Episode 45 – Pisco

We docked today in Puerto General San Martin, also known as Pisco, a natural harbour about halfway up the coast between the Arequipa region and Lima. The two names reflect that this is the place where San Martin landed in 1821, subsequently liberating Peru from Spanish rule, and the fact that this is a place of many birds.

Pisco is the Quechua word for “bird”, the name of a clay container that was once used by the Quechua people to store liquids, and the name of the high-proof brandy made from Muscat or Italia grapes that is the main ingredient in a Pisco Sour, the national drink in both Peru and Chile.

The culture here – evidenced most obviously in the music – is a blend of Quechua, Spanish and African, since the Spaniards began as early as 1521 to import African slaves to fight against and act as intermediaries with the Incas, and later to work in the conquistadors’ haciendas (plantations). San Martin ordered the slave trade be abolished in 1821, but it was not officially outlawed until 1842.

Once again, we’re in virtual desert along the coastline – shades of brown ranging from yellowish to reddish, with spectacular hills and dunes rising up on 3 sides surrounding deep blue water. This is definitely not what we expected of South America; we always think first of lush green Amazonian jungle, not barren sand and stone. The topography here is due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold water along the coast. With the water being too cold to evaporate, no moisture reaches the ground; the area between the coast and the highlands is an ecosystem of its own. Those cold currents are also what stir up plant life on the ocean floor, attracting huge quantities of fish and other sea life. Peru is the world’s largest exporter of anchovies. Think about that the next time you’re eating Caesar salad!

We did not choose the full day winery tour today, or the long trip out to the Nazca Lines, instead opting for a guided afternoon walk around the nearby town of Paracas (El Chaco) with its colourful waterfront market. This is primarily a fishing town, with long expanses of beachfront, and LOTS of pelicans. It is also known for the painted pavement in its market.

The drive into town took us through the Paracas National Reserve, a huge protected area. Looking out at vast expanses of sand, we wondered why it was protected, but this is an area full of fossils of the prehistoric ancestors of both the Humboldt penguin and the pelican (imagine a pelican with a 20 foot wingspan and a toothed bill!).

The reserve is also the home of 2 large caches of mummies dating back to pre-Incan times, around 700-400BC : the Paracas caverns, and the Paracas necropolis. The mummies are in the foetal position, wrapped in ornately woven and coloured textiles, and often accompanied by beautiful jewelry and pottery. Many of the male mummies exhibit elongated skulls (cranial trepanation) formed intentionally when the children’s’ skulls were still soft enough to shape.

If those two things were not enough, the area is also the home of thousands of birds, notably pelicans, flamingos, and condors, and stretches into the ocean waters, where plant and animal life is being carefully monitored.

Just inland from the coastal desert, the dry sunny climate is perfect for growing grapes., which are not native to Peru, but were brought by the Spanish so that there would be sacramental wine available for mass. Water comes from high in the Andes, and collects in pools 40 meters underground. About 30-40 days each year, above-ground rivers also briefly form during rainstorms. Interestingly, we learned that asparagus is one of the biggest crops grown here for export.

Our afternoon refreshment was a Peruvian pisco sour, made for us at the beautiful 5-star Paracas Hotel. I’m mostly a wine drinker, and absolutely love South American wines, but I’ll admit that pisco sours are pretty delicious, especially on a hot day. The “problem” with them is that they are that deadly combination of very strong (ranging from 60 to 86 proof) and very tasty. We have been warned more than once by our local tour guides to have just one.

Like a whiskey sour, the drink is made with lime juice, simple syrup, and eggwhite froth, with just a single drop of Angostura bitters as garnish. The ratio is 2:1:1 Pisco:juice:syrup. Alejandro, one of the three flashy, synchronized baristas mixing for us at the hotel told that he was serving us Paracas’ own version 4:2:2 !

Maybe it was the Pisco Sour, but I couldn’t resist these little Peruvian style hats at a stall in the market. I had to buy three of course – one in each of my grandsons’ favourite colours. Necesito tres para mis nietos!

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