Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Peru: A One-Month Itinerary

      Diversity is Peru's prime attraction.  It has the Western Hemisphere's most intriguing Pre-Columbian ruins, it has a bustling cosmopolitan capital, it has trackless rain forests along the Amazon and its tributaries, it has oceanfront resorts, and it has mountains and volcanoes that ascend to (literally) breath-taking heights. It has areas where it rains daily while other parts of the country get less than a quarter-inch of rain a year.
A street of stairs connects Barranco, Lima's most 
bohemian neighborhood, with its Pacific beach.
      It is an intensely Catholic country that prizes its sun temples and other aspects of its non-Christian past. It is a country with 2,000 kinds of potatoes, at least 40 of which are widely cultivated and eaten.
It's the home of quinoa, the world's trendiest grain. It and Bolivia are the only places on the planet where coca (an essential ingredient of cocaine) is legally grown; coca leaves and edible products made with coca leaves are widely sold and coca tea is a fixture at every tourist buffet. Its native brandy, Pisco, is finding an international market as visitors return home with a taste for Pisco sours. Its llamas, alpacas and vicuna produce some of the finest wools in the world along with being among the most photogenic of animals.  In short, it's a great place for a long vacation. And, if you've traveled much in the Third World, you'll be pleased by the level of cleanliness throughout the country. Restaurants, hotel rooms and bathrooms were spotless wherever we were. Although there was some trash along roads in the mountains and along streams in towns, overall there's very little litter -- Lima's streets and sidewalks were as clean as those in most American cities if not cleaner.
The Hilton in Miraflores, one of Lima's most
affluent neighborhoods, offers a rooftop pool.
       In planning a trip to Peru, the most important consideration is its climates.  Note the plural. When the weather is ideal in one place, it's likely to be terrible at another.  Peru is said to have more micro-climates than any other nation on earth. So we decided to go when it was convenient for us and take our chances. Our trip, Nov. 6 to Dec. 6, 2014, put us in Peru in spring, which we knew would be the beginning of the rainy season at Machu Picchu.  We had a lovely and dry morning at the ruins, and we didn't get rained on until around 2 p.m. as we were waiting among a horde of people for shuttle buses to take us back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes.
     In the Amazon, we were twice out on little skiffs in late-afternoon rainstorms (the rain is quite warm) and were hit by heavy rains a couple of times aboard our cruise boat, La Estrella Amazonica. Arequipa, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, the Colca Canyon, Paracas and Lima were all without rain -- indeed, it hardly rains at all ever in some of these places -- but it could get quite cold in the evenings, even in seaside Paracas.  (All of these destinations are discussed in earlier posts; just keep scrolling down, hit "older posts" just above the large photo of the canal boat, and scroll some more. Or use the links that appear below.)   
We ate twice here at Canta Rana
in Lima's Barranco district. 
    We didn't rent a car in Peru. We flew when we could , took a bus when we couldn't fly, and used taxis and car services as needed.  Taxis in Lima are inexpensive, but mostly we walked. All flights within Peru were on Lan.  Click HERE for its easy-to-use website.
      We flew from Baltimore to Atlanta to Lima on Delta, no one's favorite airline, because it offered the best deal, though it meant a six-hour layover in Atlanta on the way home, making what was already an intolerably long travel day even longer. Most U.S.-bound flights leave Lima after midnight (Peru time is the same as Eastern Standard Time in the U.S.), meaning that you check out of your hotel room that morning, kill the day somehow and get to the airport bone-tired.   The trip down, however was much better.
       November 6  We left  Baltimore at 1:55 p.m., had a short layover in Atlanta and arrived in Lima just after midnight.  It cost 50 U.S. dollars to take a cab to our hotel, the new Hilton Miraflores (click HERE for website).  This is a very pleasant hotel -- professional but friendly staff, supremely comfortable beds, great location in the heart of Miraflores -- but it doesn't offer ocean views like the nearby Marriott, which is where most American visitors seem to stay.  We were on the fourth floor, so we had only a modest city view.  Click HERE for my earlier posting about Lima.
  November  9 We left Lima at 12:15 for the hour-and-a-half flight southeast to Arequipa. Here we stayed at Casa Arequipa (click HERE for website), a small hotel within walking distance of the city's main square, the Plaza de Armas.   Situated in an old mansion, the guest rooms tend to be small and rather dark, but the breakfast room on the roof is bright and airy with views of the surrounding volcanos.  Click HERE for my earlier posting about Arequipa.
A soaking pool warmed by natural hot
springs at Colca Lodge & Spa.
       November  11 Casa Arequipa arranged a Colca Valley and Colca Canyon overnight tour for us. We were in a van with an English-speaking guide and seven other tourists (three French, two Canadian, one Peruvian and one Italian).  Everyone could choose from a list of hotels where they wanted to spend the night. We chose the Colca Lodge and Spa (click HERE for its website), where we were first placed in an older second-floor room far from the main building. We complained and were moved to a much more deluxe room with a terrace and lounge chairs. We enjoyed the lodge's hot-springs-fed soaking pools and its excellent restaurant.  As for the valley and canyon tour itself, click HERE for my earlier posting.
Rooms at El Albergue in Ollantaytambo
have garden and mountain views.


 November  12 We returned for one more night at Casa Arequipa.
     November  13 We left Arequipa at 10:05 a.m. on a one-hour flight to Cusco. We had arranged for El Albergue, our hotel in Ollantaytambo, about 60 miles away and at a lower elevation, to pick us up at the airport. We'd been told that the best strategy for altitude sickness in Cusco is to stay first for a few days at slightly lower elevations. The drive to Ollantaytambo took about two hours, mostly on two-lane roads along the Urubamba River in what Peru promotes as "the Sacred Valley" because of its many Pre-Columbian ruins. Oddly, though there are trains from Cusco that pass through Ollantaytambo en route to Machu Picchu (and trains that run between Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo), there is no Cusco-Ollantaytambo service. El Albergue (click HERE for website) has its entrance literally on the platform at the train station. The main building houses a coffee bar, a fine-dining restaurant, the hotel desk and, upstairs, a few guest rooms. Most of the rooms are out back in separate buildings in a garden where we were hardly aware of the trains nearby. Our room, No. 10, was on the ground level, furnished with alpaca blankets and a portable heater to fight the nighttime mountain chill.  For our final night there we were in a upstairs room that had a heated bathroom floor. I would say this is THE place to stay in Ollantaytambo. A 10-minute walk took us into the town's main square and to the fortress ruins that are the reason to stop here.  The only minor drawback is that the restaurant's small dinner menu becomes monotonous. Click HERE for my posting on Ollantaytambo.
Lively Aguas Calientes teems with tourists headed
to or from Machu Picchu. 
 November  15 We took the 12:28 Peru Rail train (click HERE for website and then go to timetables) to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the foot of  Machu Picchu. The two-hour train ride is punctuated by fashion shows put on by the stewards who are selling expensive Peru-made clothing and accessories. I almost but didn't buy a Peru Rail baseball cap. Aguas Calientes, which has no cars because no road connects it with the world, only hiking trails and the rail line, has loads of places to stay and eat. It serves as the base for many of the 2,500 people (the maximum allowed) who tour Machu Picchu every day.  We stayed a night at RupaWasi (click HERE for website), a small inn hidden up a tiny alley composed of steep stairs.  It was at RupaWasi's restaurant that I for the first -- and so far only -- time tried the local delicacy of guinea pig, called cuy.  I had cuy confit, which seemed to be prepared along the lines of French duck confit. It was exceedingly greasy; I thought it tasted a bit like duck or goose. Jane had ribs that she described as perfect. Click HERE for posting about Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes.
    November  16 We got up early and took the 20-minute ride on a shuttle bus to Machu Picchu. We bought our tickets in advance through RupaWasi. We first tried to buy tickets through the official website (click HERE for it), but we couldn't make it work. After touring the ruins we returned to town in plenty of time for our 5:23 p.m. train back to Ollantaytambo, where we again stayed at El Albergue.
The courtyard at Andenes al Cielo
in Cusco, conveniently located but
its dark and sparsely furnished rooms
were a turnoff. 

This first door on the right leads to the lobby
of Casa Cartagena, a small hotel in Cusco. 

Our balcony at Casa Cartagena overlooked
its two-level courtyard. 

   November  17  The driver who had brought us to Ollantaytambo now drove us back to Cusco, where we had reservations at Andenes al Cielo (click HERE for website), a small inn conveniently located between the Plaza de Armas and the trendy San Blas neighborhood.  While the public areas of this hotel are pretty -- a multi-level courtyard with flowers and a fountain, a bright rooftop breakfast room -- the rooms themselves are dark because the only windows are on walkways used to reach all the other rooms. So you keep your shutters closed. Also, our room had a double bed, a single bed, a straight-back chair, a small desk and no other furniture. A tiny TV was mounted on the wall. Although we had reserved for four nights, we stayed only one. The hotel was cooperative about our changing the number of nights and I'd recommend it for its location, low price and decent breakfast -- with the caveat about the quality of the rooms themselves.  We used our first day in Cusco to scout out another hotel.
    November  18 After visiting several hotels, we finally chose Casa Cartagena, a boutique hotel one street over from Andenes al Cielo.  It was more expensive, but what we got for the money was a huge room with a balcony overlooking a courtyard. It's housed partially in what was once a jail, and there are signs everywhere of the age of its buildings. Unlike the other hotels we saw, which were furnished with antique or at least very traditional pieces, Casa Cartagena has very modern (or Mid-Century Modern) furnishings.  Its very traditional courtyard surrounds a very untraditional lighted white sphere.  It offered one of the best breakfast buffets of our trip, and in the evening there were Pisco sour lessons for those who want to learn to make their own drinks. Click HERE for the hotel's website,  Click HERE for my posting on Cusco, my favorite of all the places we visited in Peru.
            November 21 We left Cusco at 12:45 for the hour-and-a-half flight to Lima, where we were met at the airport by International Expeditions.  Its Amazon cruise package includes airport pickup in Lima, a Friday night stay at the Swissotel Lima, and flights to and from Iquitos, the Amazon city where its cruise boat is based. (Click HERE for International Expedition's Amazon website.) We found the Swissotel (click HERE for website) nice but dated. Nothing was shopworn or in bad repair, but it looked as if its furnishings could have come from Ethan Allen a few decades ago. The lobby concierge desk was very good in helping us purchase Lima-to-Paracas bus tickets that we would need after our Amazon trip. The bus company's website wasn't working properly, but the two gentlemen at the desk persevered, finally calling the company and arranging to have the tickets sent to the Swissotel by messenger. Our fifth-floor room had a huge bathroom and a view of the roof of another part of the hotel.
Our home for a week, La Estrella
Amazonica. Each guest cabin had its
own balcony and an ever-changing
view of the jungles along the river.


     November 22 International Expeditions took us all on a bus tour of central Lima before lunch and a 5:05 p.m. two-hour flight to Iquitos. After a bus ride through Iquitos, we arrived at International Expedition's river dock and its boat, La Estrella Amazonica, the Amazon Star. We had dinner on the boat and slept as it motored upstream. Click HERE for my posting about the cruise. Click HERE for a video made by Dick Greenberg, a fellow passenger, who did an excellent job of capturing the experience.
      November 29 After a last breakfast on the boat, we disembarked, took a bus tour of Iquitos and had lunch at the Hotel El Dorado. Part of the package included afternoon use of a room at the hotel where we could recharge our electronics and ourselves before a 5:25 p.m. flight back to Lima, where we parted ways with International Expeditions.  We were met at the airport by a driver sent by Second Home Peru (click HERE for website), a bed and breakfast in the home of the artist Victor Delfin. For this one-night stay, we had an ocean-view room in the main house, a half-timbered mansion overlooking walled gardens at the top of a bluff with the Pacific Ocean below.  This was the best place we stayed in Lima by far. It's in a neighborhood filled with art galleries, good restaurants  (want braised beef heart on skewers? delicious!), high-quality handicrafts shops, and sidewalks filled with young people and young families.
A mostly glass bar separates one of Hotel
Paracas's two pools from the Pacific Ocean.
Rooms were in multi-unit villas scattered around
the sprawling property.
    November 30 We took a Cruz del Sur bus (click HERE for website) for the four-hour ride from Lima to Paracas. We bought "first class" tickets, which put us in two of about 16 seats in the lower section of a double-decker bus. The seats reclined, had footrests and had video screens through which you could watch movies or access the Internet.  A "meal" came with the first-class passage -- some sort of chicken dish. We should have eaten before we got on the bus.  In Paracas, we stayed three nights at Hotel Paracas (click HERE for website).  It's a full-service resort and we didn't leave the grounds except for excursions. In fact, if you want to leave, there's really nowhere to go -- Paracas is little more than a collection of oceanfront hotels -- unless you have a car.  We did three excursions, a trip to two Pisco distilleries in Ica, about an hour's drive away; a two-hour trip to the Ballestas Islands; and a four-hour tour of the Paracas National Reserve.  All were arranged through T'ikariy, a tour service that has a desk at the hotel (click HERE for website). Click HERE for my posting on Paracas.
The bath in our first room (in the main
house) at Second Home Peru.


    December 3 We took the bus back to Lima.  This time at Second Home Peru we had a room in a building that clung to the cliff high above a major highway and the Pacific.  From the main building you cross a lawn to the edge of the cliff. Once there you can see a set of steps going down.  They take you to a short open-air corridor off of which are our room and two others. Continue down the steps to Victor Delfin's studio and residence, and down more steps to a beautiful swimming pool with a lion's head fountain. Everywhere are sculptures -- some whimsical, some stately, some odd and all interesting -- by Delfin.  The main house exhibits his paintings and sells his lithographs. Look at the paintings. Most of the centaurs and men, particularly in the erotic works, may be self-portraits done at different times in his life. Click HERE for his own website (in Spanish) to see more of his work.
     Entering our room, we found ourselves on a landing with a bathroom. The bathroom was open to and overlooked the lower sleeping area, off of which was a narrow balcony with a wonderful view of the curving shoreline and its beaches. The room was considerably smaller than our previous room in the main house, but the view made up for the lack of space. Whether or not one enjoys art -- and I'd characterize Delfin's work as an accessible but testosterone-infused blend of Inca imagery and European modernism of the first half of the 20th century -- this is a comfortable, convenient and friendly place to stay. Lilian Delfin is a gracious hostess ready to offer advice about Lima, and the breakfast, served in a kitchen building with a gigantic wood-burning stove, is simple but satisfying. Wine can be purchased in the office in the main house.  
    December 5 We checked out of the hotel in late morning, left our luggage in the office and went out to soak up as much of Barranco as we could before leaving for the airport at 9 p.m.
    December 6  We flew out of Lima at 1:35 a.m. and were back at our home on Tilghman Island in Maryland by 7 p.m.  A long, tiring end to an amazing trip.
The view from our room during our second
stay at Second Home Peru. The sculpture,
"El Beso," was the inspiration for the Park
of Love, about an hour's walk north along
the coastal bluff. To the left is Victor Delfin's
art studio.  Below the steep cliff you can see
the work on a major roadway that had traffic 

in knots during our time in Barranco.
At Second Home Peru, you can
swim in a sculpture garden. 

One of Victor Delfin's sculptures at the
edge of his garden overlooking the Pacific. The
roof is above three Second Home Peru mirador rooms,

including ours, that clung to the side of a cliff.




   

     
     
   
 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Peru: Lima is for (Art) Lovers



"El Beso" ("The Kiss") by Victor Delfin dominates Lima's
oceanfront Parque del Amor (Love Park).

"El Beso" is basically a copy of a sculpture at Delfin's home. 
We were told by Delphin's daughter, Lilian Delphin, that the mayor of
 Lima asked Delfin to make a larger version and to design a park around it.
 Delfin modeled the small park on Antonio Gaudi's Park Guell in
 Barcelona, complete with curving concrete walls decorated with mosaics.
 We got to meet Delfin , still very active in his 80s, and to see his
 studio when we stayed at his oceanfront Barranco home, part of which Lilian
 has turned into an art-filled bed and breakfast called Second Home Peru.
 Click HERE for its website. 
You may notice that the mayor gets more credit for
the park than the artist who designed it.

Lima was not the point of our month-long fall 2014 trip to Peru, which began with curiosity about touring Peru's part of  the Amazon aboard a riverboat.  But you cannot go to Peru without passing through Lima, and a bit of research convinced us that it deserved at least a few days. As it turned out, we had four distinct stays in Lima, starting with three nights at the new Hilton Miraflores (click HERE for website) when we first arrived in the country.  After 12 days in the Andes and elsewhere, we returned for one night at the Swissotel (click HERE for website) arranged by International Expeditions prior to our seven-night Amazon cruise.  The Swissotel is in the San Isidro financial district in a gated compound that must date back to when Peru was dealing with the Shining Path terrorists. After the cruise, we were back in Lima for one night at Second Home Peru, in the somewhat bohemian Barranco district, before going to the beach town Paracas for three nights, after which we returned to Second Home Peru. This B and B is mentioned in a photo caption above as sharing the home of the artist Victor Delfin.
       During our first stay we found our way to the Museo Larco, a museum devoted mainly to Pre-Columbia pottery (click HERE for earlier posting).  This is the one must-see destination in Lima.
       That evening, a Friday, we walked a few blocks from the Hilton to Jazz Zone, a second-floor music club (click HERE for website) where a ten-member band cranked out loud and lively salsa. It was amazing to see how dancers of all ages could practically twirl their rear ends.
Lima's Chinatown. 
      The next day we sought out a recommended "Chifa" (the Peruvian term for Chinese cuisine) restaurant in Lima's bustling Chinatown. The streets leading to it were lined with bazaar-like complexes selling everything from motorcycle parts to quinoa to toys and clothes. And the streets themselves were packed with vendors, too, so it seemed to take forever to walk to the restaurant, Salon Capon (click HERE for website).  The expansive menu was entirely in Spanish, and when we asked if there was an English menu, we were given one in Chinese.  Nonetheless we managed to have a splendid meal.  Most of the other diners appeared to be members of Lima's sizable Asian community; they were almost all having Inca Cola with their meals. Inca Cola, the best-selling soft drink in Peru, is a very sweet bubblegum-flavored yellow carbonated drink.  I thought it was awful.
    Another highlight of our first stay in Lima was a visit to Huaca Pucllana, a huge adobe pyramid in Miraflores built by what is called the Lima culture between 200 and 700 A.D. You can tour the structure, which is in the process of being restored or at least preserved, only with a guide (included in the entrance fee; click HERE for website).  There's a similar but smaller pyramid in the San Isidro district called Huaca Huallamarca. The guide explained that in the Lima culture, whenever a new ruler took over, the previous center of government would be covered with soil and a new citadel built atop it. Each ruler wanted to be closer to the heavens than the previous ruler, leaving today's archaeologists a layer cake that traces the history of the people there.  The guide also explained that Lima's original residents didn't put roofs on their homes -- with less than an inch of rain a year, there was no need. Although Lima can experience humidity and even misty conditions, it's essentially a city without rain. Things can get kind of dusty, but ancient adobe structures are not likely to disappear due to erosion, either.
    When we were next in Lima, almost two weeks later, International Expeditions took our riverboat group on a tour of Central Lima and its Plaza Major, home of the city's cathedral and the nation's presidential palace (not open to visitors), before we flew northeast to the Amazon.  The cathedral is the burial place of Franciso Pizzaro, the Spaniard who made the Incas cough up a room full of gold to ransom their emperor and then killed him. (Pizzaro himself was eventually assassinated by one of his countrymen.) We also visited the 1500s convent San Franciso (no photography allowed) and its bone-filled catacombs, similar to but smaller than the catacombs in Paris.
This is a detail of a very large work at MAC.
It consisted entirely of white men in military
uniforms and other costumes that conveyed
authority throughout Peruvian history,
 all saying "Tomorrow." 
    During our final stay in Lima we were based in Barranco.  We walked north toward Miraflores along the mirador (a promenade overlooking the Pacific) from our B and B for about an hour to reach the Love Park. It's near Larcomar, a shopping mall built into the side of the cliff below the Marriott Hotel, which seems to be where most Americans stay in Lima, Larcomar has a lot of American businesses -- TGI Fridays, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Chilli's, Nine West, Gap -- along with the top retailers of Peruvian alpaca and llama goods.
     On the walk back, at the border between Miraflores and Barranco we visited the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, known as MAC (click HERE for website).  There was more humor and joy de vivre in the works we saw there than we see in contemporary galleries in the U.S.  The next day, back in Barranco, we visited a very small museum called MATE (click HERE for website), set up by the Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino and devoted entirely to his work, including photos he took of Princess Diana in what turned out to be her last photo shoot. One of the gowns she wore is also on display.
    What else to say about Lima?  There are a number of good handicraft shops in Barranco, higher-end shops are in Miraflores, taxis are cheap, you don't need Yelp to find a decent meal, and you're not likely to feel unsafe in the evening walking in Miraflores or Barranco.  Even with a population of 10 million, Lima is not a "world city" like New York or Paris or Buenos Aires, but it is a vibrant, sophisticated urban center with a lot to offer visitors.
A cascade of flowers leads to the gift shop at the Museo Larco.
A man works on preservation at Huaca
Pucllana, an adobe pyramid in Lima built
between 200 and 700 A.D,




The gleaming new glass-covered medical center on the left offers a

contrast with the nearly 2,000-year-old Huaca Pucllana,

These are reproductions of mummies that
 have been found throughout the pyramid. The dishes
represent foods and other goods that would be needed
in the afterlife. Some of the mummies have been
those of babies, apparently sacrificed to guide adults
to the afterlife. 




The pyramid is made of thin adobe bricks arranged loosely in rows
 like books on a shelf. Our guide explained that the bricks were 
given space to move during earthquakes without collapsing, a neat 
solution to building in an area that has some 
sort of tremor almost daily.
The Basilica Cathedral of Lima dominates  the city's main square,
the Plaza Major.  Inside is the tomb of Francisco Pizzaro,

A painting in the Lima cathedral depicts the
Spanish dominating the naked indigenous people.

We caught a glimpse of a wedding in a chapel
at the Basilica Cathedral.



One of many ornate side chapels in the cathedral.
This sculpture is Victor Delfin's original  "El Beso." It
is on a terrace outside his art studio window and just below our
room's deck at Second Home Peru, the B and B at his
 oceanfront home in the Barranco district of Lima.













   

Monday, January 5, 2015

Peru: Paracas for Seabirds, Desert and Pisco




        If you've ever been to the Galapagos Islands, something that bills itself as "the Galapagos of Peru" is likely to catch your eye.  That's how the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Paracas are promoted, and like much advertising, it's quite misleading. Nonetheless, it was enough to get us curious about Paracas (pronounced pah-RAH-cas), little more than a collection of coastal hotels and a bus stop on the long desert road between Lima and Nazca.  Most international tourists, intent on seeing the famous prehistoric Nazca Lines, skip Paracas entirely. It's their loss.  It may not be another Galapagos, but it's an intensely beautiful and eerie place.
The first written mention of this candelabra,
 almost 600 feet tall and visible from the
the ocean for 12 miles off Paracas,
 was in the 1850s, though pottery found near it
has been dated to 200 B.C., the time
of the Paracas culture that left mummies
in nearby hilltop tombs. The area's dry
climate (less than a quarter-inch of
rain a year) preserved the mummies
and their woven textiles and kept the
candelabra from eroding, much the way
the somewhat similar Nazca Lines have
been preserved. Candelabras were
unknown here until the Spanish
arrived in the 1500s. Eerie, no? 
      The 150-mile bus ride from Lima takes four hours (speed limits in Peru are both low and observed).  It's another three hours if you want to reach Nazca.  I reasoned that the Nazca Lines are so familiar that we didn't need an expensive plane ride (with a reputation for causing severe motion sickness) to confirm that they exist. So we came down from Lima on a Cruz del Sur bus (click HERE for website), stayed for three nights in the poshest accommodations of our Peru trip (click HERE for website of Hotel Paracas), and returned by bus to Lima. Most of the other guests at the hotel and the other bus passengers who disembarked at Paracas appeared to be Peruvians. Paracas seems to be a popular getaway for people who live in Lima. The early-morning return bus was almost two hours late, which meant we had a long wait at the bus stop, and once aboard in our "first class" seats, the promised breakfast wasn't served.
      We had three things we wanted to do in Paracas: visit the Ballestas Islands, visit the sprawling -- almost 1,300 square miles -- Paracas National Reserve, and visit a Pisco distillery. All were arranged through the excursions desk at our hotel. The hotel made appointments for us at two Pisco operations and a non-bilingual driver drove us to them -- both near the town of Ica, about an hour east of Paracas. The boat to the Ballestas Islands left from the hotel dock, and the Pisco driver and an English-speaking guide took us to the nearby National Reserve. The candelabra petroglyph was seen on the 20-minute ride out to Ballestas. A highlight of the National Reserve tour was seeing a large flock of wild flamingos, but they were at a distance too great for my camera and we weren't allowed to get any closer.
       The first Pisco place we visited was Hacienda la Caravedo, which makes the sipping Pisco called Porton as well as less expensive Pisco Puras, which are used in cocktails. The second was El Catador, which I can't recommend as a tour or as a Pisco.  We wanted to leave as soon as we arrived but stuck it out through a tour and a tasting, during which we were told that the run-down place we were at is maintained for tourists while most of its Pisco is made in more modern facilities elsewhere. We were in Ica on a Monday when Tacama, a well-known winery and distiller, is closed to visitors. Tacama makes wine as well as Pisco. We enjoyed its well-priced tannat-petit verdot blend at several meals during our stay in Peru so we were disappointed that a visit wasn't possible.
The drive from Paracas to Ica took us
 through seemingly endless desert.
The high-end Porton brand of Pisco is made 
at Hacienda la Caravedo, which uses grapes 
grown in the  company's own vineyards, as
well as grapes gown elsewhere. In the
 distance are  foothills of the Andes, which 
supply water for the vines.
As with Armagnac and other French brandies,
the first step in making Pisco is to turn the 

grapes into wine. At Hacienda la
Caravedo, that happens in these
 lined  concrete vats. 
Stills like this distill the wine to create Pisco.
Click HERE for the Porton website, which has
recipes for Pisco cocktails.

Porton makes several varieties of its primo
 Pisco, each from a different grape or different
combinations of grapes. Some have citrus or
 floral flavors; we chose one with chocolate 
 notes made from the rare negra criolla
grape. A bottle cost 24 U.S. dollars.
The Ballestas Islands as first seen during our 
two-hour tour. The white color is guano, 
the droppings of hundreds of   thousands
 of birds. Guano harvested here, where it could
be as thick  as 90 meters,  was a lucrative
 export for Peru  in the 1800s when it was the  
world's best fertilizer. Now it is partially
cleared away every few years, always
 leaving enough for the Humboldt penquins
to dig nesting holes in the guano.

Thousands of boobies, cormorants, frigate birds,
Inca terns, Humboldt penguins, Peruvian pelicans
and other birds flock to the anchovy-rich waters
of the Ballestas Islands.

Those are Humboldt penguins atop this rock.
 Unlike the Gallapagos, the  Ballestas Islands 

do not allow visitors to land; this was as
close as we got to the penguins. 

It's easy to get close to sea lions, however. They sun
themselves on rocks close to the water and seem
undisturbed by the many tourist-filled motorboats.

The rocks don't look very comfortable, but
fortunately sea lions carry a lot of padding.

Peruvian boobies are the most common of the
 six booby species found in Peru.

What I think is an out-of-focus frigate bird soars over a
 Peruvian pelican, boobies and other birds at Ballestas.

As sea lions catch some rays, what appears to be
a turkey vulture dines in the upper left corner.

This snowy egret was strolling along the
mainland shore at our hotel.

The Peruvian pelican is, frankly, a prettier
bird than the brown pelican we see
along the east coast of the U.S.

A curlew scurries along the water at our hotel.
Pacific waves pound against the rugged
coastline of the Paracas National Reserve.

Our car and driver are dwarfed by the
 enormity of the Paracas National Reserve.
What looks like sand is actually a hard,
stony crust in which cars hardly leave tracks.
Thanks to a nearby salt mine, one of the few
roads in the reserve is literally paved with
salt, which was pressed down into
a hard, slightly glossy surface. The land

was once sea bottom and it's littered with
fossils of sea shells.
The remains of a pelican dry but
mostly intact in the desert of the reserve.



Stacks of stones resembling Inuit inuksuks
atop a hill at the reserve. The landscape
looks like something from "Star Wars." Where
are the Tusken Raiders (sand people) hiding? 

This sign kept us from walking
closer to the water where the
Chilean flamingos were
gathered.