Peru, 2016: Paracas and Huacachina

On Monday morning, we had a nice breakfast with some fellow Casa Nuestra guests, sharing our many leftovers from Amaz in addition to the spread that Carmen and Francesco provide. It was great to share some food and find out what other travelers were doing with their time here. Two of the women we talked to were on a mission from NYC to write a travel article about biking (on motorcycles) through the Andes, and would be setting out the next day. They would also be doing some photo blogging via Instagram, so we exchanged contact info to be able to follow each other’s journeys. This is one of my favorite parts of traveling internationally – meeting interesting people from all around the world and finding out what feeds their own individual passion for travel.

After a couple hours of lounging around Casa Nuestra, we packed up and headed south, to Paracas. Three and a half hours down the southern coastline from Lima, Paracas is a small beach town that features two principal draws for lovers of the land and sea: Paracas National Reserve, a rugged park that most visitors traverse on ATVs, and the Ballestas Islands, which seemingly every person in town organizes a tour to visit. We planned to do both.

Faced with a decided lack of accommodation options via Internet booking, we had booked one night at a B&B that seemed reasonable, given the other options, and arrived to find a room that was… not so reasonable, after all. To call it spartan would be generous, and there was a lot of eyebrow action upon discovery. Two small beds, a toilet, and numerous spiders. By night’s end, I had three swollen bites and more than a few concerns about the consequences. But that would be later. For the time being, we sucked it up, told ourselves it was one night, and walked down to the boardwalk to have a bite to eat and see what we could see.

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Most definitely NOT paradise.

The boardwalk was quite lovely, though,  and we found a nice bar to have a drink, where we met an international group of travelers (from Germany, Russia, Lithuania and Ireland) enjoying a night out. We had a few drinks with them and talked politics, of course (whyyyy Donald Trump being the main topic of conversation). It’s a strange time to be abroad, fielding people’s questions and reactions to the circus that has taken over U.S. politics. And more than a little embarrassing, truth be told, though we’re certainly not alone in cringeworthy contemporary political candidates if you consider the larger international context.

After a couple glasses of wine, we were ready to move on to dinner. In search of something other than fried fish, which seemed to be the event of this bar’s food service, we moved a few doors down to a restaurant with a more appealing menu. We were glad we had stopped in, though – it was nice to spend a few hours with new friends and good conversation.

While having dinner on a boardwalk patio, we met Alfredo, a local tourist guide and a charming and effective salesman. We had already been bombarded with offers for tours to the islands, and responded perfunctorily with “quizás mañana, gracias,” to all of them, but this guy was not taking no for an answer! He was also genuinely nice to talk to, and gave us some great travel tips for the rest of our trip, so we booked an early morning trip to the islands with him for the following morning at 7:45am. Then it was back to the spider’s nest, after booking the following night at a much nicer place in the boardwalk for the following day. We slept fairly well, actually, knowing that a nice room and ocean views awaited us the next day.

In the morning, we got the hell out of dodge and hit the pier for our trip out to Ballestas. We scored a couple of primo seats right at the front of the boat, and soon we were out at sea. It was a beautiful morning, and all of the moored fishing boats in the Paracas Bay made for perfect scenery.

Before arriving at the islands, which were about 30 minutes out, we stopped to take in El candelabro, a sand etching on an island of dunes that is estimated to be over 900 years old. Unrelated to the Nazca lines, this etching (which is 127 meters high and 67 meters wide), was originally thought to have been created by the San Martin expedition of 1821, but is now believed to have been created by indigenous people hundreds of years earlier. Because of the wind patterns in this area, it remains undisturbed to this day. To behold it from the bow of a boat on the Pacific coast of Peru was quite an experience. The photos don’t do it justice, but here are a couple, anyway:

Once we got past El candelabro, we were out of the bay and out on the open sea, where the ride got bumpier and the panorama more diverse. Sand dunes gave way to immense rocky islands, which were covered in pelicans, lechuzas, Incatern (Matt’s favorite), orange-clawed crabs (aka sea spiders) Peruvian boobies, and – the crowd favorite – Humbolt penguins.

The islands themselves were gorgeous, as well, and soon we spotted sea lions lounging on them, soaking up the sun’s warmth. There were caves and tiny beaches and so, so many birds. Our captain navigated us closer than I would have ever thought possible around the rocky islands for an hour, pointing out numerous sights along the way. It was a beautiful start to the day, and once we got back on land, we packed up and headed to our new digs, which felt auspicious.

We decided to have some lunch before setting out for the reserve, and came across an unassuming little seaside restaurant on the boardwalk where we sat down to have some lunch. The food was incredible – a plate of oysters a la parmesana to start, and a big, steaming bowl of parihuela for the main course. Parihuela is a rich, brothy soup full of every kind of seafood you could possible want, from shrimp and fish to squid, calamari, scallops, and a huge crab floating on the top. This is living!

Up until this point, our day was off to a great start: las Islas Ballestas, a nice new hotel, and one of the best meals we’ve had so far. But soon the tummy troubles that had shyly suggested themselves that morning became all too present, and soon we scrapped our existing plans to ride four-wheelers through the Paracas Reserve and committed to camping out in our room for some R&R. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but it’s also par for the course while traveling in South America, so we shrugged our shoulders, snuggled into bed, and did some much-needed travel planning for the weeks to come.

In the late afternoon, we did make it out long enough to get a few supplies and meet some new feline friends before taking in the sunset from our balcony:

Wednesday, feeling quite a bit better, we took the bus from Paracas to Ica, and then took a quick can ride over to Huacachina, a tiny oasis village out in the desert. We knew that it would be sort of a tourist trap, and it was, but it was also very picturesque, and made for a fun and relaxing day trip. Shortly after we got there, we had lunch at an outdoor restaurant patio overlooking the lake. Not a bad view, eh?

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We had met a couple of young women from Wisconsin on the bus from Paracas, and bumped into them again at a patio cafe after lunch. We had been planning to do dune buggy tours at 4:00, but my throat was already swollen and painful from all the dust circulating in the air, and riding around the dunes in an open vehicle seemed like a bad idea for me at that point. So I told Matt to go ahead without me, and joined the girls for tea and conversation on the patio. We had a great afternoon swapping travel stories and getting to know each other a bit, and while I was a little disappointed to miss out on the dune buggy tour, I had a lovely afternoon relaxing in good company instead.

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Courtesy of Matt Carberry

Matt returned a couple hours later full of stories of riding – and sandboarding! – the dunes, and showed us some seriously amazing photos and videos from his trip. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

After perusing the photos of the dunes, we said goodbye to the girls and grabbed another quick bite to eat before Matt took advantage of the shower included in his tour (he was covered head to toe in the fine sand that the dunes are composed of) and then we jumped in a cab back to Ica. A 14 hr overnight bus to Arequipa awaited us there, which would take us through hours of barren dessert before long stretches of winding mountain roads. Neither of us were looking forward to that ride, but it would take us inland, where the mountainous section of our journey begins, culminating in a trek through Machu Picchu after passing through Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. If a 14 hour bus ride is part of the price of admission, we’re both willing to pay it.

Oh, and Anne: here’s some proof of life from Huacachina. I can’t promise we’ll both survive the bus ride, but we’re alive and well up until this point.

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