Exploring the Surreal Dreamscape of Lachay

It was Sunday afternoon and our group had just traveled that morning from another gray day in Lima to a landscape of vivid color — an oasis of lush greens and vibrant blues in the middle of Peru’s arid coastal desert. As we stood awestruck looking out over the long, rolling plain that stretches all the way down to the Pacific, we struggled to come up with words for what we saw.

“It’s Little House on the Prairie, Peru,” one of us offered.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” another suggested.

“It’s like the beginning of the world… creation,” said another.

Made clear in all these floundering attempts: the Lomas de Lachay nature preserve was like no other place we’d ever seen.

A family makes its way down a trail in Lachay. (photo by friend and our guide that day, Jair Zuta La Rosa)

At more than 12,500 acres of lush, verdant landscape in the middle of one of the driest deserts on Earth, Lachay is an anomaly of nature. The area’s unique topography, known as Yungas, provides a rare spot for the dense humidity and fog from the coast to meet the surface, nourishing more than 150 species of plants and creating shelter for over 50 varieties of birds.

The view from an overlook at Lachay. The arid coastal desert can be seen far in the distance.

We came to the preserve by a two-hour bus trip up the Pacific coast from Lima. At our request, the driver dropped us off at the park’s entrance, leaving us to hike a few miles in to the entrance. Before we had even entered we became aware of what makes the park unique. Slowly but surely, as we walked, the dry, rocky surface typical of the Peruvian coastal desert gave way to a mossy green, before turning to short grasses intermixed with violet wildflowers. By the time we entered the park the dense collection of clover-like plants and flowers was at waist level.

The park itself looked straight out of a Dr. Suess illustration. Gnarly, stunted trees clung to the hillsides. The rocks that jutted out of the cliffs were carved into odd bowl-like shapes. The greens looked painted and not of this world. You half expected a zoop-a-zoop troupe or some star-belly sneetches to come walking around the corner.

A cliffside at Yachay, hollowed out by the same tectonic forces that created the Andes Mountain Range.

Though the trails could accommodate a full day of hiking, we took a shorter trek to beat the sunset. That seemed to be going well until we walked back out to the road and realized our plan to hitch a ride on one of the buses returning back to Lima wasn’t as foolproof as we had thought. The sun steadily descended and the air grew colder as we watched bus after crowded bus race by, with no room to take us aboard.

We were just beginning to think through our other options — whether our group was large enough to fend off roving bandits or if we could burn our money and other random papers for warmth — when finally, 10 buses and nearly an hour later, the sun beginning its final descent behind the distant hills, a bus finally — blessedly — stopped for us. There was no room in the back, so all five of us crammed into the cab. We sat up there until five people got off at the next city, allowing us to doze off for the rest of the journey in comfort.

Hitching a ride back to Lima.

So it was a day packed full of adventure. The day before was nothing to sneeze at either. I spent it enjoying the tantalizing treats of the Mistura Food Festival. I’ll have my description of that wonderful, tasty gift to gastronomy for you later this week.