“A ‘Must See’ Desert,” a Memoir

by Chini Alarco

   Twentieth-century Peruvian explorer Roberto Penny Cabrera, our desert guide and my old high school friend, is waiting for us, standing in the middle of the Panamericana Highway at dust-covered kilometer marker 190.

    The British newspaper The Guardian said he has the “roguish charm” of Indiana Jones. They’re right. Very soon we’ll discover that just like Professor Indiana he is also going after the raiders, or more accurately in this case: bone hunters.

    My sister Vero, who I have dragged to what will end up being our best ever non-luxury trip, and I arrive fashionably late to Ica. Wearing shorts, two clueless city girls arrive at noon on a 100-degree summer day to explore the driest desert in the world.

    I jump out of the car as he approaches us and gives me a big hug.

    “Hey, I’m a married woman,” I remind him.

    “Don’t worry, I’m not the jealous type,” he says, surveying me with steely blue eyes. “And you’re still smiling, and late, ‘Chini del Peru,’ ” he says to me. “Now I cannot show you my collection of fossils and maps. Change of plans, no time to tour the city,” bossy Roberto says.
    Following instructions, we quickly unpack our car and pack Deborah, Roberto’s highly modified Ocucaje (pronounced oh-coo-cah-heh) Desert exploration machine, formerly a Nissan Patrol.

    Reliable Deborah rides incredibly smoothly through the uneven desert landscape. This vehicle has a hot shower on one side, hoses coming out of unexpected places, extra spare tires, and enough torque to get us up every sand dune with no need to use its four-wheel mode.

    Roberto, who only stops talking when he is snoring or hunting for fossilized shark teeth, tries to explain to the two city girls how it works — not a very productive use of time.

    In Roberto’s world machines and routines don’t conform to what we know them to be; they bend and twist to his eccentric ideas. His custom-designed desert tent is another example of this MacGyver type of creativity.

    The Paracas wind begins blowing softly after lunch every day and will only stop at dusk. With one wall to protect us from the wind, the other side of this ingenuously designed ample tent is open to the stars. At midday we hang around the tent for protection from the vicious sun and the extreme heat. And at night it’s the perfect place to go to sleep and wake up with a stunning view of the Milky Way.

    In our previous conversations Roberto had recommended we pack cans of tuna and beans for three days; I talked him into an upgraded vegetarian menu of avocados, pita bread, and hearts of palms covered in Peru’s spicy and delicious aji (hot pepper) sauce. Passion fruit is in . . . sardines are out, we decree. We manage to smuggle along a paneton, a sweet bread. A watermelon that I insist on bringing survives the desert untouched.

    Some weather stations in the Atacama Desert, which covers 11 percent of Peru, have never received any measurable precipitation. The average rainfall here is 0.04 inches per year. Still two women go forward with Roberto into this wasteland that ranges an approximate 2,000 square miles, known as Death Valley.

     The trip begins with a “technical stop” at a purple, red and pistachio-colored roadside cafe for a strong espresso. But before this Roberto does a mandatory stop to let his buddy Willy, a Dakar Rally pilot, know our whereabouts. We are going to be driving past the point of no return, south of Ica, between Nazca and the Pacific Ocean. If we’re not back in three days Willy will organize a search team. If we get in trouble we are going to be rescued from the hot sands of the desert by a Santa Claus look-alike.

    “You always need a backup plan in the Ocucaje Desert,” ex-Navy officer Roberto lets us know. I wonder if the six-inch knife hanging off his belt is also part of this backup plan.

    Around 30 million years ago there were devastating cataclysms created by Andean tectonic activity. This history-changing cataclysm pushed 2,600 feet above sea level what was then a sea thriving with marine life. The scale of this colossal earth-moving event is just mind-boggling.

    Today this once-upon-a-time sea called the Ocucaje Desert is a large alluvial plain, bordered by the Andes. This paleontological treasure trove of marine fossils is 180 miles long and 40 miles wide and it’s part of the seismic Belt of Fire of the Pacific.

    During our roaming we see protruding from the desert sands a long procession of stark, angular dark black rocks; a solid reminder that the plates are still pushing and will soon move again.

    The remoteness of this area and and its worthless and dangerous reputation is the reason this desert remains unspoiled — a 30-million-year-old undisturbed graveyard of whales, sharks, turtles, dolphins, shells, corals, mollusk, penguins, and marine plants all frozen in time as a natural diorama for us to reverently walk around in awe.

    A couple of years ago the remains of the skull of a 60-foot giant whale, named Leviathan melvillei in honor of Moby-Dick’s creator, was discovered here. This colossal predator, probably the largest ever, was bigger than two school buses.

    At one point I hold in my hand the huge tooth of a megalodon shark; it is seven inches long. The big-mouth mega shark had approximately 275 more of these huge teeth and scientists estimate that the mandible to hold all of them was about seven feet across. “Jaws” would be a toy next to a megalodon.

    For three days we wander the ever-changing and fascinating sand dunes as we navigate over 400 kilometers. We drive dangerously close to the rim of some of the most breathtaking and hardly known canyons in the world.

    The first canyon is narrow and just a mile long but it’s out-of-this-world fantastic. Big Canyon is a mile wide at some spots and goes on for miles, exposing in its strata earth history millions of years in the making.

    Neither canyon is recommended for people with phobias about heights like my sister, who stands paralyzed 20 feet away from the edge. These never-ending sand walls are artful displays of textures and enticing combinations of earth colors, taller than the ancient city of Petra.

    I drive my sister Vero crazy as I stand near the precipice to photograph the small pools of poisonous water way down below. My panicked sister scans the sky searching for the great Andean condor silently gliding atop desert thermal winds searching for soon-to-be dead prey.

    Everything in this desert tells a story of time, and it’s waiting to be read. On Dec. 21, the winter solstice, we leave camp at 5:45 a.m. to drive to Ocucaje’s “Stonehenge” for the sunrise.

    This approximately 30-meter-wide rock ring has remains uncovered by sand as it sits on a high plateau with a hard-to-believe view of the desolated valleys around. The base of this mountain is splattered with hundreds of wind barriers, antique semicircular stone and sand shelters set up to protect dwellers from the wind. These structures point to the gathering of large numbers of pre-Hispanic people at this site.

    The majesty of the sun rising on a clear sky over the mountains and the absolute silence of the desert feels like a religious experience.

    On the cold and starlit nights we hang around a fire munching on the smuggled, heavenly-tasting paneton. Roberto does most of the talking and we listen to his philo­sophy of earth, life, work, and family. He also talks about the spirituality of the desert and how it saved his life, and lectures about fossil hunters and how pervasive they are. We learned of his belief in Pachamama, a Peruvian fertile earth goddess he deeply respects: “If you take, you have to give . . . there is a duality . . . a balance.” I go to sleep dreaming of being Pachamama’s daughter.

    The desert never ceased to surprise us. Rather than a monotonous landscape, we discover its infinite extensions of land in constant change. Soft dunes of rolling golden sand that rise really high or lay low; vast extensions of coarse, undisturbed grayish tiny gravel that goes as far as the eye can see against soaring mountains of flat tops or deep canyons. Seas of crushed shells of a very intense white that reflects upwards and becomes unpleasantly hot when walking across it at midday. Desert floor littered by small sedimentary domes, layers clearly visible sitting atop the windswept mountainside and hiding fossils. Gentle forms of undulating rocks carved by moving water and strong winds during millions of years. 
    And on the edge of the desert gravediggers still roam the landscape looting ancient tombs in search of highly prized museum-quality textiles and pottery from two of Peru’s 2,000-year-old pre-Hispanic cultures, the Nazca and the Paracas.

    Peru’s rich archaeological past, and the incursions of treasure and bone hunters, has sparked a controversial political debate. The legal battle between Peru and Yale University in the United States over Inca artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham, the American explorer credited with drawing world attention to the lost city of Machu Picchu a century ago, exemplifies the loss of national treasures to museums, universities, and collectors abroad and Peru’s new approach at bringing them back. Peruvian law classifies fossils as national patrimony and requires that they remain in Peru. In 2010 more than 1,500 fossils were stopped at the airport from being taken out of the country.

    This desert and her holdings have found a passionate lover and protector in Penny Cabrera, the son of an Irishman and also a descendant of one of the founders of the city of Ica on his mother’s side.

    In his room in the old, charming, and decrepit Cabrera house in the Plaza de Armas he lives looking at topographic, satellite, geological, and elevation maps of the desert, which cover his walls.

    Shark teeth, rocks, and fossils cover all other available surfaces of the long rectangular room he calls home.

    Looters have ravaged archaeological burial sites for years, and fossil digging goes mostly unpunished. Enforcement is difficult, to say the least, with police presence being severely lacking or otherwise nonexistent. And vast economic interests are in play, with museum-quality fossils selling on the black market for millions of dollars.

    Roberto wants Ica to have a museum that will preserve for future generations all the wonders that the desert is slowly releasing. He explains that when we are able to see these fossils on the desert floor it also means the erosion caused by the violence of strong winds and sand has begun.

    An exposed megalodon tooth will only stay whole for a short period. A couple of years ago there was a proposal from the University of Berlin to build a museum on site in the desert, but the project did not get started, as there was no answer from the Peruvian government.

    Time is running out for this desert, an amazingly beautiful million-years-old lady. It is a completely out-of-the-way “must see” if you go to Peru. Two recommendations: don’t try to go alone and remember, “Veni, vidi (I came, I saw) . . . is all you need to conquer.

    Chini Alarco, a native of Peru, moved to East Hampton 18 years ago. An outdoors enthusiast, runner, dancer, and adventurous traveler, she has a background in advertising and marketing, and is an advocate on Latino issues. She manages C. Whitmore Gardens in Amagansett, where she works in horticultural design.