boy who later became a congressman. On her death in 1987, she prophesied that when the seventh head of the plalm tree appeared, Ica would be wiped out.

In 1997 (an El NiƱo year) massive rains in the hills above Ica sent flood waters hurtling down the valley, breaking the banks of the river and burying Ica in a tide of mud. At this time, the villagers of Cachiche noticed that the seventh head of the palm tree had appeared and sprouted leaves. They quickly set to the task of cutting it off, at which point it stopped raining, and the flood waters ceased, just before they entered the village of Cachiche.

I decided to check out the story at first hand, and the next day dragged along an Israeli guy and English girl in my dorm room and took another taxi to Cachiche. Five minutes from the centre of Ica, it was a poor, sleepy looking collection of ramshackle houses and fruit trees with a few bored-looking people sitting around in the heat. We drove right up to the diabolical tree itself, and the taxi driver sought out a local woman to recite the legend in return for a small tip and a soft drink for her daughter.

Not everybody coincided in their account of the legend. According to the second taxi driver and the local woman, it hadn't been the "good witch" of 106 years who was responsible for the curse - she would never have done such a thing! In fact, the palm tree had historically been the centre for the ceremonies of the "bad witches", who had performed human sacrifices in return for knolwedge of the future. One of these witches, when she drew the short straw and was to be sacrificed, violently objected and placed the curse of the seventh head as she died. These days, she said, the villagers were always very careful to lop off the palm tree's seventh head the minute it showed signs of sprouting.

Meanwhile, just round the corner, was the meeting place of the "good witches". These were just "curanderas", we were told, who had practiced healing rites. The 106-year old had been one of these, and had cured the future congressman when he came to her as a 14 year-old boy with a crippling stutter. As a gesture of gratitude, he had a statue erected in her memory. It's a golden Art Nouveau nymphette with a head of curls. The good witch was said to have been something of a babe; she "bewitched with her beauty" according to the plaque on the statue.

Opposite the statue, where a local boy recited its history in return for a small tip, resided the current witch of Cachiche, a smiling man in his fourties doing a slow trade from his little store, sponsored in the bright yellow of Inka Kola. He offered to read our palms, but we instead opted for a couple of chilled Inka Kolas to quench the thirst.

The Ica regional musuem, which was supposed to be very good, was closed, so I cut my losses, grabbed my bags from the hstel in Huacachina, and jumped on a local bus headed for the two and a half hour ride through the desert to Nazca.

No comments: