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!