The road from Lima to Arequipa, taken every day by hundreds of drivers who are only concerned with the road ahead, can be a whole new experience if you only have eyes to see. Michel Peissel, the French explorer who spent forty years searching for the source of the Mekong river in Tibet describes one of his journeys thus: "the true importance of discovery is, above all, in the mind because it takes us to one of those strange places... where the real world and the world of dreams become one"
We suggests such an adventure: of dreams and reality, in the south of Peru starting, perhaps, at Nasca. And in Nasca, of course it is always worth making a detour to the famous yet inexplicable lines. If you are well organized, with the time that this mystery demands and minded to seek out one of those little farms that produce grapes, figs and flowers from the desert soil, Wasipunko is to be recommended. Its proprietor, Olivia Sejuro, will put up visitors who want to experience nature at first hand. Olivia has resurrected ancient crops and practices and has created, using all her wisdom and patience, a traditional small holding which is just the place to spend a sleepy afternoon after a succulent "pachamanca" flavoured with muna.
SOUTH, EAST AND WEST
As you travel south you will start to hear the name Sacaco. Sacaco, 19 miles from Nasca turning east, is the site of the remains of an immense fossilized whale. There is a small but very informative museum at the site.
Back on the Pan American Highway a detour to Puerto Lomas is irresistible. Some one thousand people live in this fishing village sandwiched between desert and ocean that appears to be from another age. To the north of Puerto Lomas cove is a pier and to the south a horseshoe-shaped bay which is always full of fishermen using rod and line, beach net or snorkel, while their womenfolk fillet the catch nearby. Let your imagination go with the sound and smell of the sea, the cry of the birds and the voices of the men, and then try a cebiche. The village streets are full of the architecture of the early 20th Century, houses made of Oregon pine that arrived here as ships ballast and ended up in the facades of the single story houses, painted ochre, orange, turquoise or blue.
THE OLIVE GROVES
The dry golden desert changes colour. A great wood appears round a curve in the road and you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the Yauca Olive Groves. Dating from colonial times the trees still produce both green olives and - above all - the black ones that are unique to this area.
Yauca is an oasis - literally. It is a genuine pleasure to stroll among gnarled olive trees three hundred years old, cooled by a refreshing breeze. The Carbajal family owned these groves from the 17th Century. We know that seventy years ago Diomedes Carbajal still had four thousand olive trees, although now the land has been divided up. What has not changed, however; is the quality of the olives. You cannot do better than to buy some bread and olives of various types and go and have lunch beneath the trees. If you like camping, you can do that too, you only have to ask permission from one of the local families.
Before leaving Yauca buy olive oil in the village, it's first class. You ought not to forget the beauty of the olive groves, because in recent years a large number of trees have been burned and contamination of the river by antimony from highland mines is a serious threat to their survival. If you want to come back at fiesta time, remember that the 29th of June is the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul.
THE ATIQUIPA LOMAS
Continuing along the Pan American Highway South, the road is in excellent condition. If you are not driving you can sit back and enjoy the singular desert scenery, which has less sand and more rock and at certain hours of the afternoon acquires the purest driest colours you've ever seen, contrasting with the steel blue of the sea. The sand dunes near the ghost village of Tanaca look like the surface of the moon whilst to the left terraced fields announce your approach to the Atiquipa lomas.
Atiquipa has the largest area of lomas in Peru: more than 64,000 acres of misty wooded hills at an average altitude of nearly three thousand feet above sea level. The lomas are seldom visited although they lie right alongside the Pan American Highway and can be reached along a track for which a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended. Once among the lomas you will find a magical environment. The scent of herbs and the feeling of dampness on the skin are the first signs of what is to come: groups of tara and eucalyptus bushes in every shade of green; yellow, purple, pink and lilac flowers growing in the shade of ancient trees. Within the woods are smallholdings whose owners grow potato, sweet potato and cassava and, as the locals say "here's plenty of everything because there's water the whole year round".
According to archaeologist Elias Mujica, in pre-Columbian times the Atiquipa lomas were managed by local people as part of their system of cultivation, a concept of integral preservation that was destroyed with the coming of the Spanish. The presence of goats in the lomas is particularly destructive; their voracious appetite has affected areas that were formerly much more productive. The microclimate of the Atiquipa lomas is the result of the relationship between the highest hills on the Peruvian coast and the shape of the coastline. The mist generated among them is present all year round and, depending on the altitude supports tara, eucalyptus and cactus at the same time. Kestrels and eagles fly overhead while a constant buzz, as of bumblebees, tells of the presence of a great variety of insects.
AN INCA FISHERY
If, instead of looking directly ahead you turn off to the right you will find, beyond Atiquipa but before Chala a sizeable cove called Quebrada de la Vaca. Don't hesitate, just take the turn off and you'll find one of the most interesting places on the whole of the Peruvian coast, recently baptized Puerto Inca. It is a complex of pre-Columbian ruins discovered in 1950, which has been shown to be the port for Cusco, as it is the nearest point on the coast to the Imperial City. The buildings are long and low with trapezoidal windows, and there are underground storerooms for food and enclosed open spaces, all in an excellent state of preservation. It has been suggested that the Inca came here for the summer; or that fish was dried here before being taken to Cusco along a trail, parts of which still exist. There are more ruins on a hillside to the south and a strange rock formation can be seen, called by the locals the "Inca's seat". The sight of archaeological remains from Inca times on the seashore is striking, and we recommend that you see them early in the morning or around four in the afternoon. Lodgings for the night can be had the next bay, which has the incongruous atmosphere of a Caribbean resort.
Just over six miles further on is Chala with its beautiful ocean and air of decline. If you have the time and don't get seasick we recommend that you rent a boat for a couple of hours and go seal spotting. Chala is also an excellent place to eat fish and confirms the Peruvian cliché that you eat well wherever you go in Peru.
From there on you can visit little known beaches, bays and cliffs where you can camp without problems. Puerto Viejo, for example, is a cove between rocky crags where is found a sandy beach. Further on is Chira, with its cliff top colonies of pelicans and other sea birds - much frequented by bird watchers.
TWO THOUSAND ROCK CARVINGS
In the warm and beautiful valley of the river Majes, very close to the village of Corire, is Toro Muerto. This is an area of volcanic desert in the midst of the green countryside where at least two thousand rock carvings or petroglyphs have been recorded. They represent hunting and scenes from daily life. The complexity of the designs and the enigmatic figures have fuelled the imagination of visitors and generated all sorts of stories of alien encounters in the area. These petroglyphs were plundered for decades (they say that passing truckers took whole rocks away with them) before the population realized the importance of preserving them as part of their heritage.
However this beautiful place now has its own museum run by Peru's National Cultural Institute, built to harmonize with its surroundings, which contains adequate information and keeps a permanent watch on the petroglyphs. As well as information on the rock carvings, visitors will find examples of ancient technology still in daily use, such as the "isangas" or woven traps for catching prawns.
And speaking of prawns, don't miss the opportunity to try some in one of Corire's simple restaurants. Whether in an omelette or fried in breadcrumbs, they are justifiably famous.
The rest of the road to Arequipa is a rough panorama of imposing cliffs, pampas and small villages. The red desert of La Joya seems like a dream, especially in the middle of the afternoon, more so if you happen to see the old goods train passing silently in the distance, like a mechanical ghost.
You can take as long as you like over this journey: two days, three, four... You can stay the night at a number of places and camp if you want. What you must not do is simply look straight ahead as if the southern coast was boring and monotonous. Have a look at the photographs in this article: how many different types of scenery can you see? The fact is that between Lima and Arequipa "...the real world and the world of dreams become one".