The desert coast south of Lima, which skirts the Pan-American Highway toward the border with Chile, holds some distinctive attractions. The most famous of these are the enigmatic Nazca Lines – a series of mysterious geoglyphs carved into the desert floor – while the coastal Paracas Peninsula plays host to one of the world's great marine bird reserves and was the site of one of Peru's most important ancient civilisations. Also on the coast, the Ballestas Islands are noted for their arches, caves and abundance of birdlife.
Etched into barren desert on the Peruvian coast between 500 BC and 500 AD they have survived for centuries in a landscape rarely touched by rain. The collection of geoglyphs depicts more than 70 human figures and animals and 10,000 lines. With theories continuing to abound on the site's original purpose - giant astronomical calendar, a ceremonial tool for shamans, or alien landing strip - the site has so far managed to guard the secrets of the ancient culture preserved here. An air tour is still the best way to appreciate the majesty of the Nazca Lines.
An oasis in the desert, the town of Ica is an impossibly verdant agricultural centre, springing up from one of Peru's driest regions. If you make it here, there are some genuine highlights to enjoy, not least the superb museum, which showcases the region's often-fascinating history through a series of excavated artefacts, and Peru's leading winery. However, if you're after the true desert-oasis experience, head to nearby Huacachina where, aside from the incredible scenery, it's possible to hire out sand boards and dune buggies for days of sand-filled excitement.
For a taste of Peru's coastal wilds, this small collection of islands – sometimes dubbed a Galápagos in miniature – is home to cormorants, Peruvian boobies, pelicans and colonies of Humboldt penguins. Seals sprawl on rocky outcrops and dolphins are occasionally spotted on the cruises that depart Paracas, which also offer superb views of the huge Candelabra geoglyph, etched into the coastal hills.
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