The Galapagos of Peru

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Inhabitants of Islas Ballestas

After almost four hours of a dusty ride across largely barren landscape that stretches south of Lima along Peru’s Pacific coast I was ready for a break and I found a perfect spot to do so. Paracas National Reserve may not be as famous as Machu Picchu or Nazca Lines but it is a very special place. For one, it’s the only marine reservation of Peru, where amazing abundance of sea life meets the country’s rugged coast. Only in a few places on earth the desert touches the ocean in such a spectacular way.

Islas Ballestas – the Ballestas Islands – are rocky outcrops just off the Paracas Peninsula. They can only be reached by boat from Paracas or Pisco (yes, as in pisco sour). And due to benevolence of the nutrient-rich Humboldt Current that washes the Peruvian coast, they are blessed with an amazing abundance of sea and bird wildlife. As the boat moves swiftly toward the islands, it becomes clear that they have no inhabitants other than sea lions, porpoises, and birds – LOTS of birds.

Pelicans, cormorants, Peruvian boobies…Because of thousands of birds that live here or make the islands a stop on their migratory path, not surprisingly the reddish rocks are constantly covered with a thick white layer of guano. Once it was an important export material for fertilizers. Today, the production is much smaller and aimed at organic farming rather than mass processing, and local workers collecting guano are the only people allowed on the islands. This is the bird kingdom…

…with a few other occupants…

…including Humboldt penguins – a rare sight so close to the equator.

But there is more than nature to admire here. Unexpectedly, and unbelievably, a giant geoglyph emerges on the hill overlooking the Bay of Paracas. Called the Paracas Caldelabra (El Candelabro) is almost 600 feet tall and reminiscent of the Nazca Lines. Equally little is known about the purpose of this strange, enormous etching and the identity of its ancient pre-Inca authors.

Paracas is a special place to Peruvians also because of its more recent history. In August 1820, Latin American liberation hero General José de San Martín landed here with a fleet that successfully captured Pisco. It was an opening salvo in a conflict with Spain that ended with Peru’s declaration of independence less than a year later.

If the Ballestas Islands are the Galapagos of Peru, the Paracas Peninsula is its seaside Sahara. Two in one, it offers unmatched vistas of the desert landscape and marine wilderness. There are a number of overlooks located 100 feet or more above the Pacific with views like these:

The most famous rock formation in the Paracas Reserve, La Catedral (The Cathedral), was partially destroyed during the 2007 earthquake and lost the arch connecting it to the mainland but still doesn’t fail to impress.

Finally, a perfect place to rest… Hidden among desert sands there is tiny fishing village of Lagunillas where the catch of the day is what’s on the menu. It feels so remote – its own mini-universe of a desert mirage. But the aroma of fresh fish sizzling on the grill is unmistakably real, even if that boat sailing along the sandy road doesn’t seem to be =)

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