We apparently were not the only ones drawn to the city of Ica by its pisco distilleries and its unusual desert oasis. When we stepped off the bus we were immediately whisked into a waiting cab who tried to sell us on a pisco/winery tour. We deferred in order to get settled in our Air BnB room before taking on more tourist attractions. (We were still a little shell-shocked from Paracas.) And then we drove into the sea of tuk-tuks.
A tuk-tuk is essentially a three-wheeled motorcycle with some form of hard or soft shell covering. They are a common form of transportation in Asia, but I never expected to see them in Peru.
Thousands of them ply the streets, often five across on a two-lane road, jockeying for position, incessantly honking their horns. They honk as a greeting. They honk to express displeasure with the pace that the traffic is moving. They honk to get your attention when you stop on the sidewalk to tie your shoelaces, just to make absolutely sure you don’t want a ride.
It felt as if we were taking our lives in our hands every time we crossed a street, not knowing whether a speeding vehicle would come at us from any of four directions. More than once, Alex had to grab my arm and pull me back to keep me from being mowed down. And the smell and haze produced by their two-stroke engines was overwhelming. But the sheer volume of tuk-tuks and taxis make getting anywhere in the city a breeze. And each one is unique, decorated to represent the personality of the driver.
On our second day in Ica, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed to the tiny desert oasis just a few kilometers from downtown, Laguna de Huacachina (pronounced Wah-cah-chee-na). The road to Huacachina cuts through the Peruvian desert with its blowing sand and windswept dunes.
Upon arrival, we both agreed it was a place unlike any we had visited before. Massive sand dunes hundreds of feet high surround a tiny lake ringed by palm trees and colonial buildings.
Families paddle small boats across the lake surface.
Sand buggies and sand boarding are the main attractions here, but we opted for a more mellow experience.
The heat and glare from the blazing sun bouncing off the sand is intense. We walked around the lake, relaxed in the shade of its trees, climbed one small hill and walked past another spring in order to see more of the surrounding dunes, but hurried back to the refreshing shade as Alex’s bare feet burned in the hot sand. It was a nice change from the frenetic pace of downtown Ica.
Later that day, we decided to test our Spanish skills by negotiating a ride to the bodegas (local wineries and distilleries) with a taxi driver, thinking we could do better than the price quoted for the standard tour. Success! For just 40 soles (about $13), we hired a taxi for two hours to take us to a couple of bodegas of our choice. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince him to transport us to the oldest Pisco distillery in Peru, but he did agree to take us to two artisanal bodegas.
Pisco is a type of grape brandy and the unofficial national drink of Peru. It can be enjoyed straight or in the slightly sweet and refreshing Pisco Sour (made with pisco, lime juice, sugar and egg white).
Our first stop was El Catador, where we enjoyed a fascinating tour that explained in detail how Pisco is produced, from the initial grape-stomping fiesta to final distilling and aging. The process has not changed since it began in the 17th century, save for the fact that it is now typically fermented in concrete vats rather than the traditional ceramic botijas.
Grape harvest occurs in February or March and grapes are initially stomped by foot in a huge concrete tub then pressed using a large wooden contraption.
After pressing, the juice runs into another tub and is then placed in concrete fermentation vats.
Here, fermentation lasts two weeks before the juice is poured into a copper still (the one at El Catador holds 1,600 liters of fermented juice).
A wood fire is lit under the still to begin the distillation process. The alcohol vapor runs through a huge metal coil before condensing and the “head,” “body,” and “tail” of the Pisco are separated. Only the body is used for Pisco; the head is too strong and the tail too weak.
The body is then aged for a minimum of three months in a stainless steel or other odorless container (no barrels) before being bottled for consumption.
Pisco is made from eight different grape varieties, but the Quebranta grape is typical of the Ica region where Pisco production began. “Pure Pisco” is made from a single non-aromatic grape varietal like the Quebranta. “Aromatic Pisco” contains a single aromatic varietal. “Acholado Pisco” is created from a mixture of aromatic and non-aromatic varietals. Finally, “Mosta Verde” is made from only partially fermented grape juice.
Our tour was followed by an opportunity to taste the three types of Pisco as well as some sweet wines and incredible fruit jams also made at the bodega.
Our second stop was Bodego Lazo, another small producer. This Bodega was a bit like a roadside attraction with its traditional distilling equipment and a room brimming with botijas, antiques and random oddities, including animal skins and a few human skulls.
We walked around on our own, then bellied up to the tasting bar. We purchased a bottle of “Pure Pisco” from the traditional Quebranta grape here, vowing to perfect our pisco sours over the next few weeks in Arequipa.