Peru’s Pacific Coast Desert Thrills with History and Adventure


Peru’s Pacific Coast has the biggest cities and tallest waves in South America!

Story by Carla Bragagnini

Feature Photo: The Ballestas Islands (Manuel Medir/PromPeru)

Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains is coastal Peru, a spectacular region that spans approximately 3,000 kilometres. Relatively flat compared to the rest of the country, with elevations of no more than 1,000 metres, the terrain proved optimal for constructing Peru’s portion of the Pan-American Highway that stretches from Ecuador to Chile along the Pacific Coast (and fortunately side-stepped scenic portions of the Great Inca Road).

The narrow coastal region makes up just 10 percent of Peru’s landmass, but houses more than half of its total population. There are giant surf breaks (surfing is popular), and large Andes-rivers-fed desert cities, including Lima. It hosts multiple archaeological sites, with new discoveries being consistently made. 

The North Coast: Surf, Sun and Temples

Hang ten with surf pros in the north, where Peru borders Ecuador and has some of the best surf breaks anywhere. Mancora, a laidback surf town, has the largest left-hand point break in the world and the greatest left-handed wave in the world is at Chicama (surf’s up at more than four kilometres).

Further south, outside of Chiclayo, it’s all about the pre-Inca Moche civilization’s Señor de Sipán royal tomb from 290 AD, which was discovered unlooted in 1987. Along with impressive artifacts and eight other human mummies (warriors, women and children) and mummified dogs and llamas (to ensure the afterlife was a well-attended party), it’s considered one of the most complete archaeological finds in the Western Hemisphere. Chiclayo highlights include the witches’ market (selling herbs and charms) and museums housing Sipán artifacts.

Trujillo might still be confused for a mirage, as it rises from the desert like a colourful oasis. Characterized by wooden balconies and elegant mansions, the city has some of the best preserved colonial architecture in Peru. A hard-fought battle, yet it has garnered the title of cultural capital of Peru, hosting an annual competition for the famed Marinera (the teasing courtship national dance with Andean and Spanish influences).

The beautifully-flirtatious Marinera dance hits centre stage in Trujillo (C. Bragagnini)

Outside of Trujillo, there is a massive archaeological site, considered to be the largest adobe city in the world, and the largest pre-colonial city in the Americas. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Chan Chan was built by the Moche people, expanded by the Chimú people and engulfed by the Inca Empire. At approximately 20 square-kilometres and with 10 walled citadels, it once housed 60,000 inhabitants.

These photos: Details on the adobe archaeological site of Chan Chan near Trujillo. (Luis Yupanqui/PromPeru)

Overview of Chan Chan. (Alex Bryce/PromPeru)

Just north of Lima and off-the-beaten path lies another UNESCO site, the complex of the sacred city of Caral, which is dubbed the most ancient city of the Americas. Built around 2600 BC, it was thriving while the Egyptian pyramids were being built. This extraordinary but lesser-known desert metropolis has temples, amphitheatres and residential buildings. It is definitely worth a visit for those not yet ruined by the sheer number of ruins on offer in Peru.

Carol archaeological site near Lima, from above. (Daniel Silva/PromPeru)

Exploring Carol site near Lima. (Daniel Silva/PromPeru)

Central Coast and Lima—the Other Desert City with Pyramids

Peru’s capital Lima is home to nearly 10 million people (how’s that for a morning commute?). It’s one of the most populated city in the Americas, just behind Sao Paulo in Brazil and Mexico City. After Cairo, it’s also the second-largest city to be built on a desert, and unbeknownst to most travellers has its fair share of pyramids. In the winter, there can be more than 90 percent humidity in the region. Funnily enough, the winters in Peru will feel summery to most Northern Hemisphere dwellers, with averages of 15 degrees Celsius that’ll have you wearing sweaters and scarves just to fit in.)

Though the modern city of Lima was officially “founded” by the Spanish in 1535, the area of Lima had already been settled for thousands of years. Prior to colonization, these smaller rural communities were absorbed by the Inca Empire in the 1400s. After capturing Cusco, the Spanish made Lima the new capital due to its proximity to the ocean, which facilitated travel and communication with Spain.

These days, Lima is a modern, thriving metropolis, with one of the fastest-growing economies in South America. The boom has led to a centralized Peru, with people migrating to Lima in search of economic opportunities. As such, driving in Lima is almost art-form that requires serious survival skills.

I wholeheartedly believe if you can drive in Lima, you can drive anywhere in the world (a badge I wear with honour). So when visiting, it’s best left to locals, making buses and taxis wise and accessible options. Unfortunately, the traffic, safety concerns and over-population are reasons why many travellers decide to skip Lima all-together—which is a serious pity that I don’t recommend!

Lima’s historic colonial center is packed with surviving Hispanic architecture and definitely a sight to see, and there’s the adobe ceremonial pyramid of Huaca Pucllana dating to 400 AD. And in Miraflores at the west end of the city is crazy-crackling and abuts the coastline itself—the views cliff-side are spectacular! (I’ve written about these in “Modern Lima” here.)

And about 30 kilometres outside of Lima you can find the expansive pre-Columbian Pachacamac complex of adobe and stone palaces and temples, a very worthwhile day-trip from the city. (I’ve written about it in “Ancient Lima” here.)

You can spend days getting lost in Lima’s rich museums. (C. Bragagnini)

Lima has also risen as a gastronomical capital of the world, with some of the most varied cuisine in Latin America and Peruvian chefs making a name for themselves abroad. Busy city folk are always meeting up for after-work lomo saltado (Chinese-inspired stir-fried beef with potatoes) or Pisco sours. Social life in Peru revolves around food (as it should).

South Coast: From Ziplines to the Nazca Lines

The south coast of Peru lures surfers, with waves reaching up to seven metres in hot spots Punta Hermosa and Pico Alto. Inland, the ocean leads to the adventure-packed valley of Lunahuana, challenging you to Class IV whitewater rapids, exhilarating ziplines and the intriguing Incahuasi Inca ruins.

The climate allowed vineyards planted by the Spanish to thrive in the region, leading to the creation of Peru’s national liquor, pisco. When adventures leave you thirsty, stumble down the “pisco trails,” pit-stopping at various bodegas (traditional wineries). For your convenience, the trails are located at various hubs in the south, including Lunahuana, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna.

The coastal town of Paracas has a national park for marine conservation, with lagoons, caves, fishing villages and pristine beaches. Wildlife spotting includes pelicans, condors, red and white flamingos (said to have inspired the nation’s flag), sea lions, dolphins, turtles, sharks and Humboldt penguins.

A popular tour involves taking a speedboat past a giant geoglyph carving to the rugged cliffs of the Ballestas Islands: sometimes teasingly-called “the poor person’s Galapagos,” the region houses spectacular diversity for a fraction of the price. Besides wildlife, be on the lookout for bird-dropping bombs, the islands are covered in it (funnily enough, the guano droppings were once so coveted economically that they sparked a war).

Wildlife on Ballestas Islands of coastal Peru. (Sebastin Castaeda/PromPeru)

The Ballestas Islands, coastal Peru (Manuel Medir/PromPeru)

The mysterious town of Nazca has hundreds of enormous well-preserved lines, shapes and zoomorphic drawings (hundreds of metres in size) carved into roughly 450 square-kilometres of desert by the pre-Inca Nazca civilization, almost two thousand years ago. The enigmatic and UNESCO-protected Nazca Lines, first documented in the 1920s, are on such a massive scale that they are best seen on nauseating small plane tours. In a stunning turn of events, just a few weeks ago, it was announced that 143 more ancient Nazca etchings have been unearthed by a Japanese research team, and are stunning the world in their breadth and beauty. 

These photos: the mysterious Nazca Lines in southern Peru, brilliant earth etchings that date back more than 2,000 years. (Talia Barreda/PromPeru)

A stop here requires time for conspiracy theorizing, as their creation and use continues to puzzle archaeologists and mystics alike (were they calendars, maps, UFO landing strips?). Further south, things get less weird, but they do get drier and drier: the coast of Peru merges with Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world.

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