Poor Man’s Galapagos

Day 104 – 13 Jun, 2015

Scooting on up the Peruvian coast, my next stop was Paracas, famous for being the home of Islas Ballestas and the Paracas National Reserve.  Islas Ballestas have garnered the nickname as the Poor Man’s Galapagos because it’s incredibly cheap to take a 2 hour boat trip to view the wildlife that call the islands home.  For someone without the means or time to go to the actual Galapagos Islands, Ballestas is a convenient and worthwhile detour, but don’t be fooled into thinking these two places are the same.  

Pisco, the town that is regarded for its grape brandy by the same name of pisco, is within a stone’s throw from Paracas so this seemed like a good place to begin.  After spending nearly a month in Chile and a month in Peru, I have had my share of pisco sours, the cocktail that has caused much rivalry between the aforementioned countries (sorry, Chile, my allegiance lies with Peru on this one!). However, I had never tried a straight tasting of pisco itself.  With a couple of friends, we hopped in a collectivo taxi to Pisco and were unceremoniously deposited in the middle of a crowded square.  I think we all expected to see pisco bars lining the streets but we found nothing of the sort.  In fact, it took us a handful of false starts to even find a place that had pisco at all!  We came close on our second attempt at the Pisco Community Center, meaning that they didn’t have pisco but that a distinguished gentleman that appeared to own the joint sent his bartender somewhere out the back door, he was gone for quite a long time and then came back in the rear door with 3 pisco sours on a silver platter.  So close…..!

Finally, we found it – the only pisco bar in the whole town of Pisco.  By this time, we had already downed several pints of beer and a pisco sour during our search so drinking straight pisco probably wasn’t necessary, but when in Rome…. (I mean….Pisco)…  The owner was all too pleased to have gringos in his bar so one by one we sampled 3 or 4 varieties – it becomes a bit hazy after the first two.


Stumbling back to Paracas late that night, we had to concede that our plans of an early boat tour to Ballestas the following day was not in the cards.  As it turns out, Paracas is a quaint little fishing village with loads of family-owned seafood restaurants.  There isn’t much to do there unless you visit the islands or the national park, but if you’re looking for a quiet place to relax, this is a good choice.  Travel burnout was beginning to hit me hard.  Add in a rockstar pisco hangover and the lack of sleep from the all-night disco next door to my room and a quiet day in Paracas was exactly what I needed.




On Day 3, it was time to voyage to Islas Ballestas.  The tour to the islands is timed so that you can visit the national reserve in the same day and both are definitely worth a look.  The islands are mostly composed of rock and are designated as a wildlife sanctuary for Humboldt penguins, fur seals, sea lions, blue-footed boobies (of Galapagos fame), pelicans, and a host of other bird species.



Paracas National Reserve, jutting out on the peninsula south of Paracas, is one of the only places in the world where the desert meets the ocean.  Because of this, the landscape boasts stunning views from every direction.  The red sand beaches, the dramatic cliffs, and the menacing sea – it’s almost hard to believe that a place like this is so accessible for visitors, yet so few people actually come.  It’s also possible to hike and  camp in the reserve and I can only imagine what it must be like to wake up in such an isolated universe.  Next time…


I have very fond memories from my time in Paracas.  There is not one thing that stands out as more significant there than anything else I have done or other places I have gone in the last few months, but the vibe of the town was exactly what I needed at exactly that time.  It was nourishment for the soul when I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed with my travel pace and trying to absorb too many experiences too quickly.  This will undoubtedly happen on other occasions during my journey and it will probably not be the places I expect that will eventually help me get my travel mojo back.  Paracas was one of those special places.

The Oasis

Day 102 – 12 Jun, 2015

The first time you see a photo of Huacachina it looks like paradise, stirring up images of a long lost traveler dragging him (or her) self through the desert only to stumble on this sparkling green pool with the promise of an umbrella drink and air conditioning.  The reality is something a bit different.  


Huacachina, also known as The Oasis, is located about 20 minutes from the bustling, crowded city of Ica, Peru. My expectation of being shuttled to this far off desert hideaway was shattered when we simply drove around a sand dune. There it was. Still a beautiful site, but not quite what I expected. 

The city of Ica, visible just over the dunes

Some travelers will stay in Huacachina, the tourist Mecca that it has become. The giant sand dunes loom large, almost enveloping the small resort in their folds. The best views are from the tops of the dunes, looking down on the scene below, because as you get closer you realize that the lagoon itself is incredibly polluted and expels a rather foul odor that you won’t soon forget. My advice? Stay up top!


The best part of this excursion is the sand. Heaps and heaps of it! For only $12, it’s possible to ride a dune buggy up and down, not unlike the sensation in a roller coaster, and go sandboarding from as high as you dare. Exhilarating and heart stopping at times, this is one of those unique experiences that can only be found on some of the highest dunes in the world. 


The dune buggy operator, no doubt, loves pushing the limits on how high or how fast we go. I am sure that there are moments when we are completely airborne. The initial ride lasts no more than 10 minutes before we come to an abrupt halt at the top of a dune. Sand boards are distributed, goggles adjusted, mouths tightly closed, and one by one we are sent careening face first down the mountain of sand. The driver whips around to pick us up and we repeat this sequence again and again. Each drop is between 50-100 meters, each one testing our nerves. 


When the ride concludes and the adrenaline has dissipated, the sun starts to set and again, I am treated to nature’s best. A desert sunset never gets old. 


Soaring Over the Lines

Day 100 – 10 Jun, 2015

I almost skipped Nasca.  Almost.  Nasca (also Nazca) is famous for its mysterious geoglyphs that are said to have been created about 2000 years ago and were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.  They are best seen from the air, but it’s also possible to see some of them from a viewing tower.  Essentially, there are hundreds of geometric shapes or designs of animals that were constructed using simple tools and elementary surveying equipment.  The real mystery lies in WHY they were created.  Noone really knows, although some have devoted their lives to trying to find out.

Some of the theories of why they were built include markers to show sun and celestial body alignment, religious ceremonial sites, offerings to the deities for water, and aliens (I’m not making this up!).  Whatever the reason, it’s a huge draw for people to visit Nasca in southern Peru.

Because of the dry, arid climate and the isolated nature of the plateau, these geoglyphs have existed now for about 2000 years.  Recently, in December 2014, Greenpeace staged a publicity stunt in the region of the lines and damaged some of “The Hummingbird” geoglyph, which has now drawn a lawsuit from the Peruvian government.  Greenpeace has apologized but the damage was already done.

I had decided that if I went, I had to take the flight.  It hardly seemed worth it to go only to the viewing tower where, I believe, it’s possible to see only 3 of the figures.  The problem being that the plane was a 6-seater and it’s not uncommon to hear of accidents and lots and lots of motion sickness.  Again, I had to push through a fear if I really wanted to live…so here we go again!  

The flight cost about $80 for 30 minutes.  There were only 5 of us as passengers, with a pilot and co-pilot/tour guide up front.  They placed us in our seats according to weight (well, that’s reassuring…sort of) and I happened to be in the back without anyone next to me.  The pilot advised us to try to only look out one side of the plane, that he would circle back so that both sides of the plane got the same view.  This suggestion was to help with the whole motion sickness thing, although they passed out barf bags nevertheless.  Well, I don’t listen, and because there was noone next to me, I thought I should take advantage of both windows and have 2 opportunities to get the best photos.  It only took about 5 minutes for my stomach to start doing somersaults.


“The Astronaut”

“The Astronaut”, carved into the side of a hill, might elicit the same question from you as it did from me – if these were lines were created so long ago, how did they know what an astronaut was?  Well, they didn’t.  This geoglyph has been named for tourism purposes.  But then again, this could add some validity to the alien theory.  I’m just sayin…..

“The Hummingbird”
“The Monkey”

When you look at the photo of “The Monkey,” you begin to see just how difficult it is to find, zoom, and focus a camera in a topsy turvy little bitty plane.  I only captured his tail.  This was also about the time I wanted to vomit.  Luckily, that feeling passed but I was relatively underwhelmed with the whole experience.  It went so fast and when you feel sick half the time, it hardly seemed worth it.  My opinion, anyway.


“The Hands”
“Baby Dinosaur”

After the flight, all I really wanted was to lie down but somehow I had been talked into joining an additional tour for the day.  The guy that had been assigned to pick me up from my hostel for the flight was also a tour guide and he was taking a Dutch couple around to a couple other sites in Nasca.  To make it worth his time, he wanted to recruit more people and I was suckered into it.  I will say that even though I had very little interest in seeing anything else in Nasca, the enthusiasm of the guide was contagious and it was clear that he has a deep pride and appreciation of his heritage.

We visited the Cahuachi Ruins first.  Again, I was a little underwhelmed because many of the ruins have yet to be excavated, but the guide made up for it with a wealth of knowledge and boundless energy.


Next, we visited the Chauchilla Cemetary, where mummies were discovered in the 1920s.  I found this site especially interesting because these are now open air tombs.  When mummies are preserved, it’s because they have been interred in such a way as to prevent oxygen and the natural elements from affecting the body.   These tombs were opened up for public viewing  without any sort of glass case or vacuum seal so that now, what remained of the skin and some pieces of clothing have deteriorated in the environment.  Only the skeletons and hair will eventually remain.   They have somewhat recently built awnings over each tomb to try to protect the clothing from sun damage.  There has also been an initiative to try to construct glass enclosures but any money that has been allocated to this project has since been “reallocated” under a possibly corrupt Peruvian government.

Our last stop was at the ancient aquaducts, some of which are still in use today.   Called puquios, these aquaducts were built to bring water into the arid desert.  Once each year, it is an honored tradition for young men to be chosen to go inside for an elaborate cleaning ceremony, to free the aquaducts of debris  so they can continue to filter the water to the region.   Our guide spoke with fond memories of the year he had been chosen.


As a backpacker, Nasca makes a sensible stop because by bus, it’s on the PanAmerican Highway and almost all buses going between Arequipa to Huacachina (both popular backpacker destinations) stop there anyway.  As a tourist, I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra excursion unless you are really into archeaology.  Again, only my opinion.  Peru is bursting with amazing sites but for me, Nasca fell a bit flat.