I don't know what it is about this continent, why I keep getting drawn back, but here I am - again - in South America!
After arriving in Lima, the plan was to travel south for a couple weeks and meet both sets of friends in Santiago, Chile. That's not an insignificant distance - I definitely had a lot of miles to cover. But I also had enough time to stop and play tourist along the way to break up the long hours of bus travel and to see some new places.
Paracas National Reserve, Peru
Located along the Pacific Coast about 160 miles south of Lima, Paracas is one of the most biologically productive marine areas in the world. It's home to huge numbers of fish and bird species, marine mammals and reptiles. Because of this, it's often called the "poor man's Galapagos". The Paracas National Reserve was established in 1975 to protect both bird life around the Paracas Peninsula and marine life in the sea.
Yes, I know, this "Paracas" thing is a bit confusing. It's the name of the peninsula, the town, the reserve park, and also of one of the Pre-Colombian cultures who lived here a couple thousand years ago and built a prosperous life in this extremely dry climate.
I stayed in the little town of Paracas which has a pretty bay, decent beaches, lots of fishing boats, tour operators, handicraft vendors, and great waterfront seafood restaurants. The fishing industry continues to thrive here; Paracas supplies the complete region as well as about 60% of the seafood consumed by the people of Lima.
Just offshore from the Paracas Peninsula are the Ballestas Islands where large colonies of sea birds and marine mammals reside. Visitors aren't allowed on the islands, but inexpensive speedboat tours are easily organized and - notwithstanding the choppy waters you have to navigate through, and the resulting sea spray that soaks all passengers - the views of wildlife from the boats are excellent. We saw a large colony of sea lions, a few Humboldt penguins and red-footed Incan terns, and tons of pelicans, cormorants, and boobies. Only problem was...where there are thousands of airborne sea birds, there are thousands of opportunities to get dive-bombed by bird droppings, and I don't think anyone on my boat escaped that unpleasant fate, including myself!
The speedboat tour also took us past the "Candelabra", a giant candelabra-shape figure etched into a hill overlooking the sea, similar to the Nazca Lines. Nobody knows for sure who made the drawing, or how long ago, or exactly what it means, but it's believed to have been the handiwork of the Paracas culture.
The Paracas area also played an important role in the Peruvian economy during the mid-19th century. Due to the high population of birds on the islands, their droppings (called "guano") accumulated over the centuries into deep deposits. The dry atmosphere prevented the nitrates in these droppings from evaporating, thus maintaining its effectiveness as a rich form of fertilizer. The guano was gathered (and you think your job "stinks"!) and exported as fertilizer to the US and Europe. For many decades this industry was Peru's most important source of revenue. Remnants of the guano industry can still be seen on the Ballestas Islands and even now, once a year, guano is collected and processed in modern day guano factories on other islands in the area.
I also did an overland tour into the part of the Reserve Park that's on the Paracas Peninsula. The peninsula is like one large desert surrounded by steep rugged cliffs that sharply drop off to the waters below. Over the years, wind and sea erosion have sculpted interesting rock formations in the cliffs. The "Cathedral" is the most famous of these formations, believed to have been created by erosion over the last, oh, only 30 million years! Every now and then the steep cliffs slope more gently to quiet bays, and we stopped for a tasty seafood lunch in one of these little bays. Normally we should've seen lots of Chilean flamingos in this area, but apparently during this season they're vacationing elsewhere.
After spending a couple of days touring around Paracas, I had a night bus to catch and a whole day to kill. So I hopped the local bus and did a day trip to Huacachina.
The stunning desert oasis of Huacachina is a tiny town built around a small palm tree lined lagoon. It's surrounded on all sides by miles of huge sand dunes that stretch several hundred feet high. It's popular as a resort destination for Peru's rich families, but is even more popular with the tourists for adventure activities such as sand-boarding and dune tours on special sand buggies.
Legend says that the lagoon was created when a beautiful native princess was apprehended during her bath by a young hunter. She fled from the pool of water she had been bathing in, which became the lagoon. The folds of her cloak, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumored to still live in the lagoon as a mermaid!
I wish I would've had more time in Huacachina as I really fell in love with the place. As it was, I only had around 4 hours to wander around the lagoon, enjoy lunch at one of the waterfront restaurants, and do a challenging hike to the top of the tallest sand dune for stunning views of the oasis below. Next time I'd like to try my luck at sandboarding (hmm, why do I connect the words "broken bones" with that idea?) and do a buggy tour in the dunes.
Continuing on, I crossed the border into Chile and stopped just south of the border at a place called Arica. First thing I did was buy my bus ticket to Santiago - this was still the height of tourist season and summer vacation for students, so transportation was busy and buses often full. Once I had my exit planned and knew I could meet my friends in Santiago on time, I settled in for a few more days of exploration and R&R.
Arica is located along the Pacific Coast at the northern tip of Chile. It's believed to be one of the driest inhabited places on Earth - measured rainfall here averages annual precipitation of only 0.8 mm (0.03 inches). Known as "The City of Eternal Spring," it's blessed with year-round mild dry climate and waters warm enough for swimming, making it a popular year-round beach resort. Big curls along parts of the shoreline also make Arica a popular place for surfers and kite-flyers.
I spent a number of days sightseeing and checking out the numerous beaches. Personally I didn't find the waters all that warm, but there were certainly enough people swimming so maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age!
Standing prominently in the center of town is "El Morro", a rugged hill on which a huge battle was fought during the "War of the Pacific", which was between Chile and the joint forces of Bolivia and Peru during 1879 to 1884. Claiming victory, Chile gained substantial mineral-rich northern territory in the conflict, annexing the Peruvian province of Tarapacá (within which Arica resided at the time), and leaving Bolivia without sea access.
It's a steep climb to the top, but from the summit El Morro offers excellent panoramic views of the city and coastline. Also of interest in Arica is the San Marcos church, designed by Alexandre Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) in 1875, and constructed entirely in iron except for the front door.
After a few days of R&R, I began the last leg of my southward journey...a 29-hour bus journey from Arica to Santiago. I was smart this time, I bought an upgraded "executive service" ticket which included meals, movies, a wide comfortable seat that almost fully reclined, blankets, pillows...hell, they almost tucked me in at night! It was the longest, but by far the most comfortable, bus journey I've ever taken. I almost didn't want to get off when I arrived at my final destination...Santiago.