Tourist First

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

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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.