A short drive out of Lima feels like entering a new dimension. Scenic river valleys dotted with small farming communities add a touch of green to the central coast, while to the south, a string of beach communities are a welcome change from the frantic pace of the capital. For those with a few days to explore what the central coast has to offer, you will be pleasantly surprised. Major archeological sites, such as Pachacámac to the south and Caral to the north, pre-date the Incas and reveal some of the oldest civilizations in the Americas. The vast Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy.), a two-lane strip of asphalt that extends the length of Peru from the Ecuadorian border all the way down to Chile, slices through this section of the desert lowlands, and bus travel is direct, if not always visually stimulating. South of Lima along the coast, the hot and extraordinarily dry desert province of Ica is one of the most arid places on earth. There is sandboarding and dune buggy rides, not to mention vineyards hidden amid the sand dunes, though it is also where the South American Plate collides with the Nazca Plate, one of the most seismically active regions of the world. The most recent tragedy struck in August 2007 when a massive earthquake struck around Pisco and Ica, registering 7.9 on the Richter scale.

History—The region forms part of the oldest geological strata in the country; fossils date back as far as the Tertiary or Quaternary era. Caral-Supe is believed to be the oldest city in the Americas, and at 5,000 years old, it parallels the great civilizations of Egypt. In the South, the Paracas and Nazca cultures that took root here (roughly 1300 B.C.–A.D. 700) were two of Peru's most advanced, with exquisite textile weavings and ceramics, among the finest produced by pre-Columbian Peru.

Sightseeing—The Reserva Nacional de Paracas (Paracas National Reserve) and nearby Islas Ballestas, which locals liken to a smaller version of Ecuador's Galápagos Islands, are the region’s biggest attractions; however, there are also a string of beaches frequented by Limeños during the summer weekends, and the Huacachina oasis, a beautiful green-and-blue oasis in the midst of the monochrome desert.

Eating & Drinking—Much like Lima, the cuisine of the coast is that of the cevichería, where you can find Peru’s national dish and other seafood preparations. Hearty criolla dishes from rural country restaurants make an appearance, too. South of the capital, you might even see the occasional vineyard, particularly around Ica, where some of the country’s best wines and piscos are produced.

Arts & Culture—The center of Peru’s Afro-Peruvian culture is in Chincha, the spiritual home of criollismo, a vibrant culture filled with music and dance. Come for the Festival Negro de Chincha in the summer to hear the sounds of the cajón and be carried away by the festejo or zapateo.

The Best Travel Experiences Beyond Lima

* Exploring a pre-Inca world: Whether you head north to Caral, believed to be the oldest city in the Americas, or south to Pachacámac, which dates to the 1st century, this glimpse of coastal civilizations will have you questioning whether you need to visit Machu Picchu at all.

* Surfing the waves: Some of Peru’s best surfing takes place south of Lima at beaches like Punta Hermosa, which has a year-round surf scene. You can even visit Cerro Azul, made famous by the Beach Boys in their song “Surfin’ Safari.” 

* Tasting pisco: Peru’s signature spirit is distilled with eight officially designated grapes, which are grown in vineyards south of Lima, especially between Chincha and Ica. Take a tour of a bodega, then retreat to the tasting room to learn the difference between aromatic and non-aromatic pisco.

* Taking in Asia’s summer scene: One hundred kilometers (62 miles) south of the capital, a satellite city appears during the summer months on the Boulevard of Asia, not far from the clusters of beach houses, where wealthy Limeños visit many of the same shops, restaurants, and nightspots as back in Lima.

* Sliding down a sand dune: Whether you are riding in a dune buggy or strapped into a sandboard, the adrenaline rush from descending a sand dune is hard to top. Head to the Huacachina oasis near Ica to explore some of the biggest dunes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.