South of Lima along the coast, the hot and extraordinarily dry desert province of Ica -- one of the most arid places on earth -- contains one of Peru's most exotic, inscrutable sights: The Nasca Lines, huge pre-Columbian desert drawings, have raised many questions and given rise to wild theories about Peru's ancient past. The region forms part of the oldest geological strata in the country; fossils date back as far as the Tertiary or Quaternary eras. The Paracas and Nasca cultures that took root here (roughly 1300 B.C.-A.D. 700) were two of Peru's most advanced. Little was known about the two cultures until the 20th century, but they are acclaimed today for their exquisite textile weavings and ceramics, among the finest produced by pre-Columbian Peru.
This region, where the South American Plate collides with the Nazca Plate, is also one of the most seismically active regions of the world. The most recent tragedy struck in August 2007 when a massive earthquake, which registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, devastated much of Pisco and Ica, killing more than 500 people and leaving nearly 100,000 homeless. The hardest hit parts of the region will take years to rebuild, a factor that travelers should keep in mind if they intend to travel to the area in the very near future.
While Nasca, a small and unassuming town, escaped some of the heaviest 2007 earthquake damage, it was rocked just a few years ago by another major earthquake that nearly leveled it. It's fair to say that Nasca might go entirely unnoticed by visitors to Peru were it not for the enigmatic Nasca Lines nearby. Besides that head-scratching site are others in and around Nasca intimately tied to the ancient cultures that once settled and irrigated these desert lands, including remarkable stone aqueducts -- evidence of advanced engineering -- and an evocative burial ground. Although the Nasca Lines reign as the undisputed highlight of the region, this stretch of arid coast and pampas south of Lima has other things to offer the visitor who's not in too much of a rush to roar on to Cusco, Arequipa, or Lake Titicaca.
Within easy reach of Nasca are the towns Ica and Pisco, and the nearby Reserva Nacional de Paracas (Paracas National Reserve), known for the Ballestas Islands, which locals liken to Ecuador's Galápagos Islands. That claim might be a slight (or even significant) exaggeration, but the maritime sanctuary, encompassing the Paracas Peninsula and a lovely bay with curious rock formations, swells with unusual flora and fauna, including thousands of sea lions, flamingos, and endangered Humboldt penguins. Pisco is a dusty, unremarkable town that will sound familiar to anyone who's had a drink in a Peruvian bar or restaurant: The country's famous cocktail, the pisco sour, is made with the white-grape brandy that shares its name with the town. The region's wineries (actually nearer to Ica) make Peru's best wines and, of course, pisco. Ica, the capital of the department, is a small, enjoyable town with stifling heat and a collection of attractive churches, notable colonial mansions, and one of the better small museums in the country. The nearby Huacachina Lagoon is a beautiful green-and-blue oasis in the midst of the monochrome desert.
Ayacucho, a lovely colonial town in the Central Highlands, is newly welcoming to outsiders after years spent in the grips of Peru's homegrown guerrilla movement, the Shining Path. Ayacucho has the country's finest collection of colonial-era churches, and it's also the epicenter of Peru's most celebrated artisans, whose folk art is shown across the country.
Paracas, Ica, and Nasca are all within striking distance of Lima, but for those with limited time, a visit to the region could complicate moving on to other places in Peru. The only flights available from Lima are 1-day Nasca Lines overflights. Otherwise, you'll need to travel overland along the desert coast to get to the department of Ica, and by land again if you're headed to any of the other major destinations in Peru -- in all likelihood, adding a couple of days to your trip. (For many travelers, that will mean returning to the capital and catching a flight.) 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. Many visitors move on by bus from Nasca to Arequipa or Lake Titicaca. Although Ayacucho is a long and winding Andean bus ride from Lima or Ica, you can now fly there from the capital (but not yet from Cusco or other cities).