With such problematic terrain from deserts to mountains and rain forest it has never been much of a priority to lay rail tracks across the country. The great age of steam here only provided for trains to get goods such as cotton, guano, minerals and salt to the ports. Most of this railway infrastructure was built by the British looking to maximise profits. This allowed growth for certain regions at the expense of much of the country Which can still be seen today as we sit in comfort on the luxury coach that is carrying us to Paracas with all the latest films, lunch and onboard toilet but strictly for liquid debris only.
No poo and no paper. While we’re on this somewhat indelicate subject I would like to talk a little more of lavatorial etiquette but so as not to put you off reading my blog I will add a coda that you might choose to ignore. Though at you peril as it will contain information essential to visitors that nobody ever shares online or in books.
As I’ve mentioned before Lima is built on a desert and as our coach speeds through the outskirts of the city the landscape undresses itself of all the heavily water parks and borough upon borough of tree lined avenues and roads to reveal its true nature – bare naked dusty desert with sand dunes and hills peppered with occasional cactuses and banana trees close to settlements. Mostly along the highway that hugs the sea are a series of shanty towns and restaurants supplying food to the many trucks that travel this the only that connects the north to the south.
As we drop further and further south the land begins to become more fertile and I glimpse maize crops and slowly as Pisco approaches fields of grapes appear. The Ica region has long been famous its asparagus and for its wine and pisco. Pisco is a Peruvian type of brandy that was exported from the port in large clay ampules.
In 2007 a massive earthquake destroyed the historic centre of Pisco and the town is still struggling to recover. Perú has more earthquakes than places in the world due to the meeting of multiple tectonic plates. Scientist believe that the current slowing of the earth’s orbit will likely deliver more serious earthquakes in 2018 than usual. Fingers crossed they are not right.
All along the route are tiny self built dwellings and even sheds. At first this seems extreme to witness such poverty and many people here do live in extraordinary poverty but some of the wooden sheds and reed structures or the empty walls that mark territory are doing exactly that. Land was grabbed by the wealthy long ago. But groups of people can stake out claims to live as communities by setting up a series of small houses. After many years of living in properties that have no amenities the government can offer them the land deeds. However in many areas wealthy people pay poorer folk to either set up homes on land or to pretend to set up home. Thus larger swathes of land can be captured for future development.
Carved high on the granite slope and covered in sand is the mysterious marking. It’s purpose and it’s origins are still quite unknown. Believed to be from around 800BCE if it was created by the local Paracas tribes but it could be older. It does however serve as a marker to those sailing by as much of the landscape is very similar with all the sandy hills and dunes. It also points directly south I’m told by our guide. It is very reminiscent of the Nazca Lines some 3 hours drive away.
So we approach Ballestras Islands our arrival is greeted by lines and streams of birds flocking towards the snow covered rocks only as we draw closer to the many arches cut underneath by ocean erosion through this island our noses tell us that this is not snow but guano (bird poo). Tons of the stuff and it honks rather like some of the birds as they squawk from above.
So back in the day Perú was digging and scraping the bird poop from many islands inhabited by birds and paid off something like 70% of its national debt through poo. This was nasty nasty caustic poisonous work and those that did the ‘white gold’ digging died young from various illnesses. Today the guano is still collected but only every 6 or 7 years and the workers are heavily protected and have to disinfect themselves very carefully. They only dig now for about 3 months but this vital fertiliser is still a very precious resource.
This building gives a chance to see the thickness of the guano if you look at the depth of the windowsill.
The Islands are home to much wildlife. Birds of many breeds along with penguins. Yes those antarctic creatures all the way up here in the tropics. How and why I had to wait until my desert tour the next day to understand.
There’s also many crabs and perhaps most exciting of all sea lions. They come here later in the year to breed but many just hang out in the sun basking on the rocks and slipping into the water to cool off and feed. One small area of sandy coast here is called Maternity Beach. As we passed by there were just two sea lions there keeping it safe for the later arrival of the many.
During the earthquake in 2007 some of the sea arches were damaged or cracked so boats no longer pass underneath them to keep us tourists safe. Remarkably with all the hundreds of birds overhead we managed to tour the area without getting shat on at all.
And so we sped back to shore and decided to take a walk along the posh side of the seafront. Here wealthy folk have their modern beach houses and their heavily watered lawns. Most of these stunning buildings are currently empty as summer in Perú starts after new year. Most of the properties are looked after by local folk who live in them to keep them safe. Nice work if you can get it but extremely poorly paid like most work here.
As you get nearer to the National reserve desert you pass flamingos filtering food from the mud.
You also begin to see new 5 star hotels that are springing up and the new and very hip kite surfing centre and the sun bleached cafés. Paracas means wind and that wind comes without fail everyday making the area perfect for wind surfing and kite surfing all year round as the climate barely changes. come and try it yourself with the Kangaroo Kite Paracus
The closeness to the equator makes this place warm almost all year round. The only real change is the temperature of the water.
Day two and we set off on a short tour of the desert and the National Reserve. Here we are guided by Luis who takes our tiny group up to learn about the unique geological conditions that make this desert one of the driest in the world.
We learn to feel the sand, the dust and the heat that while this is in the tropics has essentially no rain at all. All year. Dry and hot and very windy with extremely chilly waters fed by the trade winds from the south and the Humbolt current. This icy waterway is what allows the penguins to be so far north. The entire desert was once the ocean bed and as such is littered with fossils of coned sea creatures.
The desert here is a special landscape for Olga. She has visited here so often throughout her life and is so thrilled to be here again. The sand has many blush pink and russet red tinges to it and they change colour rapidly with the light. Brightening and intensifying with the growth of the sunshine. A magical landscape but one that is totally void of plant life. Not even a hint of a cactus anywhere. Or a lavatory. I mention this in jest as there are toilets built at view points but as this is out of season they are all closed. We cross our legs and discuss options to hide from the group to take a wee but in vain. Besides since there is no rain here ever we are concerned that peeing in the open desert might create instant plant life. Nature always finds a way when it can.
We go to view the ex Cathedral arch that was destroyed by the earthquake. Though our guide Luis had a much better spin on this calling it earthquake erosion rather than a disaster. The sea would have eroded it eventually and will likely create a new arch over time too.
We end our trip on the very rare and exotic red sand beach. The red colour is from the extremely high presence of iron in the sand. The soft yellow rocks are plastered with bright green seaweeds making this the most apt beach for Christmas in the sun.
Our walk back to the hotel takes us along the poorer beach, El Chaco of Paracas and past the fishing boats that fill this side of the town as opposed to the leisure boats moored along the private jetties on the upmarket side. It must be said that unlike the posh ghost town this area is bursting with life and fun and street restaurants.
I include this image from the bus station and am shocked at the closeness of the road to the image on the Nazca plain. Even if there was a dirt track there before surely this new road is in danger of causing destruction to the images and there are clearly track marks right next to the lines where coaches park off road? We didn’t get to fly over the lines as there were no tickets but also the hotel quoted one price and then their travel agents quoted a much higher one so we were rather put off. Our hotel was however still in hibernation mode and didn’t have answers to many questions. Haha.
I end with this amazing textile from Nazca also based on the bird. This hummingbird motif is the edging of an ancient fabric and left me and Olga quite stunned when went visited another hotel with a better vegetarian menu.
Finally I reach my bit that nobody mentions and it relates to visits to high altitudes. Bowels beware. The thin air and gravity of high mountain life creates slow bowel movements along with altitude sickness for some. Have a hearty lunch and a very light dinner or be prepared to suffer constipation. I would also just like to mention the vast amounts of gas and soft airy stools. There, I’ve said it in a blog for all to read. Perú at altitude is not an easy place to poo as you would usually do.