Having never been to South America before it took a while before deciding that Peru would be our destination. Ultimately, it became a straight choice between the land of the Incas and Argentina but a closer look revealed that the sheer size and diversity of Argentina plus the fact that a British summer was not the time to travel to that particular country meant that the necessary four weeks to see everything from Iguaza Falls to Tierra del Fuego would not be possible until the constraints of school holidays weren’t a factor. So Peru it would be!!
The trip eventually worked out to be a total of 22 days including travelling and it was very early one morning in August that we drove to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 to make the short hop across to Amsterdam to connect with our KLM flight to Lima, the Peruvian capital. And twelve hours after taking off from Schiphol Airport we were touching down early evening in the arid coastal city on the Pacific coast.
Lima is far from the most attractive city in the world and its image isn’t helped by the fact that it appears for much of the time beneath a grey and overcast sky. Visually, aside from the main square (the Plaza de Armas) the city fails to inspire. Its suburbs seem awash with glitzy (tacky actually) casinos offering a financially struggling populace life-changing opportunities. It does however have its fair share of museums including a Gold Museum and if you walk down to the coast from the centre, probably no more than fifteen minutes, Lima has an interesting coastline and a few cliff top parks one of which resembles Park Guell in Barcelona. So it’s not all bad and, after all, cities are always good for shopping!!!
Lima was to be the start and finish of our South American adventure and after the initial two days and nights seeing the main historical sites and hearing all about Pizarro and those nasty Spanish we prepared for the next stage of our Peruvian trip; the Amazon Jungle!!
The flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado on the eastern side of the Andes took just over an hour including a quick stop at Cusco. As we approached Maldonado the meandering tan shapes of the Amazon tributaries came into view surrounded by jungle for as far as the eye could see. Expecting a significant increase in temperature compared to dull, overcast Lima, we were surprised to find it only warm. The reason became clear a little later.
We were met at the airport by Erick, our Peruvian guide who had lived all of his life in Puerto Maldonado and for the past ten years had spent most of his time on the river, living and based at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, approximately three hours upstream from Maldonado. We boarded our bus for the short trip to the office where we would leave the majority of our luggage, taking only a small bag for the jungle for the 3 days and nights that we would be there. Outside the office a Sloth was busily lazing on the branch of a tree – our first wildlife. We were told that the previous day had seen strong winds and heavy, unexpected rain (this was the dry season). Trees had come down and a lorry turned over blocking the road to the port that we would usually have left from. As a result, we had to travel further down river to another port which would mean our journey to the lodge would take four hours rather than three. Oh well.
Back on the bus for the short ride to the port we soon tested our balance for the first time on the trip, walking the narrow gangplank to carefully take our places on the long, slim boat that would take us to Refugio Amazonas. One at a time; one to the left, one to the right, next to the left etc; so as not to upset the balance of the boat. All on board we settled down in our summer clothes unaware of how cold it would get by the half way stage of the journey. Our skipper was clearly trying to make up for lost time and with his local knowledge steered the boat at speed from right to left as we travelled the Rio Tambopata, avoiding whatever lay just beneath the surface of the muddy looking Amazonian waters. A floating tree – another victim of the previous day’s storm – almost got the better of us as, caught in an undercurrent, it suddenly moved towards us and with limited room to manoeuvre, we had to take a blow to the right hand side of the boats canopy just above the head of the person sitting in front of me. Instinctively we all ducked!
Daylight hours are roughly from 6 am till 6 pm in this part of the world. We were due to arrive at the lodge at around 7 pm and it was now dark as well as cold, quite different to what we had anticipated but with light pollution set to zero it was great to see a full array of stars in the night sky.
Because of our late arrival, we were ushered straight into dinner – the allocation of rooms could wait. The lodge itself was very eco-friendly, constructed with natural materials about ten years earlier. Miguel was the Manager and his introductory speech to us outlined the strict regime for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the fact there was no electricity in the rooms and that basically the place closed down for the night at 9:30 pm. Early starts would be the norm.
The rooms, for obvious reasons perched ten feet off the jungle floor on stilts, were divided up by walls of wooden logs with curtains acting as a front door and another between the bedroom and bathroom. The bed was covered with a box style mosquito net and the far side of the room completely open and facing the jungle. Sleeping, maybe surprisingly, wasn’t a problem although the cold (luke warm at best) shower in the morning ensured you were soon wide awake for the day ahead.
Miguel promised to solve the problem with the water temperature in Room No. 29 while we were out with Erick and Enzo for the morning. Enzo had joined Erick to share the workload and both were knowledgeable and spoke very good English. Straight after breakfast they gathered us together and led us off on the first trail. A Tarantula had been pointed out by one of the guides as we made our way from the boat to the lodge when we arrived the previous night. This morning, as well as the numerous birds and sounds it was the Capuchin Monkeys and Dusky Titi Monkeys that took centre stage. Watching one Brown Capuchin Monkey trying to crack a coconut against a branch high up in the canopy was a real highlight.
The butterflies, the birds and the jungle sounds were memorable. In particular, the sound of the Oro Pendula bird, conveniently nesting in a tree at eye level from the upstairs lounge at the lodge, entertained us for ages as we recovered with a drink at the end of a morning walk.
Add to that, (1) a medicinal trail where we learned about the various plants that were used as medicines in the jungle, (2) a night boat excursion looking for Caymans and Capybaras, (3) a visit to a fruit farm where we tried star fruit, oranges and bitter tomatoes among other things, (4) bird and piranha watching from a boat on a lake which also contained Electric Eels, Giant Otter, Catfish and Anaconda, (5) climbing a tower to view over the top of the jungle canopy and (6) some light trekking (avoiding Leaf Cutter Ants along the way) to see the Toucans, Parrots, Macaws and Peccary’s at two different clay licks and it gives a flavour of the three days that we spent in the Amazon Jungle.
The jungle had begun to seriously warm up by the time we left with humidity noticeably rising. Consequently, the cooling breeze as we raced back down the amazon towards Puerto Maldonado was a lot more welcome than it had been on that much cooler evening when we arrived. At Maldonado we were reunited with the rest of our luggage and, leaving Erick and Enzo behind us, took the 45 minute bus ride to the small airport for the flight to Cusco for our next challenge – altitude!!
Cusco sits at somewhere around 10,500 feet above sea level and it’s here that you first start noticing the effects. As a visual reminder hotels are equipped with Oxygen in the Reception areas for people in need. “Drink the Coca Tea” was the general rule and take it easy while you acclimatise.
We had six nights to enjoy Cusco and a suite at the Casa Andina Hotel, just a ten minute walk from the Main Square, the Plaza de Armas (all the main squares in Peru seem to be called the Plaza de Armas!). Having arrived late afternoon we did nothing more than stroll and test ourselves with the altitude prior to dinner. The old streets and the main square left a good early impression and the two free days that we had at the end of our stay (on Saturday and Sunday) would be a great chance to wander.
On our first full day in Cusco we met our guide, Gladys, and she took us to visit a number of the Inca sites that surround it including Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman. The 11,500 feet altitude induced a mild and temporary headache and slight congestion but others were already feeling breathless as we walked the final stretch from the bus to the sites. In the evening we found a recommended restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and decided that we would try Cuy (Guinea Pig). Cuy is cooked in several different ways and while ours tasted ok it was hard work finding anything worthwhile and neither of us tried Guinea Pig again during the trip.
Day Two in Cusco and we ventured outside the city with a new guide, David, into the Sacred Valley to visit Chinchero and Ollantaytambo. Chinchero is a typical small Peruvian village with a community that live by traditional ways and means in an attempt to remain as self-sufficient as possible. The women work as weavers and spin the Alpaca wool into thread before dying it using natural materials and then weaving it into fabric. ‘Head Girl’ Olga gave a brief talk in her best English to entertain the group and get them into buying mode. And then, in the courtyard of the house the women offered for sale the various products that each had made. In the corner was a cage full of squeaking Guinea Pigs destined for the pot!
Ollantaytambo is a main stop on the railway line through the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu and is also the location of the main archaeological site in the area. It was a hot day and getting to the top would have been challenging enough without the impact of altitude so it was no surprise when some, given the option to finish at one or two lower levels, chose to do precisely that. At the top, the view over the back provided a landscape of snow-capped mountains which made the effort worthwhile.
From Ollantaytambo we travelled to Pisac, another village in the valley but one with more than a hint of the touristic about it. The market, I am sure, has been operating for a long, long time but this was a scene geared very much towards the foreign visitors, as were the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the square on one side. Having said that, it was an opportunity to pick up one or two predictable presents and in any case, everywhere we went, there were photo opportunities.
Back in Cusco we had very little inclination to do much more than eat in the hotel and get some sleep ahead of the 5 o’clock departure for Machu Picchu the following day. The train left Poroy Station – about 45 minutes outside of Cusco – at 06:40. Perurail are a part of the Orient Express group and we were treated to a Peruvian version of the famous service with breakfast and drinks being served during the three hour journey that followed the line of the Urubamba River. It was a very classy trip with great scenery all the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the end of the line that sits below Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes it was a twenty minute bumpy ride on the shuttle buses that compete for the narrow road all the way up the mountain. Once there, make use of the toilets (there are none inside!), get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp and enter through the turnstile, past the Hiram Bingham plaques and up the slope for your first sight of the Machu Picchu landscape.
When you enter the site there are three levels and you enter at the middle on a long terrace facing Machu Picchu (Old Mountain). Below, the classic photo of the site appears and it is from down there that you can start the 45-minute walk up to the summit of the old mountain. Above us is the Guard House and the Sun Gate from where the ‘calendar shot’ is actually taken. It’s a huge area and quite a challenge on the uneven Incan stone steps. The views around the bowl of mountains in which Machu Picchu stands are many and varied and supplemented by clouds that cling to the top of the landscape and threaten to engulf it, potentially ruining the view that you have travelled thousands of miles to see. Chinchillas laze on the enormous stones and Llamas roam the site but thankfully without the colourfully dressed peasant women asking tourists for ‘un Sol’ in exchange for a photograph. Machu Picchu is a relatively well controlled World Heritage site. Limits on the number of visitors were imposed a few years ago as a condition of its status and this is supposed to prevent more than 2,500 people visit each day – but then money talks doesn’t it. We were fortunate to see most of the ruins with few other people around and credit for that was due to David, our guide, who knew how to get around the site and avoid the crowds. However, the constant stream of shuttle buses travelling up and down the mountain all day long at ten minute intervals makes it hard to believe that the 2,500 limit isn’t being exceeded.
Back in Cusco after the return train journey, complete again with food and refreshments and on-board fashion show by the Perurail employees (they work very hard for their money!) we reflected on a great day. We didn’t reach the hotel until 9:15 in the evening but the next two days were totally free time and so we made our own plans for the weekend. There is plenty to see and do in Cusco. The main square is easy to get to and everything is within touching distance from there; the Cathedral, Santa Catalina Convent, the theatre, Son Blas, restaurants, bars and the main shops.
Son Blas is a small district a few roads back from the Plaza de Armas at the end of a matrix of some attractive narrow streets, opening out into a plaza with an impressive water feature at the top end. The square was dotted with table-top vendors but it has a very relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to buy anything that was on offer. There are also one or two shops and the usual bars – it was a nice way to spend an hour or so on another hot day. With the boxes ticked for this, the Cathedral and Santa Catalina Convent we headed back to the hotel. The Sunday was to be a totally random kind of a day; so much so that I decided to have a day out without the camera. After all, it was day six in Cusco and what could I possibly take photos of that I hadn’t taken already? By the time we had walked from the hotel to the main square again that question had been answered. We walked straight into the middle of a parade with what appeared to be numerous schools presenting themselves in colourful costumes to dignitaries sat on a V.I.P podium just in front of the main cathedral doors. Bands played and the kids from the schools (possibly dance schools) danced and they were eventually followed by what was effectively a Carnival Queen. Needless to say, all of this warranted a walk back to the hotel to get the camera!! More photos!! It was great to have the two days in the middle of the trip doing exactly what we wanted and we even managed to get the washing done locally.
We were now moving on to Puno and in particular Lake Titicaca. Our transport was to be the Andean Explorer train, again run by Perurail in their own Orient Express kind of way. The journey would take ten hours but travelling across the picturesque Altiplano, the high plains, it was unlikely ever to drag. The train had an observation car at the back which gave complete views of the surrounding countryside as we cruised at 25 miles per hour at between 11,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level with the edges of the Andes Mountains visible on both sides. Alpacas, Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos plus sheep, bulls, cows and numerous birds complemented the landscape. The occasional town offered a brief but chaotic contrast to the calm, unspoiled Altiplano with trackside markets and tuk-tuk’s dominating the scene and children running behind the train waving. Perurail help the time pass easily by providing food and drink intervals, another fashion show, musicians, the bar and, of course, the observation carriage and scenery. And by late afternoon we were approaching Juliaca, the final stop before Puno. Juliaca is a marmite town which a lot of people wouldn’t like but others, including me, loved the experience of passing through it and taking photographs from the back of the train. Juliaca has an edge to it. It isn’t attractive, doesn’t look very clean and certainly doesn’t appear prosperous. The long straight train track through the centre of town was under severe pressure on both sides from the trackside market stalls. It seemed you could buy anything and some goods such as books and oranges were even being displayed on the ground between the tracks while the trains run over the top! Expressions on faces varied, some happy, some sad, some looked angry or simply worn down by life and others simply looked focussed on what they were doing; trying to earn a living. But regardless, almost all of the children were entertaining and happy to run with the train and along the track, calling and waving as we trundled through their town. As soon as the back of the train passed by, the track evolved a series of its own crossings with animals, cars, bikes, tuk-tuk’s (imported into Peru from India in the 1990’s) and people all busily moving across the track. For me Juliaca was a memorable part of our Peruvian experience.
Having already said that Juliaca had an edge to it, much the same could be said for Puno where our journey on the Andean Explorer ended. As the train eased its way into the station a welcoming stone was hurled at the window by one of the locals. Significantly larger than Juliaca, Puno sits on the south west corner of Lake Titicaca but other than the lake itself there is little felt worthy of advertising for visitors to see. On the other hand, Lake Titicaca really is worth spending time on. At 13,000 feet it ranks as the highest lake in the world and is huge. Our hotel had its own pier which was surrounded by reeds and marshes which were home to numerous species of birds as I discovered on an early morning walk along the frost covered boards of the pier. We spent a day on the lake visiting first the floating Uros Islands and then Taquile Island. The Uros Islands are about sixty strong and are home to Aymara speaking families, approximately 2,500 people in total. The people construct and maintain their own islands and the houses that they live in using the reeds from the lake. Anchored to the bottom of the lake the islands are visited in rotation to ease the pressure on the families and also to share any income gained from tourism. The one that we visited was called San Miguel and six families (around 42 people ) lived there. Life unsurprisingly is basic with the women doing the usual weaving and other craft work while the men do whatever they do including maintaining the island, the property and the boat (also made from the reeds from Titicaca - as Thor Heyerdahl did for his Kontiki expedition). We spent about an hour learning about how the islands are maintained and looked inside the houses before predictably being asked if we wanted to buy anything. Equally predictably, we did!
By contrast, Taquile Island is on solid ground and home to small farming communities. From here it’s easy to see the mountains of Bolivia on the far eastern shore of Titicaca. Mount Illimani, acts as a landmark for La Paz. It’s not an easy walk from one side of the island to the other but we had the motivation of a drink and lunch at the top before we descended down the other side to meet up with our boat again for the journey back to Puno. Again, the views had been spectacular.
The hotel was out on a bit of a limb as far as the town was concerned so we didn’t venture any further than the hotel restaurant in the evening. We had the following morning free and then we went off to visit the Sillustani Funerary Towers that lie about an hour outside of Puno alongside another very photogenic lake. In the centre of the lake is an island that is now a reserve for Vicunas. The lakeside location and the general landscape far exceeded my interest in the history of the towers themselves and while it was a particularly hot day for and the effort required to climb to the top was considerable it was worth it for the views alone.
We had a flight to catch from Juliaca Airport to Arequipa later that afternoon and the trip to Sillustani is conveniently on the way. The joys of Juliaca came quickly flooding back as we briefly flirted with the traffic, the market and the railway line again in the centre of town before squeezing our way through and out of the chaos to the airport located on the outskirts. Inside the terminal building was almost as chaotic and disorganised as the town centre but we made our way through their very different and not totally convincing security process before finding the departure lounge.
From Juliaca, the flight to Arequipa is just under one hour and we were met by Alberto who would be our guide in the area for a couple of days. Our hotel, the Somesta del Posada, was right in the middle of town on one side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas!! Surrounded by Volcanoes, some currently active, Arequipa represents Peru’s second city after Lima. Arequipenos are proud of their city to the extent that they are making what could only be described as a whispered and tentative claim for independence from the rest of Peru. However, apart from promoting Arequipa in every conceivable way possible including their own beer – Arequipena (a direct competitor to Cuzquena in Cuzco) – it is difficult to imagine such claims ever being taken seriously enough to get their campaign off the ground. Our main points of interest whilst in Arequipa were the town itself and in particular the museum where ‘Juanita’ is on show, Santa Catalina Convent, and Colca Valley and Canyon to watch the Condors fly.
First stop was to see Juanita in a museum just around the corner from the hotel. Also known as the Inca Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, ‘Juanita’ is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480, at approximately 11–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) near Arequipa in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate. Today, she is on display in the city, preserved in a temperature controlled glass casing and is the highlight of the museum visit.
Arequipa is a typical bustling city overwhelmed by people and traffic. It also has its fair share of earthquakes - on average there is one every two hours in Peru!!). The most common car in Peru is by far and away the Daewoo Tico and you see these everywhere, often in coincidental convoy in a variety of colours but predominantly yellow. Most taxis are yellow Daewoo Tico’s. A couple of roads back from the main square you will find the large covered market which sells almost everything you can think of and around the corner from here is the Santa Catalina Convent, probably Arequipa’s main tourist attraction. Described as a ‘city within a city’ Santa Catalina is well worth a visit and the guided tour lasting about an hour explains the history of the multi-coloured buildings. But both Juanita and Santa Catalina Convent were added bonuses as far as we were concerned. The main purpose of being based in Arequipa was to be within reach of Colca Canyon to take the opportunity of seeing the Condors fly. It meant that we transferred from Arequipa to the Colca valley, a journey across the highlands of almost four hours passing Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas again as we drove for a while on the new road that stretches from the Atlantic Coast starting in Brazil through Bolivia and Peru before finishing on the Pacific Coast in Chile. We stopped for lunch at Chivay and then stayed overnight at Colca Lodge, a spa resort deep in the valley with natural hot springs within its list of facilities. We arrived late afternoon and it was a lovely sunny evening that provided enough light to stroll to the Alpaca Farm on the other side of the river. Photographically the light was as good as it had been so far on the entire trip so there was little respite for the camera but as the light dimmed the prospect of a Pisco Sour by the hot springs began to emerge as the next favourite pastime. And we were still there after the sun had set.
It was another early start the following morning as we headed off for the canyon with the hope but no guarantee of seeing the Condors rise up from the valley and pose for photos. Colca Canyon is a popular venue for this particular ‘sport’ and others had clearly started closer or left earlier than us but it was a large viewing area and easy to find space to wait and watch. Hundreds of eyes scanned in various directions until high above the peak behind the canyon the first Condor was spotted but it was a long way away and, for me, I wanted to see one much closer to feel satisfied with the morning’s effort. We only had just over an hour before starting a short trek across the top of the valley to get back to our bus and whilst we saw a second and then a third Condor flying high above us it still didn’t tick the box as far as I was concerned. Time ticked away and I was literally about to change lenses on the camera and concentrate on other things away from giant birds when below us as we looked down the valley we spotted outspread wings gliding in a circular and gradually upward motion towards where we were standing. Within seconds it had soared on the thermals up to our eye level and then did a fly-past from right to left in front of us. It was a real wow moment and I just hoped that from first sighting to last I had captured enough quality on camera to do justice to what would be a lasting memory. We continued watching ‘our Condor’ as it soared and climbed until it disappeared over the next ridge before we joined Alberto and the others for the short trek back to the bus. The walk took us along the edge of the top of the valley which gave us an infinite number more viewing points to hopefully see more Condors or even other birds in the area. And we did. Probably the largest Condor that we saw flew above us as we continued walking. It was big and black and with a huge wingspan and if it had been closer would surely have eclipsed our earlier sighting. The valley floor was over one mile beneath us at this point although the maximum drop in the Colca Valley reaches two miles at one point. We walked past a dead donkey and a dead cow on our way back to the bus; surely these wouldn’t go to waste up here!!! Alberto spotted a Humming Bird flying around a cactus and then said that he could hear Parakeets before pointing them out as they flew into trees on the side of the mountain.
We had seen eleven condors, our fair share, and it was time to go. We had a four hour journey back to Arequipa passing the lodge on the way and stopping at Chivay for a quick break before moving on down the mountains. What came next was totally unexpected. We remembered Alberto mentioning earlier that he thought he had seen a snowflake falling. Within half an hour of us being on the road from Chivay that solitary snowflake had turned into a full blown blizzard and one that would ultimately make national and even international news!!
Within another half an hour the entire area was white and the roads were very dicey. Our driver did brilliantly, taking no risks as we made our way down, passing again the Llamas, Alpaca and Vicunas who were understandably looking far less lively than they did in the earlier sunshine. We weren’t to know at this stage that within a couple of days the news would break that over 5,000 people had been made homeless as a result of this snowstorm and over 20,000 animals including Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas had died.
We arrived back around sunset which was around 6:30 pm and agreed with several others to meet later and go out for dinner on our last evening in Arequipa with the aim of finding more Alpaca – to eat this time – which we did.
The flight from Arequipa the following day reunited us with the capital city of Lima within one hour but from the airport we drove straight to Paracas, around three hours down the coast by car. Our outbound flight from Arequipa had been delayed so we were late into Lima and therefore later getting to Paracas. Lima was its usual overcast self with barely a hint of breaking sunshine and by the time we reached Paracas it was dark and we couldn’t properly see what awaited us until we checked in and reached our room. Everything was coated in up to 5mm of sand; the result of a sandstorm during the afternoon. Paracas literally translates as Sandstorm and each storm lasted usually for three days and day two had just passed. The cleaning staff at the hotel were already working their way around the rooms and after a quick word at reception ours was moved up the list. Within an hour and after a free Pisco Sour we were able to occupy the suite that we had for two nights to see first the Nasca Lines and then on the following day pay a visit to the Ballestas Islands. Would our room survive day three of the sandstorm? We covered everything that we could just in case.
We travelled on the Pan-Pacific Highway to reach the Nasca Lines. The highway stretches 27,000 kms down the west coast of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina and 3,000 of those kms are in Peru. Peru’s coastline is entirely desert. On the way to Nasca we stopped at Ica to visit a cultural museum. I’m not a massive fan of museums but this was as good as I’ve seen with the usual artefacts being spiced up with mummy’s and the techniques used by the nobility to deliberately deform skulls as a sign of superiority. Amazing.
Nasca is located on the open road with the Pan-Pacific Highway actually constructed through one of the Nasca Lines thus decapitating ‘the lizard’. We had already decided on UK Government advice not to take one of the flights over the lines and instead chose to observe what we could from the viewing towers alongside. As it turned out, the imminent sandstorm ended any prospect of flights being made on the day we were there and the view from the tower was good enough to see two of the Nasca Lines to justify the trip.
On the way back to Paracas we could see day three of the storm in the distance. We stopped to visit yet another archaeological site before stopping again at Ica, this time for lunch and then it was back on the road with fingers crossed over the state of the rooms at the Doubletree Resort. It really was a lovely hotel which under different circumstances would be a luxury. Located on the beach it has lovely swimming pools and outdoor lounging and bar areas but we had little time until the morning before we departed to enjoy the facilities to any extent.
Our very last excursion on this holiday was to the Ballestas Islands. Approximately half an hour out to sea from Paracas the islands are home to almost one million birds plus Sea Lions and Penguins and you can see Dolphins a little nearer to the coast. Just before you reach the islands the boat pulls in and drifts off of a smaller island. The island is basically a massive sandstone rock and on it, in the same way as the Nasca Lines have been etched, is the outline of what looks like a candelabra. It has become a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right although it’s really only a warm-up act for the Ballestas Islands.
As we approached the islands the sharp-eyed among the passengers on the boat spotted one or two inquisitive Sea Lions poking their heads out of the water. The number of birds in the sky at this point was striking and as we got closer to land the number was simply unbelievable. It was easy to understand the importance placed on the gathering and exporting of the Guano from this place! Nobody is permitted to set foot on the islands other than the three Rangers that look after the environment and supervise the farming of the Guano. Our boat switched its engines off and we drifted closer and closer to shore to initially view the Booby Birds, Cormorants, Pelicans, Terns and Penguins.
The rock formations, colours and natural windows in the rocks were an attraction on their own and our captain skilfully manoeuvred the boat around the islands to the various inlets to try and see as much as possible. Around one such corner we reached and saw for the first time the Sea Lions, lazing heavily upon the rocks and occasionally throwing themselves back into the water as it crashed against the rocks that they call home. Territorial instincts surfaced as a rival ventured too far into another’s personal space while others were playing. The Sea Lions were a highlight and it would have been easy to have drifted on the Pacific for longer observing both them and the birds but we soon had to start the journey back to the pier but not before cruising nearer to shore to see the Dolphins. Once back in Paracas we disembarked and received a gift from the boat as a memento; nice touch.
It was still only 10:30 am which was nice as we had already done so much and now had several hours to enjoy the beach and the hotel facilities before we caught the bus back to the capital in preparation for our return flight to the UK. The pool bar and lounge had just been cleaned following the previous days rush of sand from the desert so we took advantage and sat there with a drink for a while. The lazy chairs looking from the beach out to sea were another brief refuge before we finished our stay with a walk up and down the long stretch of sand, counting the jellyfish that had washed up onto the beach and were by now in various stages of decomposition. A couple of small boats were anchored just offshore and these had been commandeered by groups of birds, predominantly Pelicans, that perched lazily on the edges of each boat, occasionally taking off and briefly exercising their wings before resting on the ocean for a while and then returning to the boat.
Packed for the final time we made our way to the local Bus Station; in fact, a hut. Inside, best attempts had been made to make the whole operation (run by the Cruz del Sur bus company) look as professional as possible. There was a waiting area and some vending available with drinks and ice creams but best of all there was an information desk and an airport style check in where somebody took your bags, stapled a yellow ticket to them and gave you the matching half of each ticket as a receipt. The bags were then put on the floor behind him in a heap until all of the passengers had been checked in. The same operative then began phase two of the process moving the bags from the floor onto the shelf on the outside wall. From here, unemployment among others in the room fell and two more became operational, moving the bags from the shelf to the waiting transport. While this was underway we were ushered into an orderly line to board what was a double decker luxury coach bedecked in Cruz del Sur livery, something that I then realised I had seen many times during our stay in Peru. At the point of boarding we were greeted at the bottom of the stairs ‘airline style’ by an immaculately dressed hostess who checked our tickets and directed us to our seats upstairs. The coach had all modern conveniences including the usual airline-style onboard services and entertainment. Pillows and blankets were provided for the four hour journey which would get us to Lima for 7 pm. It was all very well done but having said all of that the four hours spent on the coach were more than enough for me and confirmed my preference for smaller vehicles, trains and planes.
Back in Lima, we stayed at the same hotel as that when we arrived and it was nice to be on familiar ground in that respect. No time to venture out so plans were laid for last-minute shopping in the city the following morning plus a walk to the coast for a drink. The Gold Museum is supposed to be worth seeing but its location wasn’t convenient and time simply ran out.
Lima Airport was more challenging than on arrival as a result of the two British girls that had been arrested for drug smuggling. Sniffer dogs were everywhere as we queued to check-in and drop our bags for the hold. Thankfully, the flight was on time and 8 pm in Lima on Wednesday very quickly became 3 pm in Amsterdam and then 6 pm in the UK. Home again.
Peru had been a great choice for our first South American journey. Our expectations were more than met particularly towards the end where the itinerary, on paper at least, felt to be tailing off but that was far from the case. The cities, the jungle, the mountains, the lakes, the desert, the ocean, the animals, the birds and the people all combined to make this a fantastic holiday.