The Birds and the Beach (Vacation Part VI)

The two main draws for tourism in Paracas are the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve, and neither was a disappointment.  The Ballestas Islands, dubbed the “poor man’s Galapagos,” are a group of rocky islands teeming with birds.  Those with ornithophobia beware: the pelicans, terns, boobies, and cormorants are everywhere, swooping, gliding, diving, soaring, cawing, trilling, tweeting and pooping.  Oh yes, pooping.  We were forewarned to wear hats and while the trip ended with only a small splatter on Matt’s sleeve, others in our boat weren’t as lucky. Guano is a big cash crop for Peru and the islands have a guard to protect the poop.

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In addition to the flying birds are Humboldt penguins and sea lions. As an added bonus, the boats pass the Paracas Candelabra, another gigantic sand figure, believed to date to around 200 BC.

The day after the Ballestras we toured the Paracas National Reserve.  I really had no idea what the reserve was and assumed the tour was to see animals of some kind, but I was wrong (except for a few seabirds).  Instead we saw amazing yellow and red sand beaches.  Poor Paracas – when it was hit by the earthquake in 2007 its landmark, a rock formation called the Cathedral toppled into the ocean.  The guide still points it out, but now it is just a couple of rocks jutting up from the ocean.  In addition to guano, another Peruvian marine export is seaweed for cosmetics, and we saw men in wet suits exiting the ocean with bags of seaweed.  We met Peter and Annie, a couple from London who now live in the Falklands, on the excursion and joined them for a few drinks at the upscale Doubletree after the tour.  (Check out Peter’s blog at  All in all, a pleasant day!

Last stop on the Paracas Tour: Tambo Colorado

To the Beach (Vacation Part V)

We left the dunes of Huacachina and hit the beach, specifically, Paracas, which is where Limeños (folks from Lima) go for a beach vacation.  We were at the beach but still in a desert, which just seemed off – water on one side and then endless sand on the other.  We stayed at Villa Kite, a beachside B&B owned by Jorge, who was an excellent host, spoke perfect English, and is the guy who brought kitesurfing to Peru.  Villa Kite provided us great views and daily walks as it was about 2 miles from the main drag in Paracas.

The walk was great – we went past beautiful multimillion dollar homes, saw tons of birds and enjoyed the ocean.  But then, as if to remind us that we are not in the US, was the stench.  We noticed it the first night when we stopped to have a drink at the swanky Paracas Hotel.  Despite the gorgeous surroundings, we gagged on the putrid odor.  We later asked Jorge and he confirmed that the town has grown too quickly and the sewer infrastructure isn’t up to par.  Wow, in the US you would not have multimillion dollar homes or $350 a night hotel rooms in an area that smells so vile.  Thankfully, Villa Kite was far enough from town and set back from the beach so that only once did we get a whiff of the sewage. The other downside of the beach was the stingrays and jellyfish.  The stingrays are always present, but a jellyfish bloom had occurred about 2 weeks prior to our visit so the ocean was teeming with them and when the tide went out hundreds would wash up on the beach and die.  No swimming for us on this beach vacation!

Paracas is what I imagine Door County, WI, was about 30 years ago.  The boardwalk is small and dotted with tsotchke stands and mediocre restaurants.  It was quaint in a rustic, Peruvian way and 5 days was enough time to sightsee and relax.

Matt set off in Jorge’s kayak one morning.  He had such a great time (once he got over the fear of tipping over into the jellyfish) that a couple of days later we rented kayaks.  How incredible!  We paddled across the bay and along the shoreline of the Paracas reserve.  The colors were just amazing – bright blue water, even brighter blue sky and glowing yellow sand.  The highlight was the flamboyance of flamingos that we saw.  (As an aside, isn’t the word “flamboyance” just perfect to describe a group of these flashy birds? Kudos to whoever came up with that one.)  There were probably 50 Chilean Flamingos, including gray babies.  Their pink plumage was so vibrant, much more than that of flamingos at the Milwaukee County Zoo.  We saw many other birds, and kept our eyes open for dolphins, but we didn’t spot any. (No dry bags = no pictures 😦  )

Next : Ballesta Islands, Paracas National Preserve and the Incan Ruins of Tomba Colorado

RIP Nazca Mummies (Vacation Part IV)

After our flight over the Nazca lines, we toured the Chauchilla Cemetery, the Nazca’s final resting place that dates back to 200-900 AD. The preservation techniques used by the Nazca, together with the arid conditions, created an amazing combination for body preservation. The tombs were discovered in the 1920s and subsequently raided countless times before the government placed them under protection and took efforts to restore some of the tombs to their original condition and rebury other remains.  It is a surreal site: the barren landscape stretches endlessly and yet these tombs lie within.  The mummies themselves initially appear almost fake, the gruesome details too perfect – a foot, teeth, hair.  But once the reality sets in that these were real, live people, it gets creepy.  So just in time for Halloween (and with all due respect to the dead), I bring you the mummies:

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Notable qualities of the mummies include the finely woven textiles that cover them, the fetal position they are all bound in and the fact that apparently they all face east in the tombs.  I say apparently because the graves were robbed and later restored, so how we can know that all the mummies faced east?  Maybe only certain ones did – dignitaries, women, peasants, who knows?  There is also a theory that the very long haired mummies were the shamans or priests of the community, but I am not sure what support there is for that theory.  In addition to the dead, the tombs contain animals, pottery and other artifacts, including seashells.  Regardless of what we don’t know, the cemetery is an incredible, albeit morbid, sight.

Preceding the Incas and the Nazcas were the Paracas, who lived in the Ica desert between 1300 BC and 200 AD.   Before heading to coastal Paracas to continue our vacation, we also saw some Paracas lines, which differ from the Nazca lines in that they are situated on the side of hills and depict humanoid figures instead of animal and geometric shapes.  The Paracas also are known for skull binding from birth until about age 8, which would create elongated or oddly shaped skulls believed to identify tribes, and brain surgery (not sure whether such surgery was necessitated due to the skull binding).  You guessed it – elongated heads and sand drawings – a theory that the Paracas were extraterrestrials also exists!

Paracas Lines

Paracas Lines

Next: We hit the beach!

Vacation Part III – Nazca Lines

“Please don’t puke, please don’t puke.”  That was my mantra as our Cessna 207 took off for our flight over the Nazca* Lines, the highlight of our fantastic vacation.

The Nazca Lines are ancient sand drawings, created by removing rocks in the desert to form the designs, that are generally believed to be created by the Nazca people between 400 and 600 AD.  There are hundreds of figures: geometric shapes, animals, flowers and one humanoid. The reason for their creation remains a mystery.  One theory holds they were part of religious rituals, another that they represent the constellations, still another that they were used as looms. One fringe theory, and Matt’s favorite, is that they were created by extraterrestrials.  My theory, with no science, research or anything else behind it besides my incredibly bad sense of direction, is that these people lived in a desert and there are no landmarks such as “turn left at the gas station.”  So the lines were a way to mark a house or family’s land.  Matt points out that a lot of these drawings are enormous, but I think the easy explanation is that outdoing the neighbors is ancient.  For the record, and Matt will back me, I did posit that Otzi, the Iceman, was really a criminal back when the scientific belief was that he was from the wealthy class, and current science now supports my criminal theory.  So I am awaiting my call from National Geographic on my stunning revelation as to the origins of the Nazca Lines.

Regardless of their origin, the lines are incredible.  I was delighted that 1) I didn’t puke (thank you Dramamine and magnetic wrist bands), 2) you really can see all the lines from the plane and 3) Matt took fantastic pictures.  While the flight pattern takes you over only a dozen drawings, I suspect someone researched how much swooping an average passenger’s stomach could handle and determined 12  was the limit.  Scaredy cats can go up a tower and see the hand and tree figures, but I found descending the rickety tower to be more frightening than the plane ride.


Whale (63 Meters)

Trapezoid (Believed to Be the Landing Strip for ET and Friends)

Trapezoid (Believed to Be the Landing Strip for ET and Friends)

ET Phone Home (Typically Called the Astronaut)

ET Phone Home (Typically Called the Astronaut but I Prefer ET)

Monkey and Landing Strip

Monkey (110 Meters) Above Landing Strip


Hummingbird (96 Meters)


Spider (Under and Parallel to the Deep, Diagonal Line)


Condor Soaring Downward (136 Meters)




Parrot (200 Meters)

Tree and Hands
Tree and Hands

Dog, but It Looks More Like a Cat to Me
Dog, but It Looks More Like a Cat to Me

* Nazca is also written Nasca, but that is too much like Nascar for me.  Sorry Tommy!

Next Up:  I see dead people.

Vacation Part II – Huacachina

After our wine/pisco tours, Guillermo and Patricia deposited us at our hotel in Huacachina, which is an oasis a few miles from the city of Ica.  I have read varying accounts of the legend surrounding the formation of the lagoon.  All of them contain a hunter and a beautiful princess.  In some, the princess is surprised by the hunter while bathing and runs away, with her bathwater forming the lagoon.  In others, she is admiring herself in a mirror and when she sees the hunter, she drops the mirror, which shatters and turns into the lagoon.  Sometimes, she ends up a mermaid in the lagoon, and sometimes any men who swim in the lagoon drown.  In any event, Huacachina is a unique sight to see.



It takes about all of 5 minutes to walk around Huacachina and the main attractions are sand boarding and dune buggying.  After sleeping off the wine/pisco tastings, we were game for a dune buggy ride.  Patricia had introduced us to a guy she said worked at a reputable establishment, so we headed over there and paid our 80 soles (about $30).   After we filled out a sheet with our name, age and nationality – but no waiver or disclaimer language – we followed the guy around as he negotiated with the drivers of various dune buggies to take us for our ride.  Ultimately we ended up with Jesus (and who doesn’t want Jesus at the wheel?), but only after he asked us directly whether we had only paid 80 soles.  Apparently Jesus thought the first guy could have bilked the gringos for more.  As we were first in the buggy, we had our choice of seats and Matt chose the front row, which brought back memories of my cousin Sharon coercing me into the front row on Space Mountain.

We careened around town and pulled up at a hotel where we picked up the rest of the passengers, who were Peruvians at least 25 years younger than us.  No matter, they loved that we were Americans and the guy in green immediately started to speak stilted English to us as his embarrassed girlfriend shushed him.  We smiled, told her it was fine and chit chatted with the guy.  Our celebrity was apparent when at the first stop they insisted on having us in their photos.

We zoomed up the dunes and I realized it WAS Space Mountain and these dunes were huge!  The pictures don’t do them justice.  I screamed like a ten year old and had to close my eyes when we swooshed down some of the higher dunes. It was exhilarating, and though I did question our wisdom, at least we were wearing seat belts.

It wasn’t just a roller coaster ride; it also was a sand boarding expedition.  After about 15 minutes of bombing around, Jesus stopped and handed out snow boards.   Matt was game, but I initially declined as learning to sand board did not strike me as ideal for my fused spine.  Once Jesus started explaining the concept to the other passengers, and I realized that by sand boarding they really meant sledding, I was in. (Fused spine be damned; who wants to be the old fart? Although one girl declined the fun.)  As none of these kids had ever been snow sledding, Matt quickly showed off his Midwestern roots and zoomed right by them.  After an hour of alternating between tearing around the dunes and stopping to sled, we ended at a ginormous dune.  I took one look and said no way.  But when I realized that the alternative was to ride down in the buggy, I opted for sledding.

Poor Jesus.  After being an excellent guide and a lot of fun, the day ended on a low note when we ran out of gas as the sun was setting.  Again, I questioned our wisdom as we sat there, in the darkening desert, with Jesus futzing with the engine.  Other buggies came by and the drivers appeared to be ribbing him, but eventually one stopped and another hot negotiation ensued as Jesus bargained for some gas.  A price (we think 5 soles) was agreed upon and they siphoned gas to our buggy, allowing us to see the sun set over Huacachina.  All’s well that ends well, and I’m grinning as I remember the sheer fun we had.  But I still won’t go on a roller coaster!

Vacation Part I – Pisco

While my life is an endless vacation, Matt had his first vacation last week.  Because we are saving Machu Picchu, the main Peruvian attraction for when we have visitors, we decided to head south to the Ica region of Peru to see the sights and do some wine/pisco tastings.  Easier said than done; given our Cajamarca location, our trip required us to first fly to Lima for the evening and then catch an early flight to Pisco.  Imagine our surprise when we discovered this was our commercial airplane to Pisco:

LC Peru Twin Otter

Neither Matt nor I fear flying, so we didn’t mind the small plane although it was a little disconcerting to realize the co-pilot was being trained.  But there was even complimentary snack service, which is more than most major airlines provide these days.

We landed in Pisco (which is both a place and a liquor) and were picked up by our driver, Guillermo, and our English-speaking guide, Patricia.  While we were originally going to go to our hotel in Huacachina for a few hours and then have our wine/pisco tours in the afternoon, the plan changed and we were at our first winery stop, Vista Allegre, by 9:30 am.  We were hoping to find some good Peruvian wine on this trip, but our tours confirmed our fears: there is no good Peruvian wine.  There is some okay, everyday wine, but nothing amazing.  We also learned that Peruvians are incredibly proud of their pisco and are in a feud with Chile over the right to call their respective liquors pisco.  In early October, the El Salvador Supreme Court ruled that only Peru may use the name pisco.  I am not sure whether that means anything outside of El Salvador (the way only France can market champagne), but the Peruvians were pretty happy and proud to share the news with us.

Our drive was surreal; there was no confusing our location with Napa.  We were in a desert with huge sand dunes, yet Ica is also an agriculture area due to its sunny climate.  Check your asparagus – it may be from Peru.  Other crops include cotton, potatoes, olives and, of course, grapes for wine and pisco.  As a result of the agriculture, transplants from the jungle, where there is no real industry to support people, migrate to the area to work in the fields.  We saw many odd straw hut communities in the middle of nowhere that didn’t appear to be inhabited. We were told they are “planned invasions” – transient communities that come and squat on the land and eventually own it if the government cooperates and no landowner throws them off.   The process is very political and some locals greatly oppose it.   It sounded very odd at first until we thought about Western migration in the US.

We were handed off to the winery’s tour guide, a young guy who spoke decent English and did a nice job explaining the pisco distilling process.  (Although I think Matt was offended when the guide disparaged blended whiskeys.) I assumed pisco was like grappa and was made from distilling the leftovers (stems, seeds, skins) of the wine making process, but it is not.  Fresh grapes are pressed/stomped to make pisco.  If you are interested in learning more about the process, this link will take you to a decent explanation (although we did not go to this winery).

After our tasting, we headed to our next stop, Tacama, the oldest winery in Peru.  We were excited to go there as Tacama Gran Tinto is one of the few Peruvian wines we drink and we were hoping to try some of their other reds in an effort to find a better one.  Unfortunately, the Gran Tinto was the best we tasted.  The grounds at Tacama were beautiful and the traditional caballero/señorita dance was a nice touch.

Our final stop was a smaller producer, Bodega El Catador, which is on a compound of several wineries and restaurants owned by different members of a family.  The tour showed the traditional way of making pisco, complete with ceramic casks.  It was very interesting and we made our only purchase of the day: a bottle of fig-infused pisco.  It has a creaminess reminiscent of Baileys and is quite tasty.  Or maybe it just seemed tasty because we were up at 5:00 and wine/pisco tasting by 10:00 am!

Next up: We hit the dunes!

The Chief Cries in Cajamarca

Remember the crying Indian Chief in the Public Service Advertisement in the 70s for the Keep America Beautiful campaign?  He paddled his canoe through a garbage-strewn river, passed industries spewing pollution, landed on a highway watching cars choke out fumes and, ultimately, had garbage thrown thrown at his feet.   That guy is bawling here in Cajamarca.

For a culture that worships Pachamama, or Mother Earth, the lack of respect for the land is puzzling.  It is shocking to see trash everywhere and people littering without an apparent care.  When we went to the Baños bash, we had to walk a few blocks to find any trash containers; everyone else was simply throwing the used food containers on the ground.  Shortly after arriving here, I saw a tiny child throw a plastic cup and spoon on the ground after finishing a jello treat.  The first time I was stunned and assumed the mother didn’t notice.  Now I realize that the mother taught the child to throw her trash on the ground.  The odd part is that our garbage is picked up 7 days a week.  There are also street cleaners – people, not machines – that go out every day to tidy the streets.  But there is simply no way to keep up with the constant stream of trash.

It isn’t just the litter, either.  The concept of using less plastic or disposable items doesn’t exist here.   Even if I bring my tote bag to the grocery store, the clerks still want to put my groceries in plastic bags first.  All of the street food is served in plastic or styrofoam and there are countless street vendors. When we arrived, Baños had no recycling program.  It was painful to throw out plastic bottles and other recyclables, but we were told that while we could bring them to school theoretically to be recycled, there isn’t really any such program in the area. Baños now gives us a recycling bag every week or so and we use it, but it is likely the recyclables also end up in a landfill.  Actually, the plastic bottles are collected from our trash by farm ladies, so at least there is some grass roots recycling.  Unfortunately, these ladies often tear apart the trash bags and leave the rest of the trash scattered on the sidewalk and street after they take what they want.  So even before the recycling bags, we would try to leave the plastic in separate bags to reduce the mess.

Water fares no better than land.  We have rivers that run from the mountains into Baños, but instead of being fresh, glistening springs, they are also choked with pollution.  Bags of trash are dumped in the rivers.  People wash themselves, clothes and cars in the rivers, the latter by actually driving their cars into the water.   While I recognize that some of these people are very poor and may need to wash themselves or their clothes in the river, the same cannot apply to their vehicles.  It is simply acceptable here, as evidenced by excavation companies pulling their dump trucks in the river to rinse off the excavated rocks.

I am adjusting to aspects of my life in Peru, but I don’t think the prevalent trash ever will be one of them.

Off to the Fongal

Cajamarca is the dairy region of Peru, so we Wisconsinites feel right at home.  There are a lot of cheese shops although  to our amusement the large grocery store also sells Crystal Farms cheeses (not Wisconsin’s finest, unfortunately).  No novices to state and county fairs, we were excited to experience the Cajamarca Fongal, or state fair, in late July.  Cruz had cautioned us that the Fongal had diminished over the past few years and that people got really drunk, but as that didn’t sound much different than Milwaukee’s Summer Fest or the Wisconsin State Fair, we weren’t dissuaded.

On Thursday we arrived around 5:30 and it appeared that the Fongal was not yet in full swing.  We watched some sheep and alpaca get unloaded, visited the few food and craft booths that were open and generally tried to avoid the cow and other animal pies in the field.

There were two types of food booths: the ones that sold packaged products and the ones that sold various hot foods.  The Fongal was not as clean as the Mixtura and this adventure was shortly after we arrived in Cajamarca, so I wasn’t keen on eating any of the hot foods.  We did get tastes of various products and bought the soy puffs, some fresh cheese with herbs and chocolate.  As usual, the vendors were really nice to us and patiently explained their products.  It gets totally dark by 6:30 (every day, that’s life near the equator) and there wasn’t much happening, so we left about that time.

Fongal Treats

On Saturday we again walked over to the Fongal around 5-ish, thinking we would check out the scene while it was still light and return later for the Kurt Cobain concert.  Yep, Kurt Cobain “Peru” was playing.  We were cracking up over that and Matt even said to the ticket seller “Kurt Cobain is dead,” which earned him a laugh.  While the fair was busier than on Thursday and more booths had opened, we unfortunately arrived just as some traditional dancing and cow showing (not related) ended and then the events were over apart from the concert.  My sweet tooth overcame hygiene and we indulged in piccarones, fried sweet potato/squash doughnuts topped with sugar cane syrup, that are quite similar to my Auntie Rose’s famous St. Joseph’s Day tucinelle.  We caught a few songs of an opener band and then headed home with the intention of returning later for Kurt Cobain.

Instead we ended up in Cajamarca for drinks with Cruz and the new American teachers.  We went to a place called Full Skee (which we understood to basically mean “you are full of sh*t”) where they had a huge drink menu, including many American favorites.   I had a very tasty American cosmopolitan before switching over to a Peruvian pisco sour.  The place had excellent drinks, a good vibe and nice music but was oddly well lit.  No beer goggles in Peru, apparently.  We got home around 1:15 and while Kurt Cobain was still in full swing, Matt and I did not stop in at the Fongal.  Expecting a Nirvana cover band, I was surprised the band was rocking “Sweet Child of Mine” and “I Love Rock and Roll” instead.  I suspect poor Kurt was rolling in his grave.