Paracas is home to my new favorite oxymoron: the tropical desert. It is, thus far, the best example I’ve seen of how intensely and vibrantly varied this country is. Our touring adventure began with a ten minute (or less) mini-bus ride to the docks, where we boarded a ferry and strapped on our orange life jackets.
The ride was surprisingly calm and, just about fifteen minutes into the ocean, we putt-putted up next to a yellow stretch of mountain. In a combination of fluid Spanish and semi-broken (but confident) English, the guide directed our attention to an odd shape.
The “Paracas National Reserve” is what we were technically visiting; it is a collection of protected natural wonders located in Ica, Peru. Here, the marine wildlife is protected and the cultural heritage of the Paracas people (cerca 100 BCE to 300 CE) is preserved. Give or take, about 2,000 years ago indigenous people were here, burying their dead, playing their music, and carving now-mysterious markings into mountainsides. At about 600 feet tall, the “geogylph” below is the Paracas Candelabro (Paracas Candelabrum/Candle holder). What looks deceptively like sand is actually rather solid rock underneath; even after two millennia, the figure’s lines are about two feet deep. Although stories abound–from an old god’s lightning staff to a free mason symbol–in short, we don’t know what it is, let alone why or how it was created.
After a while of visiting these places, you get used to the “We don’t know” explanation. In Europe, for the most part, it seems guides can feed you facts for hours. In Peru, you generally learn to settle into the mystery.
Chugging onwards, we started to catch glimpses of the wildlife. They danced, swooped, splashed, and waddled into stunning caves and across the mountains. Where the ocean had eaten into the mountains, great bursts of color were revealed too. Bright yellow, red, orange and even purple bands of rock swallowed the blue water.
The first attraction were the flocks of birds… many, many birds. Although these included some adorable version of penguins, the most exciting creature (according to our guide) was a particular gull. What made it so special? The fact that their excrement, which coats the rocks in a thick, sticky layer, can be sold for a small fortune per bag.
Apparently, organic fertilizer is becoming an ever-hotter commodity. Farmers growing organic can sell their products at far higher prices. The catch, however, is that most organic fertilizers just aren’t as effective as non-organic ones; the farmers might be able to raise the price, but they can’t often grow as much. The magical cure to this dilemma? Bird poo flakes chiseled off the sides of Paracas mountains. Some wooden relics still remain from when there were no regulations to the feces-harvesting; now, though, farmers of the white gold can only visit certain times of the year, ensuring the habitat stays relatively undisturbed.
On a more romantic note, we also got several glimpses of the “lobos del mar”, or sea wolves. While there might be regulations in place to protect the nature, the regulations for protecting tourists are still minimal. Perhaps largely as a result, our guide drove us sometimes just a few arms’ lengths away from petting distance of these massive creatures.
Whole families of sea wolves were out hoping for summer to arrive soon. They cuddled together on rocky islands and gave us a few disinterested huffs before going back to sleep. Our guide, grinning broadly, informed us that the males typically take on heaving harems of about six to eight females. Just as all the men on the boat started chortling though, he followed up with the punch line: There’s only one time (just a few days) per year the females are willing to have sex. Based on some of the snorts and barks, this didn’t seem to be doing miracles for marital sea wolf bliss.
Just about fifteen minutes from this rocky menagerie of life and energy, we then visited the Paracas “tropical desert”. Minus the fact that it is bordered by miles of water, the area does have all the aspects of a desert. It’s sandy. It’s windy. It’s bleak and seems to stretch endlessly into the horizon; if you didn’t know there was an ocean just over the hills, it would be damn intimidating.
The colors of this place were extraordinary. In Peru, they always are. The sand there is not fine beach sand like you would expect, but a sort of thin earth; it blows off with the wind–hence the gorgeous wave patterns–but still maintains a coating of darker, bluish dust. If you rake your foot across it, a bright yellow streak is revealed.
While hiking around the desert, the guide pointed that this had all once been a deep ocean floor. If you dusted away enough of the yellow sand, hundreds of tiny fossils were revealed. In stone circles, the outlines of much larger creatures were preserved as well.
With a combination of bumpy driving and just plain hoofing it, we also visited the remains of the rocky arch named La Catedral (The Cathedral). In a glass-encased photo nearby, La Catedral rises majestically out and over the water; however, after an earthquake in 2007, the arch crumbled, leaving behind little of the original. The local community was so attached to the natural formation that there had actually been some talk of rebuilding it. Sanity prevailed though, and the area is now a reminder of how tremendously powerful the earth is in these parts.
Here we were also able to see the very aptly-named Playa Roja (Red Beach), where the sand was a deep, rich, almost crimson red. Against the bright yellow sand and turquoise sea, it was a striking scene. Strew across the tide’s edge were an interesting variety of seaweed– the vines literally had plastic-esque pockets of air running down them, allowing them to float vertically.
After working up a heck of an appetite, we trundled into a small cove where an old restaurant stood beachside. Our waiter told us it was built just prior to the regulations being instituted about this reserve area; as a result, they now get a constant flow of tourists with no competition. The lack of competitors didn’t seem to dull the food at all though, especially with the view.
When Dad asked what kind of fish might be good, Ivo laughed and made a quick request in Spanish. The waiter came back out with the fish that had been caught that day. What kind of fish would be good? Hopefully one of the ones the fishermen had brought in that morning.
To nobody’s surprise but everyone’s delight, the fish was phenomenal. Here, when you order a fish, you get a fish. Alyssa and Chrissi squealed a bit at first, but pretty soon the fish had disappeared. When it’s cooked like this, served with a piled of lime juice, onion slivers, and fried yuca, about twenty feet from the water it was pulled out of, there just can’t be anything left afterwards.
After lunch, with a full stomach and all the adventure-fever of a man who truly believes he’s invincible, Ivo decided to climb the mini-mountain next to our restaurant. Yup. That one.
Although it took a good deal of awkward clambering up the sandy, rocky, roughly 90-degree-angle hill, we made it to the top without a single waiter or guide asking what the heck we were doing. It was, without a doubt, well worth the effort.