The (belated) end to a Peruvian adventure

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

After departing the natural wonders of Titilaka and Lake Titicaca, we flew back to Lima and hopped into a van bound for our last destination. We were headed to the city of Paracas, an oceanfront town known for its natural reservation and spectacular wildlife. We drove south with the ocean on one side, and sparsely developed land on the other.

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Except for the occasional small town, the majority of the drive looked like this, exposing us to another side of Peru — the migrant farming communities that look abandoned or industrious depending on the time of year. Looking out on the arid land, it was hard to imagine who was farming what and when, but we were assured that more people lived and worked just over the hills.

The drive took a while, mostly due to the underdeveloped nature of the roads we were traversing. We watched as the sun beautifully dipped below the Pacific.

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When we finally arrived in Paracas, we found ourselves among a very different set of Peruvians than those we had spent the last few days with. Because of its proximity to Lima and its beautiful waterfront, Paracas attracts the moneyed crowd of the capital city, particularly around events like New Year’s. The traditional floral woven dresses were replaced with racy clubbing outfits and skimpy bikinis. Still, we were among very few foreign tourists, so it still felt very Peruvian — albeit a different side of the same country.

We finished off the evening with pasta at the hotel’s trattoria. Because of the ocean’s proximity (less than 100 yards away), most dishes were dotted with seafood. I enjoyed a squid-ink pasta with shellfish.

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We woke up early the next morning, ready to explore what the Reserva Nacional de Paracas had to offer. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. Our first stop was a mysterious candelabra drawn in the sand. Though it looked from afar like it could have easily been blown away, the etching has in fact been there for hundreds of years. Indigenous tribes carved into the rock under the sand, creating a permanent fixture up on the rocks.

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This is very similar to the Nazca lines, a popular destination further south of Paracas. Indigenous people drew massive pictures in the sand and tourists flock to them; the only way to appreciate them is to take a small plane above the etchings. We had opted to skip this destination, so our mysterious candelabra served as substitute. It is suspected that the candelabra dates back as far as 200 B.C., a relic of the ancient Paracas culture and meant to symbolize the staff of an ancient god.

After boating through open waters for a little while, we saw something rising out of the ocean. As we got closer, we could see that it was a series of large rocks, each completely covered in birds. The stench was overpowering — the rocks have changed color over time from the sheer amount of bird defecation on them.

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Since the 1970s, these rocks out in the ocean have been under protection from the Peruvian government because of the many natural and cultural treasures they hold. Driving around, we saw a dizzying array of birds, including the hilariously named red boobie. (Okay, so we’re a little immature.) We also happened upon a large pack of sea lions.

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It was apparently mating season for the sea lions. This seemingly entails a lot of sleeping, though we were taught that each female sea lion was staking out her area on the beach. The males would later waddle around and start the courtship process. But for now, the large mammals were just hanging out.

Nearby on the rocks, we encountered the most exciting of the Paracas National Reserve’s residents. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, I have a deep fascination with penguins. I was extremely excited when I learned we would meet some of them on our trip to Paracas. While I had always learned that penguins require ice and snow, there are a couple species that thrive in the equatorial climate in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. They’re a bit smaller than their Antarctic brethren, but still very adorable. They do, however, smell terrible.

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We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of the rock formations, observing one interesting animal species after another. We saw many more sea lions, all of whom were either asleep or searching for a new nap spot. The variety of birds was endless — we made many more boobie jokes and spotted several flocks of pelicans. Though harder to spot, we did find more penguins. They were generally more sedentary than I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the influence of movies like Happy Feet.

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After spending a couple hours with the native creatures, it was time for us to head back to shore. We waved farewell to the napping sea lions, the waddling penguins and the very stinky birds.

IMG_3612Jessica and Alix, taking a cue from our sea lion friends

Back ashore, we revisited the ocean, but on our plates. Being able to see the water from our lunch table meant very fresh fish. For me, this came in the form of Peruvian ceviche, prepared in a style very similar to that which we had learned from Penelope earlier that week. This time it was a bit spicier, which I was naturally excited about.

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We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings and taking it easy in order to prepare ourselves for midnight and the start of 2013. Many of our fellow hotel guests were partaking in a massive party on the beach, the entry ticket to which cost about the same as the annual wages of a salt miner. Truly, we had managed to see both ends of the Peruvian lifestyle spectrum over the course of a week.

We had a more low-key evening, but still managed to get dressed up and watch the fireworks light up the sky.

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We woke up to a calm and peaceful 2013 under the southern sun. After our hectic touring schedule of the earlier part of the week, we took the next two days to relax before heading back to work and reality.

We took bicycles out onto a path that very quickly became beach, working against the resistance of the wet sand. During low tide, we came upon the most remarkable creatures I have ever seen — jellyfish with bodies nearly as large as our bike wheels, dotting the entire coastline. They looked prehistoric in size and nature, and navigating around their tentacles added another challenge to the ride.

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We set sail, repeatedly, taking in the coastline from another perspective.

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Our proximity to the water also continued to give us access to a wealth of seafood dishes. Some of the native Peruvian items continued to perplex me, like causa, the boiled potato stuffed with crabmeat and mayo. Others were more redeeming, like the countless ceviches we continued to encounter. Some came prepared with the traditional corn-and-onion base; others artfully decorated seashells and came spotted with brightly colored peppers. I avoided the former and over-indexed on the latter.

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After our week of planes and trains and boats and drives and hikes, Paracas provided many quiet moments to sit and reflect on the trip.

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Peru turned out to be one of the more culturally fascinating places I have ever been. In one country, there were so many different cultures — not to mention languages – and each seemingly lived independently. Among all the Peruvians I met, there was a great sense of pride for their nation and for their people; the same sense of pride in Peru’s growth and confidence in the brightness of its future seemed to extend from the cosmopolitan residents of Lima, like Penelope, to the young weaver near Titilaka. In some ways, I found myself surprised at the underdeveloped nature of the country, but at the same time, it presented us with a richness that I have never seen elsewhere. Truly, colors seemed brighter in Peru, and I still see that now as I look through my photos.

The country and its residents welcomed us with open arms and let us explore what they had to offer, and we really saw just a fraction of the nation’s diversity. The food may not be as spicy as I’d like, and the roads may not all be easily traveled, but Peru is a country worth seeing, and one that I would love to see again a few years down the line.

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