Peru # 10: Paracas and Islas Ballestas

If you’re travelling north towards Lima, a place you’re likely to stop at on the way is Paracas, a very small town sat on the coastline about twenty minutes out of the bigger city of Ica. Most tourists are attracted here because it’s the set-off point to the Islas Ballestas, otherwise known as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ and also right next to a nature reserve.

The aforementioned attractions would be the main motive for my one-night stay, but being close to the ocean I’d also restart my newfound love of seafood bingeing, cycle forever and ever and ever, have the now-token encounters with lying taxi drivers and get stuck in a weird lust triangle.

Having had fun in the sand dunes of Huacachina and wine tours in Ica, I set off early in the morning so as to make the most of the day. It’s incredible how when you’re travelling you can get up early with no problem even if you’ve had an action-packed day immediately before and gone to sleep late. Every day counts, I suppose, something we often lose sight of in our daily lives, where snuggling up in bed in the morning is seen as a precious way to pass the time.

Getting in and where to stay

All was plain-sailing with the taxi driver who was taking me to the bus terminal in Ica until he decided to show his true colours. After asking where I was heading towards, he insisted there were no absolutely no buses that went to Paracas and that he would instead take me there for what he considered a fair price of 100/S (At the time of writing, 1 USD is approximately 3.5 Soles). I said I was sure there were buses to Paracas, which he still denied, and said that if there weren’t I’d go to Pisco, the nearby city, and figure it out from there. Going short of saying there was no transport there either, he insisted that buses were very infrequent and that I’d be waiting a long time for one, so he’d give me a deal at 80/S. By this point annoyed at him, I said ‘No soy burro’, that I wasn’t a ‘donkey’, or silly enough to believe him. This seem to shut him up and we arrived at the bus station.

As I predicted there was a whole carnival parade of buses going to Paracas (I slightly exaggerate) and one was setting off within the next twenty minutes, so I bought a ticket for 10/S with PeruBus and went downstairs in the terminal for the ‘continental’ breakfast of bread with butter and jam, an orange juice, a mug of hot water and a small jug of concentrated black coffee, such as I’ve only ever seen in Peru. The service provided by PeruBus was very good and I arrived in Paracas a couple of hours later, deposited at the main square.

I already had in mind where I was going to stay so was able to casually dismiss those touting for my custom, also falsely promising the tour operators who desired my moneys that I’d be back later to check out their prices. Clearly the best place to be to pick up tourists is right next to where the bus drops them off, but I think we have this defence mechanism that makes us say no to anyone who approaches us, even if we want to do the very tour they are offering, on the assumption that they’re going to try and rip us off, and instead prefer to go looking for information and scouting prices on our own terms.

I stayed at Kokopelli hostel, where I’d also spent time in Cusco and Lima and had  had a pleasant experience, so armed with my 20% discount wristband (a good marketing tool) I paid just 24/S for the night. As in the other hostels of the same name I stayed at, the bunk bed you sleep in has a curtain that gives you privacy, as well as a locker and mini-table within what you might describe as a pod. A certain German gentleman in the pod next to me would take advantage of this later that night, and I feared for the worst when I heard sloppy kisses being exchanged and the apparent removal of clothing. I almost left to go and read something outside for a while, but for whatever reason they didn’t actually seem to getting it on and upon hearing some cursing in German, I assumed something was the matter. The visitor slunk away and silence ensued.

Good luck next time, sir.

Things to do

Anyway, back to earlier in the day and I hired a bicycle for 35/S, a good one at that, and got a ticket to enter the reserve for 10/S. The Argentine in charge of touristy activities had assured me that the ride was leisurely, though seven hours and over 30km later, many of which on steep climbs, I’d beg to differ. Nevertheless, intense cycling always finds it way onto my trip, as it did the previous year in Panama, so all in all it was a worthwhile experience.

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My wheels
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The long road ahead

Now I must admit that in terms of wonderful sights, the reserve is nothing to text home about. My first stop was to look at some apparently ancient fossils which consisted of a few slightly-engraved rocks nicely organised along a desert path, before heading to ‘La Catedral’, not a place of worship, but a viewpoint you get that takes in rocky cliffs that jut out into shiny blue water. Other highlights included beaches that go by the names of La Roja and La Mina, that while pretty, won’t knock you out. I refrained from entering the water as I didn’t wanted to cycle with a soggy backside and get groin-rub and instead read on the beach for a while on both occasions.

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A brown beach in Paracas Nature Reserve
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Paracas Nature Reserve
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Cliffs
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Paracas Nature Reserve
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A beach in Paracas Nature Reserve

The whole reserve is excellently signposted and there are lots of viewpoints with abundant information about the geographical features and history of the region. The roads are easily navigable, though as a cyclist the strong winds will make the uphill climbs that bit more testing but the downhill glides provide you with that amazing wind-in-face sensation. The reserve entrance also includes entry to what seems a relatively new museum which has very interesting exhibits on the history of the area, as well as extensive information about flora and fauna to be found all over Peru. As I always do when on tour, I made it my mission to visit every landmark included on the reserve map, at a cost to my quads and hamstrings, and for a day out while in Paracas it’s certainly a decent idea.

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The Pacific
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Sundown in Paracas Nature Reserve
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Paracas Nature Reserve sea

Food, drinks and amorosity

Back in the small town of Paracas, I went to ‘Jocelyn’s’ to go seafood crazy, having earlier that day checked out the street with a row of a dozen or so restaurants and struck a deal with her to get a two-course dinner for 15/S. When I returned, she thankfully recognised me and I tucked into the first ceviche I’d had for a couple of weeks (because they say that you should only get this raw fish dish if you’re near the sea) and ordered some seafood rice, which included octopus, squid, prawns and a novelty for me, sea snail. I soaked everything in lemon, as you do, and quite liked it. Unsurprisingly, the sea snail tasted like the sea, as most seafood does, but this particular sea snail was especially sea-like, if you get my drift.

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Seafood rice
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Ceviche

The Kokopelli hostels tend to have good bars, and on this particular night there was some live music being played, though a power cut put paid to electronic instruments and microphones and it ended up very acoustic. Such as happens in hostels, there is always someone to talk to, and conversations are easy to strike up, so I got chatting to a group of 18 people who were on an organised tour running through Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and who subsequently spend every day with the same group of people for up to six weeks. Touring, eating and sleeping together could be testing, but I suppose if you got along with everyone, it’d be fun.

So, I’d got chatting to an American girl who was on her first big backpacking trip, and we were getting on quite nicely, even exchanging scruffy bracelets,  until an Italian girl nudged her way into our conversation. As she had engaged me and initially spoke to me, I thought she was making a move, and I figured I had gained precious brownie points when I had guessed her surname by complete chance. Anyway, it soon transpired that it wasn’t me she was focusing on, but the American girl and she was very direct in her advances, telling the girl what she’d like to do to her later that night. I didn’t know what to do, but sensed that this interest wasn’t reciprocated, so did nothing. The American girl would leave shortly after, but I don’t know if she was genuinely tired as she said, or whether she was frightened by her pursuer.

I went to bed not long after and bore witness to the German attempt at romance, so all round there was definitely a sense of non-achievement that night.

Islas Ballestas

The following morning I went to the Islas Ballestas on a boat trip which I’d arranged at the hostel the day before. It cost 45/S for the transport and entry to the reserve, which is just about standard price, so no real room for negotiation. Our boat was due to leave at 8am, but obviously left half an hour later. The trip out takes about 30 minutes and is extremely windy, so wearing a jacket is recommended. There was a slight issue as we set off as a German gentleman sat at the front refused to switch places so a complete family could sit together, and his argument that he’d paid, so wanted to be able to take good photos without other tourist’s heads in the way seemed fair.

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On the boat

As you are leaving Paracas, your attention is drawn to a candelabra etched into the sand. The guide claimed it was centuries old and that no one knows where it came from. I’d counter that by saying it looks rather false and that probably the locals redo it every now and again so that there is an added tour attraction in the region. I think the photos of it are evidence enough!

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The candelabra

As you go along the guide talks about the wildlife and history of the islands through a microphone. We saw masses of birds, such as pelicans and cormorants and we also caught a glimpse of a bunch of penguins, a novel experience for me. There were sea lions either beached or sleeping on rocks and I learned that what distinguishes them from seals is the fact that they have ears. I also learned that much of their time is spent fighting for the best spots on the beach in order to attract females.

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Posing sea lion
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Birds on a cliff
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Islas Ballestas
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Fighting for a beach spot

At one time, the export of guano, basically bird poo, was massive for Peru, and much of it was scraped off the rocks of Ballestas, but ironically the over-fishing of anchovies has meant less birds and less bird poo, though steps have been taken to control fishing.

Getting out of Paracas

The ride back to Paracas seemed longer than it was, and due to our slight delay I’d just missed the bus that goes from Paracas to Lima, and the next one wouldn’t leave until a few hours later. I asked in agencies if there was a local bus service that went to Pisco, but they denied any knowledge of it and said I should take a taxi. In my confusion I was duped into buying some overpriced chocolates in the main square, taken in by the age-old of trick of ‘try one and you don’t have to buy more’, which I never usually fall for.

Not wanting to wait all afternoon, I almost contemplated acknowledging one of the many taxis that drive up and down the main street beeping  everything that moves in their hunt for victims, but knowing Peru as I knew Peru by then, I figured there must be some kind of combi service for the locals to get to Pisco. And I was indeed proved right, as a few minutes later a white minivan pulled in at the square and charged 2/S to the centre of Pisco rather than the 20/S that taxis wanted.

Which was all fine and dandy until I realised that in my initial haste to catch a bus, I’d left my amazing Darth Vader flip flops at the hostel. The ride into town had taken about 15 minutes and had been somewhat uncomfortable due to the cramped nature of the combi and the fact I was carrying my entire luggage and holding my thick coat because of the intense sun. I did some quick time and money calculations and decided it was better to return to the hostel to pick them up. Having done this and wasted about an hour, the combi dropped me off in the centre of Pisco, and the driver kindly told me how to get to the PeruBus terminal on the outskirts of town.  I took a shared taxi for 1.50/S to get there, and there were buses leaving frequently to the capital, with no extended wait so as to fill all the seats as is often the case with other transport companies.

There is always a way not to take a taxi!

Conclusions

My whistle-stop tour of Paracas had been an interesting experience. I’d done some intense cycling, picked up a nice sun tan in the process and seen a few animals for the first time in the Islas Ballestas. While you probably shouldn’t go out of your way to get to Paracas or the islands, there is no harm in stopping by if you’re on your way in and out of Lima and have a little time to spare.

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