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The Ica Desert

Peru’s Ica Desert (Desierto de Ica) stretches over 260 kilometers (156 mi) from Pisco to Nasca. It has several associated deserts, including the Ocucaje, Paracas, Nasca and Usaka. Cerro Blanco near Nasca is considered the world’s largest dune, with a vertical drop of 1,176 meters (3,858 ft). The Ica Desert was once a shallow ocean basin before tectonic movements millions of years ago thrust it upward. Today, it is a dry, arid, starkly beautiful land known for adventure travel.

The Ica Desert has two types of dunes: inland and coastal. Coastal dunes, extending from Paracas to Marcona, help to protect the shoreline from erosion and to stop the inflow caused by storm surges and tsunamis, thus protecting communities along the coast. Beyond the first line of dunes are larger mounds where plant life takes hold and creates complex ecosystems. In the inland desert, the dunes help to shelter water below the surface and to trap garĂşa, the coastal mist. Seeds lie dormant until conditions are right for growth, flowering and seeding, to lie in wait for the next opportunity to continue their survival. Both ecosystems are delicate, and many plant and animal species living in this world are endangered.

More study has been done on the coastal area (especially in Reserva Nacional de Paracas) which teems with birds, sea lions, sea otters, whales, turtles and other life. The inland desert is lesser explored. It may seem like a lifeless place, but this is home to several species of lizards and snakes, as well as infinite insects and the desert fox. In some areas, stands of huarango trees root, helping to preserve water and providing food for fauna populations.

The area is known to scientists as a hot spot for finding fossils. Many fascinating marine animals lived in the area that would become the Ica Desert, including Carcharocles megalodon, an enormous shark, and the giant penguin, Inkayacu. The region is also rich in archaeological sites of the ancient Paracas and Nasca cultures, including the enigmatic Nasca Lines. At Ocucaje, strange engraved stones have been found. Agencies in Huacachina and the other major tourist towns offer horseback riding, outback adventure camping, sandboarding and dune buggy tours.

Many of these activities, though, have their critics, as they endanger the fragile ecosystem. Off-road dirt bike and dune buggy rides are at the top of the list. A four-passenger dune buggy weighs 600 kilograms (1,320 lb); add to that the weight of the passengers, and you have over a ton riding across the dunes. Some buggies used in the Ica Desert carry up to 16 people. Peruvian scientists filed their concerns that the 2012 Dakar international rally’s route would endanger fossil fields and archaeological sites. Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and other countries restrict these activities in deserts. They are also prohibited in Peru’s Reserva Nacional de Paracas. Another threat the Ica Desert faces is urban growth, with increased demand for water and issues of sewage and solid waste disposal.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Pacific Coast South of Lima: Highlights of the Southern Coast,

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

06 Jan 2013

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