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300km (186 miles) S of Lima; 75km (47 miles) SE of Pisco; 130km (81 miles) NW of Nasca

Capital of the department and surrounded by sand dunes, Ica is a surprisingly large and bustling town, given the scorching desert sun its inhabitants have to contend with. The city itself is not worth much exploration, as most of the principal attractions are located beyond the town center. Ica is known primarily for its bodegas, wineries that produce a range of wines and pisco, the white-grape spirit that is the essential ingredient in the national drink, the ubiquitous pisco sour (served as a welcome drink at bars, hotels, and restaurants throughout Peru). Also welcome to travelers in the unrelentingly dry, sandy pampas of the department is the Huacachina Lagoon, a pretty and unexpected oasis amid palm trees and dunes on the outskirts of Ica. In Ica proper is a small collection of interesting colonial mansions and churches as well.

Ica was first settled as early as 10,000 years ago and then inhabited by a succession of advanced cultures, including the Paracas, Nasca, Wari, and Ica civilizations. The Inca Pachacútec incorporated the Ica, Nazca, and Chincha valley territories in the 15th century, but by the mid–16th century, the Spaniards had arrived, and Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera founded the Villa de Valverde del Valle de Ica, which grew in importance as a commercial center for wine and cotton production.

No Wine Until Its Time

Ica celebrates a wine-harvest festival (Festival Internacional de la Vendimia) during early March. The second Friday of the month is a major holiday throughout the Ica department. Many activities take place in the vineyards, although around town there are concerts, handicraft fairs, Peruvian caballos de paso (step horses) shows, beauty pageants, and cockfighting. (Don't these last two always go together?) It's a great time to get your fill of pisco. The lovely maiden chosen as the Queen of the Festival gets to doff her shoes and squish grapes in a huge wine vat, to the titillation of all.

Another date to remember: July 25 is the Día Internacional del Pisco across Peru, and everybody gets drunk on a national scale.