We decided to leave early in the morning on the first bus departing at 3.45 a.m. to be exact. After some deadly strong pisco sours and supposedly refreshing pitchers of beers, we headed to the bus station – quite dead indeed – with the hope of sleeping tight during the approximate four-hour drive between Lima and Paradise. We were escaping from Peru's capital damp weather and grayness to start a four-day trip in Ica, the sunny region 300 kilometers south of Lima. We were going to explore the land of superb pisco, of creamy butter beans and of a nature haven called the Paracas National Reserve.
People are reputed to live happy and warm all year round in Ica. Okay, maybe not the entire year but anything could be better than drowning in Lima’s humidity between June and November. And anyway, our boundless enthusiasm was going to summon the sun from wherever it was hiding from us. Eileen, a U.S. born photographer traveling South America who I met weeks before, and myself had been invited to spend a couple of days at the Doubletree Hilton-Paracas Hotel. The plan was to explore the sledgehammer-shaped chunk of desert coastline jutting in the Pacific Ocean from this comfy base. And that is exactly what we did.
We arrived around 7:30 a.m. Our dream had come true. The sun was slowly warming the ocean breeze that invaded our nostrils. The sky was quite clear. It was going to be a hot day, bless the gods. I was quite expectant about our stay at the Doubletree Hilton-Paracas. This top-notch hotel was built less than five years ago on the Santo Domingo Beach, at the south end of town. The U-shaped construction has suites overlooking the pool and the ocean. Rooms are spacious, with a large balcony from which you have quite a view from the Paracas Bay.
Hours later, our first big experience at the hotel was in the kitchen. Chef Gustavo Valcárcel made a demonstration of the most requested dishes served nowadays at “El Candelabro,” the hotel’s restaurant. First, he made a Cebiche en Tinta de Calamar, a ceviche made of shrimp, octopus and fresh calamari rings with squid ink in the mix. “It doesn’t alter the flavor but it surely makes it look exotic,” explains Gustavo. Then he prepares a Cebiche de Conchas de la Bahía, a scallop ceviche, made with the fresh produce extracted from the bay. “One more,” says this savvy cook born in Lima and raised in Chiclayo, the cradle of duck-based dishes and an endless variety of fragrant ajíes on the northern coast of Peru. This time he surprises us with a Piqueo Tres Cebiches, a trilogy of ceviches made of octopus, scallops and shrimps. Thelast one draws my attention. It has a soft cilantro sauce smothered over the fresh shrimps. Buenazo!
The ultimate refreshing dessert made by Gustavo is made out of Pisco Sour flavors. Non-alcoholic and delicious.
When Eileen and I started to wonder if Gustavo would make anything else than ceviche, he announces a Tacu Tacu de Pallares con Asado de Tira y Plátano Palillo. What a long name for such a tasty main course. Pallares, or butter beans (also known as lima beans) is an extremely popular legume in Ica. The most popular way to eat it is in a batido – a very soft purée – or in tacu tacu, a rice-mix patty.
We’re quite full at this point in time. But Gustavo was willing to surprise us once again with two desserts: Delicias Peruanas, a mousse trilogy made out of lúcuma (eggfruit), chirimoya (custard apple), and chicha morada (purple corn juice), and Granita de Pisco Sour, a pisco sour flavored semifreddo-like dessert that is too good to ignore. We dig in. I urgently need a nap.
The hotel has a wide variety of fun activities to do. If you're a couple, go for it. If you have a family with children, better even. There is a unique white sand beach and a couple of swimming pools, as well as the usual spa. But if you need something more adventurous, try kayaking or do the real thing: Dune buggy riding. An hour away from the hotel, you will mount on a large wheel, Volkswagen-motor, modified vehicle, and slide down the most incredible dunes in the region, defying every law of physics. It can't get better!
A desert with life
When you travel along Peru’s long and arid coastline strip, it is initially hard to believe that such a desert-like region can hold so much life. This is true for the Paracas Peninsula and the surrounding areas, which is protected since 1975 as the Paracas National Reserve, where the desert meets dramatically with the ocean. With around 335 thousand hectares of extension Paracas is Peru’s largest piece of protected coastline, with towering cliffs fringing beaches swarming with wildlife. It is home to unique flora and fauna species – including the South American flamingo, the condor, and the Humboldt penguin – and is a haven to a variety of migratory bird species. The reserve is recognized by Ramsar as a Wetland of International Importance.
A group of Peruvian pelicans gather attentive to our invasive movements in the Bay of Paracas.
We made a short but highly interesting trip to the reserve leaded by Edgar Aguilar, a savvy birdwatcher and well informed guide that explained the basics of this protected area. “There is around 1,800 species in Paracas,” said Edgar. Difficult to believe if you look into the desert and see nothing but sand in such a moveless landscape, at least at first glance.
But things change pretty quickly here, sometimes in a question of minutes. In 2007, an earthquake destroyed the nearby town of Pisco, killing around 500 people, and changed dramatically the scenery around the peninsula. “The earthquake displaced layers of land revealing the existence of fossils 36 million years old,” explains Edgar. The bad news is that it also destroyed a monumental geological formation known as La Catedral (The Cathedral), formed around the Eocene Era (58-37 million years ago) which used to be an iconic image of the reserve. The rock bridge connecting the massive formation to the mainland collapsed, leaving only the outer promontory as a silent witness of the destruction. Curiously enough, three months before the earthquake, I manage to enter the cavity under La Catedral, sculpted during millions of years by the wind and ocean, and made an interesting photo. That was the last time I saw the rock formation in all its beauty.
The Paracas reserve has a long list of interesting places to visit. Playa Atenas, for example, that used to be a windsurf spot in the past. A dirt road crosses the peninsula’s isthmus leading southwest to Lagunillas, and from there to El Raspón and La Mina beaches, this last one a favorite to campout. There is also Punta Arquillo, at the end of the same dirt road, where there is a lookout over a rocky area usually crowded with sea lions, especially during the mating season. But reality is that the further away you go into the reserve, the more remote and less impacted by tourism. Bahía de la Independencia, on the southern end of the reserve is on the most beautiful, less-visited beaches of Paracas, highly recommendable if you have a four-wheel vehicle. On the way you will cross Playón, the salt flats of Otuma and Mendieta. The landscape is breathtaking.
Penguins in Ballestas
The most popular and visited attraction in Paracas is, without doubt, the Ballestas Islands. These are home to thousands of sea lions and birds, including the highly endangered Humboldt penguin, most probably the star of these islands. Ballestas is finally protected under the recently created Reserva Nacional de las Islas, Islotes y Punta Guaneras, that protects 22 islands and 11 guano points along the Peruvian coast, including Ballestas.
A tour to the islands, which lasts an average of two hours, is the best chance to observe quite closely sea lions, cormorants, guanays, Humboldt penguins and Peruvian boobies, among hundreds of other species, comfortable sharing a common territory.
The tours leave quite early, around 8 a.m. It was chilled the morning Eileen and I did it, but not that bad. We had enjoyed a wonderful sunny weather so far, so there were no complaints about the grayish morning. The boats to Ballestas carry around 20 to 30 passengers with a guide each.
Once again, Edgar introduced us to the nature wonders of these islands that along others distributed on the coastline, used to hold Peru’s economic treasure in the mid 19th century: Guano or bird droppings, containing 20 times more nitrogen than cow manure. This highly covered fertilizer triggered a guano rush between 1850 and 1870. Just from Ballestas, around 10 million tons were extracted during those years. Nowadays, the industry still exists but operated in a more sustainable process by Peru’s government.
Ballestas is a blast. With luck and patience (and a good boat driver that will know how to sail around the islands) you will see the most representative bird species of Peru's coastline.
Eileen and I spent almost 48 hours in Paracas and covered much more of what we expected. This is absolutely a great destination all year round if you want to spend a weekend with family or friends in a unique natural spot. Just four hours away south of Lima, you will find a fascinanting world in an apparent lifeless desert, which by the contrary, is home to thousands of species that we are still learning to undertand and live with.