June 7-8, 2014
PARACAS & THE BALLESTAS ISLANDS
From Huacachina, Jesse and I caught a bus to Paracas, a port town that harbors boat tours of the Ballestas Islands. We were just a few hours south of Lima and Paracas was our last stop before reuniting with our mom. Depending on the season, Paracas prides itself on its beautiful beaches adjacent to the Paracas National Reserve that hugs the Pacific Ocean. When we arrived, it was the off season for tourism and the weather over the next few days was miserable with frequent rain and a grey, dreary overcast. The temperature was quite a contrast from the dry heat of Huacachina days prior. Resorts were closed for the season and the town’s lonely streets were quiet. With an average of more than 200,000 visitors annually, it seemed eerie to see one of Peru’s major nature attractions completely empty. My thoughts changed the next morning when Jesse and I woke up to a long line near the marina.
The Ballestas Islands are often compared to the notorious Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Known as “the poor man’s Galapagos”, a visit to the Ballestas Islands are roughly $25 compared to the expensive flight to the remote islands of the Galapagos. As a major economic source in the mid-1800s, the rich fertilizer of Peru’s guano (bird droppings) became an influential factor in the War of the Pacific between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. The excrement is harvested every decade to be processed into fertilizer. The word "ballesta" in Spanish seems to be associated with the word "crossbow", possibly referring to the mechanical harpoons used to catch larger fish. The waves are rather rough and many people who are prone to sea-sickness will find it even more difficult with the powerful aroma of guano in the air. I did not seem to notice since the cold, damp conditions plugged my sense of smell.
Serving as an important wildlife sanctuary for plant and marine life, animal lovers and birdwatchers alike would be ecstatic to visit these islands. The Ballestas Islands are absolutely covered with hundreds of thousands of birds. They swarmed our boats like mosquitos and blanketed the surrounding cliff sides. One of the islands we visited contained a large geoglyph called the “Candelabra of the Andes”, a mysterious design carved on the northern face of a cliff. Pottery near the geoglyph suggest that it may have been created by the Paracas culture over 2,200 years ago for reasons unknown. As with the Nazca Lines, the significance and purpose is often shrouded with speculations. The geoglyph resembles that of a trident, possibly referring to Viracocha, the god associated with the sea. Others believe sailors created the symbol to aid fisherman of impending landslides. At 595 feet tall, the prehistoric geoglyph is only accessible by sea and prohibited to visit on land.
Our boat tour which lasted roughly 2 hours was impressive despite the weather. We saw different types of marine life I have never seen before such as sea lions and penguins in their natural habitat. I was surprised how close we got to the wildlife that were either sleeping or paying no attention to us. As we were heading toward the docks, our guide told us how rare it is to see whales and dolphins this time of year for the water is too cold. Literally 5 minutes later, at least 4-5 dolphins emerged from the water about 20 feet away from our boat. My luck is not always the best, but this was a beautiful moment of pure luck. I discovered in later research that this sight is not a common occurrence indeed.
Paracas National Reserve
Included in our tour was a short bus ride to the Paracas National Reserve, home to numerous archaeological sites and steep cliff sides. The reserve was established in 1975 with the intention to protect the marine ecosystem as well as the remaining indigenous people of primarily the Paracas culture. Rock formations chiseled and carved from centuries of erosion dominate the desert landscape. The word "paracas" is broken into two Quechua words: "para" + "acca" meaning "raining sand". Sandstorms and strong winds are common. Fossils of Paracas are indicate the changes in sedimentation throughout the years. The reserve contains a well managed museum, claiming that the Paracas area ago would be surrounded by mountains over 320 million years. Amphibians and enormous insects like we never have never witnessed before lived in the swampy jungle of the ancient Coastal Mountain Range which includes Paracas.
The pre-Incan Paracas culture arrived between 2000 and 500 BC at their peak. Julio Tello, known as the "father of Peruvian archaeology" found ancient grave sites and mummified remains of Paracas elite. His legacy became the greatest source of information of the Paracas culture and in his honor, a museum was built within the reserve to educate and interpret the archaeological artifacts.
With an area of around 1,300 square miles, the reserve is a combination of historical, biological, and geological importance and has received international recognition as an important wetland for waterfowl. One of the main attractions is wind sculpted rock formation known as La Catedral arch along the Paracas coast, but unfortunately, the arch was destroyed in August 2007 during an massive earthquake that registered at 7.9 on the Richter scale. The catastrophe devastated much of the coastal Peruvian area, leaving over 100,000 homeless and killing over 500 people. Standing on the cliff, you can see the silhouettes of indigenous people fishing from the the sandy beaches below. As a common trend of the tours throughout our travels, there was a lone restaurant in small bay of Bahia Lagunillas which we ate for lunch. We did not mind the not-so-subtle tourist trap knowing full well how hungry we were. The fine seafood was good regardless. In this area of the reserve, it is possible to bike and camp on the sandy red and yellow beaches.
When Jesse and I returned to Paracas, we visited the local archaeological museum which in all honestly, looked like the living room of an crazy archaeologist. It was very low-key and there was hardly anyone around except the owner of the museum. I managed to take a few pictures before he came over and told me pictures were prohibited (unless you pay him a fee). The collection of elongated skulls and artifacts were on display, a personal exhibit of what could possibly be his life's work. Mummies were often surrounded by personal belongings such as shell beads, bone necklaces, and net bags. The Paracas culture were believed to treat psychological disorders and physical trauma through bloodletting which required drilling holes in the skull.The archaeologist said that he also had evidence of UFO's and claims he discovered a skull from an alien. Of course, it was cloaked inside a glass safe and required an extra fee for a peek under the cover. Sadly, I declined and we were in and out within 10 minutes.
As we departed from Paracas, Jesse and I returned to Lima to pick our mom from the airport. From there, we would experience an entire different ecosystem on the other extreme of Peru: the Amazon rainforest.
- Blore, Shawn. Frommer's South America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Print.
- Moker, Molly, Kelly Kealy, and David Dudenhoefer. Fodor's Peru. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, 2011. Print.
- Schlecht, Neil, and Jennifer Reilly. Frommer's Peru. Hoboken, NJ: Frommer's, 2008. Print.