Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sand Dunes of Peru

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Paracas/Ica area of Peru several times (it’s an easy four hour trip with something for everyone, so I find myself finding excuses to go there plenty), and thought I’d share my best travel practices for the area. Believe it or not, in my (so far) four trips there, I still haven’t seen everything!

First off- getting there:

Those with their own vehicles can drive down the Panamerican Highway right to Paracas or Ica, which is around 4 hours each way. I prefer to take the amazingly dependable Cruz Del Sur bus instead. Their seats are comfy, the movies are passable, and there’s a lot less stress involved when I don’t have to see that much of the road.

Second- where to stay?

Here you can surround yourself with luxury, or embrace the backpacker life, and everything in between.

  • High end hotels- Hilton, DoubleTree, Hotel Paracas, and Las Dunas are among the favorites if you’re looking to stay in a resort with pool services and activities for adults and children.
  • Mid range- El Huacachinero. This hotel is literally feet from the sand dunes, and it’s my favorite stay, since it’s economical while still offering excellent service, a delicious restaurant, a pool, and convenient location to the sites.
  • Just looking for a cheap bed- there is an array of backpacker hostels throughout Ica and Huacachina perfect for those who just want a place to crash, but will be touring around outside the majority of their trip.

Now, on to the fun stuff: What to do while you’re there?

1. My personal favorite past time is to ride around on the sand dunes. It’s difficult for me to accurately explain the dune buggy rides- they take a standard Ford engine bloc and put them in these crazy buggies that hold from 5-10 people. The drivers mostly grow up in the area, and have to be thirsty for adventure. They’ll make sure you’re strapped in to your seat (hold on to the handrail if you’re scared), and take you all over the dunes, zipping uphill fast, and hovering for a second just before big drops, so that you see just what you’re getting into…. It’s a great way to get your adrenaline pumping while looking out to the sand as far as you can see all around you.  Along the tour you will occasionally stop for some excellent views of the sand dunes, and to sled or board. The drivers bring along sand boards, and prep them with candle wax first for more speed. If you’re not a proficient snow boarder (like me), it’s best to lay on the board head first and sled down the dune on your stomach. Braver souls with more balance can stand on the board and fly down the dunes that way, too. My favorite time to go is around 4:30 pm, since the tour ends with a nice stop on top of the dunes to watch the sun set over the sand.

2. Wine tours!

What better way to relax in the desert climate than visit some gorgeous and historical wineries? The wines in this area are mostly sweet wines, so if you’re looking for vino tinto, you’re better off heading to Chile or Argentina to sample the Malbecs there. Still, the experience in Ica is worth it, and they do get quite creative with their wines there. The artisanal wineries offer great little tours to learn about the process, followed by tastings of their wines and piscos. Pisco is a clear alcohol made from grapes, and it’s usually between 40 and 45 % alcohol. It’s delicious mixed with ginger ale and fresh limes! Also, bottles of even the smoothest pisco are only about 35 soles (around 15 US dollars), so you can’t beat this for the price! After all the wine tastings, it’s a great idea to enjoy a nice meal at one of the restaurants along the Huacachina oasis. Also, it’s best to plan so you can see take the wine tours on days that aren’t Peruvian national holidays, as many of the wineries are closed for tours.

3. Islas Ballestas

If you’re staying in Paracas, you’re already set to go right out to the boat tours to visit the islands. If you’re staying in Ica, you can arrange transportation through your hotel or tour company to get you the hour to the coast.  Taking a boat tour around the islands will bring you in sight of sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and several species of birds. You’ll also see the curious trident shape in the sand, which has been around for hundreds of years (admittedly, my memory about this sand thing is a little foggy).

4. Nasca Lines

Confession: I haven’t actually seen these yet, but I’ll include it on the list still, because you’ll hear about them in any guide book on Peru. I recommend not taking a plane from Nasca to fly over the lines, as these planes are reputedly unsafe, and have resulted in deaths. If you wish to fly over and see these interesting crop circle-like shapes, I suggest flying from Lima, where the planes actually have to go through safety checks! As for me, I’ll take the pictures, thanks.

A Wrap-up:

I hope you’ve enjoyed my only slightly expert guide to the area. Ica and Paracas are relatively small towns, so they offer a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Lima. Still, it’s worth throwing out a few words of caution. Huacachina, because of the bars and large amounts of backpackers, can be extremely noisy around the holidays, and few of the hotels have air conditioning. This won’t be the best place to stay if you’re looking for a completely restful respite. Also, Ica is still suffering damage from a large earthquake several years ago, so you will see some run-down buildings, stray dogs, and mototaxis galore. As a safety measure, it is always prudent to ask your hotel front desk to call you a cab, rather than catching one off the street. Most cab rides within the city will be from 5 to 10 soles.

With that said, Ica and Paracas are great places to visit with family and friends. I’ve found the best time of year to go is August, as it is sunny all-year round and offers a great break from the dreariness of the Lima winter.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Florida Vacation

This past Friday, I departed Lima to fly to Miami. After a four plus hour car ride which blurred the time-space continuum for me, I arrived in Orlando and checked in to our hotel Mystic Dunes Resort and Golf Club. This place seemed pretty new, and is probably great if you want to come to Florida all the time for golf and touring around. I was quite relieved to get out of the car and relax in the hotel room for awhile. Later, I picked up my sister at the airport. It was great, because I haven't seen her since I left for Lima in October! On Saturday, we went to Discovery Cove for our "Dolphin Experience" and some quality sister chatting time.

Basically, Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive beech, snorkel, and swimming with dolphin resort. The staff was great, and we just walked around, basking in the sunlight for the first few hours. We then got into our wet suits, and got in the water with the trainers to see the dolphins in action. We learned about their anatomy and behavior, we got to kiss the dolphins, and then we even got to hold on while our dolphin (Aries) pulled us through the water! It quite frankly, was awesome. After that, we spent the afternoon snorkeling around in the reef and the lazy river. Luckily, Dad lent us his under water camera and we snapped some great photos! You can view the photos in my Web Album here:

Discovery Cove
If you're interested, take a look at the Discovery Cove website. The whole day was quite relaxing. Going in the off-season was great, because the resort wasn't very busy. There were photographers to take pictures of us with the dolphins, but the photo packages were pretty expensive, so we only bought a couple. The food was great, though, so we had a nice relaxing lunch. After we were done swimming, we relaxed in the sand with some piña coladas. The package included admission to Sea World, but I think I am going to use the pass in a few days. Today we were so tired that we went shopping instead!

All in all, we had a great day!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Baking Fiesta

So, some holidays are quite hard to get in the mood for here. Like Thanksgiving. We get the day off from work, but there are no decorations or mentions of it like other holidays (Christmas). This is why it's great I brought one dry baking mix with me, and received more in the mail from mom. The Chacarilla-ites are having Thanksgiving lunch/dinner at Steph's house, and I volunteered to prepare the dessert and sweet potato dish. The plan was to bake pumpkin pie bars, leaf shaped cookies and pumpkin cake. I made modifications to the last two instead of following the directions of the boxes. This is how three hours of my day went today....

All three things baked at 350 degrees, so that was nice. I started with the cookies. I had bought butter in the store, but it didn't have the tblsp markers like the packs in the States. This meant I had to sort of eye ball the amount of butter I added. It worked pretty well. My welcome kit actually included a rolling pin, so I used wax paper and flour to roll out the dough and cut the leaf shapes. It made 14 sugar cookies. I popped those in the oven, and  then started on the cake mix.

So, this recipe was actually for cupcakes, but those aren't very easy to share and it only made 6. Well, I have a bunt pan in my welcome kit (why they have that in there and not a normal baking sheet is beyond me), so I decided I would just make a cake. Well, it worked (sort of) and I am sure it tastes good. It's just a rather short bunt cake. More like a bunt wreath, really. The pack also came with a mix for cream cheese frosting. I tried mixing it, and it tasted awful. All I added was milk and sugar, so whatever they put in the mix, someone was doing wrong. So, I set that aside and figured I could buy some frosting tomorrow.

Next I made the pumpkin pie bars. They had a grahamcracker crust I baked first with the cake for a few minutes, then I added the filling. They turned out yummy.

Next to cookies part two- they came with meltable things of chocolate and orange colored vanilla. The idea was to melt some of each to dip the cookies, and then melt the rest and put in piping bags (plastic bags) to  decorate the cookies with. Well, um.... I don't have serious enough skills for that. I tried melting the chocolate, and of course that just takes forever and some practice. It worked reasonably well, so I dipped the cookies half in chocolate, then I put the rest of the chocolate in the piping bag. Basically my leaves just have chocolate dots and what not all over them instead of cute lines to make them look like leaves. At this point I did not have any patience left to melt the vanilla ones and pipe them onto the cookies too. Instead, I melted them enough to be spreadable, and used them for frosting on the pumpkin cake, and topped it with orange sprinkles. Voila!

So, now I have 3 tasty, if not quite what the inventors intended, types of dessert to share tomorrow.

Also, I have to make the sweet potatoes, but that shouldn't be difficult- they will go in the oven, then I am mashing them with cumin, chili powder, ginger and maple syrup for a sweet/spicy sort of thing. Yum!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Return of Jessie the Archaeologist

So, anyone who knew me in elementary school knows about my obsession with anything Anasazi, Mesa Verde, etc, etc.... Well, this weekend I got to indulge that part of myself with a trip to Caral, Peru.  This is a relatively new archaeological site (started excavation 12 years ago), but it is actually the oldest city in the Americas.  The civilization that lived in the area of the Supe valley were there for 800 years. Caral is the capital city, although there are a few other sites nearby.

The city was 20 km inland from the sea, and produced crops like cotton that it would trade with the people living on the coast. For this reason, their diet consisted mainly of fish. They were a complex society with very simple technology. They had no pottery, so would carry their water in gourds or baskets. They had no complex tools, fashioning pyramids from polished rocks they used as hammers.  They had no tall trees, so the rooms of their houses were small so they could use short trees for roofs.  They were always developing new architectural techniques for their pyramids.  Whenever they wanted to expand one, they simply build another pyramid on top of the older one. This means some have 20 layers of pyramids in one.

These pyramids were used for religious purposes, and often oriented towards the valley, or according to constellations. At one point, a central figure, who probably united the city into one religion, had all the pyramids re-oriented so that they all faced a large flat area in the middle. This also coincided with the building of the one pyramid used for human sacrifices.

They also had a concert area where they played flutes and horns.  Eventually the climate got the better of the civilization though.  A change in temperature caused a big rain storm, which led to mud slides. As the temperature reverted to normal, this mud turned into sand, creating large sand storms that destroyed the crops. It is thought that the remaining people of Caral integrated into a society in the north, which had developed art, weapons and city defenses.

You can see the whole album of pictures from my trip in my Picasa web album:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Starting Monday...

... I will start getting a little crazy. I have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month again this year. I did it last year and had an awesome  time meeting new people, and of course, trying something completely new. For those who don't know, the idea is to write, during just the month of November, a 50,000 (fifty thousand) word novel. Crazy eh? The key is to tell everyone you know about it so that they can nag you constantly on your current word count. I believe as long as you writ 1667 words or so daily, you will finish. Last year I wrote a little sporadically, sitting down and committing a few straight hours some days and skipping others. Whatever works. The thing to remember is that by the end of the month I will have a novel. Will this year's product go the same place as last year's? Well, last year's novel is sitting in my  gmail account and staying there forever because it was pretty much not worth reading. I am trying to set myself up for a slightly higher standard this year however.

As far as standards go, I already have a plot and the contest doesn't start for a few days. That's pretty good, right? Also, in Peru, November 1 is All Soul's Day, and thus a national holiday. I can spend the whole day inside writing and get a great head start! I will be posting updates periodically throughout the month. Wish me luck!

Friday, October 22, 2010

First two weeks in Perú

Hello all! I know I have been silent on here for a while- yesterday I was able to get my internet set up in my apartment, and I should be able to post more things from here on out! Firstly, I am doing well so far and enjoying meeting everyone at work. There are quite a few folks who live in my neighborhood, so I've been using their wisdom to go around my area here. Lima is a huge city compared to what I'm used to, so I'm adjusting to what everything looks like and the traffic. Oh the traffic! I think in the long run it will be worth it though.

I arrived at my apartment on the 6th and really like it so far. The rest of the building is pretty quiet. The hardwood floors are also really nice- I enjoy sliding around on them (maybe too much).

Here is my living room. I have some planters on the window sill, and then to the right of this is my dining room, and my balcony going off that. The furniture is a little out dated, but it is pretty comfy. I'm thinking of getting some covers for it though.

As far as goings on, there is a lot of advertising going on for Halloween.  I am not sure how much people actually celebrate it, but there are things for sale in the store. I bought some pumpkins for 2.19 Nuevos Soles/ kg. I don't know how much that came out to. I carved one of them tonight, and I might leave the other one for now. It's sitting on the table in my entry way and I like that. It adds a little bit of seasonal decor. It is actually spring time here, and all the tropical trees and what not are blooming, so it is not the normal October weather I am used to!

This is the pumpkin I carved tonight. He's a little ghost guy! In past years I've tried doing faces and they don't come out like much, so I tried something new this year. For a first attempt I think it went pretty well. I found a stencil on the internet, but I just drew it freehand on my pumpkin. It occurred to me that I don't have any candles, so I will have to buy some. Tomorrow I am going to Jockey Plaza with a few neighbors. It is a big shopping mall with all sorts of stores here in Lima. The Marine Ball is coming up, and even though I already have my shoes, not everyone is in the same boat!

In addition to just learning my surroundings, I have also been adjusting to all the food preparation and groceries, etc. It is not suggested that I drink the tap water here, so I have water delivered (it's the local equivalent of deep rock, etc) and have a dispenser for it. It works well but cleaning dishes is always a "process". I have been experimenting with cooking, but one thing that is hard is starting a pantry all from scratch. There were a few things waiting for me when I got here, but I just bought salt and pepper last weekend. I hit the Savory Spice shop in Boulder right before coming here, and I'm glad I did! The spicy adobe and italian cheese mixes have been getting me through quite a lot! Here is an example of my inventiveness:

I made breaded chicken using corn flakes. The mashed potatoes turned out really well because I added some of the italian cheese mix. The salads here you have to be careful with. I bought the packaged lettuce from a trusted grocer with high quality produce, and  then I used cucumber and carrots because I could peel them. Of course, I realized I had no salad dressing. I actually made some. It might sound a little weird, but tasted very good. I mixed some mayonnaise with some juice from a can of green olives. I then added some maple sugar, some more of the italian cheese mix, some mustard powder, and some black sesame seeds. It turned out a little liquidy (I started out with too much mayo and had to add more olive juice than I planned), but other than that it was pretty tasty! For those who care, the wine is a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Also very yummy.

Well, it has been a long week, so later I will continue to post some updates on what I've been up to. I can't believe it's only been two weeks!