Sunday afternoon we caught a bus to Camana, Peru. We picked our destination kind of at random; I was distracted with work and just wanted to get to the beach, anywhere on the beach! So we heard that Camana was by the beach, we bought a bus ticket, and three hours later we were in Camana. The drive was just a winding two-lane road through a weird alien landscape of sandy, gravelly mountains and dunes. Really quintessential desert. As we went further, the dunes got less rocky and more sandy. And then, over a giant dune, appeared the ocean! There was nothing in-between, just desert merging seamlessly into sand dunes and beach and then ocean, I’ve never seen a place like this before. Camaná turned out to be a small city or a big town, a little bit away from the beach, but it still had a kinda beach-town vibe, lots of ice cream parlors and game arcades and seafood places. In the daytime the town felt really quiet but in the evening, the main plaza filled up completely with families and kids, running and shouting and enjoying the fresh evening air. Two french clowns set up a show in the main square and did a great show for kids; we got ourselves ice-cream cones and enjoyed the show too. They were really talented!
The next day we spent at the beach, doing beachy things like eating ceviche and fried shrimp, wading in the chilly water (I always think of the Pacific ocean as warm, but it wasn’t!) and reading paperback novels while drinking beer under beach umbrellas. That night, after enjoying another performance by the french clowns, we caught an overnight bus to Paracas, six hours up the coast. We were told that only the budget buses stop in Camaná, so we’d have to take a gritty budget service. Our bus turned out to be over an hour late, and then when it arrived, the guy at the bus station would not let us get on our bus! He kept saying “oh, no, there’s another bus coming really soon. You can take the next bus. It’s much better, it’s a very fancy bus, you’ll like that one much better.” We watched twenty other people get on that bus but he wouldn’t let us on! I did not believe him and I tried to argue to no avail and then just sat there, despondent, imagining us stuck in the bus station with all our bags, all night long. But lo, twenty minutes later, another bus appeared! And it was a luxury bus! It stopped just for the two of us, and we climbed aboard, very surprised but thankful… it was air-conditioned, it had huge bathrooms and plush leather seats that convert into actual beds, they gave us blankets and pillows, the whole thing was really surreal. We have no idea why this happened to us! But we slept well and in the morning they woke us up to get off the bus in Pisco.
Pisco is a port city a few hours south of Lima that was pretty thoroughly destroyed in an earthquake in 2007. We thought we’d just check into a hostel there, sleep for a while longer, then head over to explore Paracas, which is a beautiful beach town nearby, and a starting-point for boat trips to the Islas Ballestas. But I ended up feeling very sick all day and we never managed to leave our hostel until late afternoon. The hostel was kind of weird so we thought it would be nice to get out and walk around – but our walk around Pisco was seriously depressing. It was the scariest, saddest place I have ever been in my entire life. It was mostly comprised of piles of rubble, stripped hulls of cars, mud streets filled with sickly, limping dogs and gangs of teenage boys. And we were staying in the “nice” neighborhood. The four blocks’ walk to the main square were really unpleasant (maybe made worse by a bad stomach ache and dark, overcast sky above). The main square did not really lift our spirits at all, and we hastily retreated back to our hostel, deciding that we did not want to explore Pisco any further. In the morning I was feeling better and we were only too happy to move on to Paracas.
All of the places we visited on the south coast in Peru felt pretty quiet, pretty far off the gringo trail, which was a welcome contrast from Cuzco (except for Pisco, which was TOO FAR off the trail). Paracas is a tourist town but seems like mostly domestic Peruvian tourists, it’s a pretty small and quiet place.
The town has only a few streets, no street numbers. It’s built along a pleasant stretch of beach, polka-dotted with bright umbrellas on sunny days, and there’s a promenade along the beach, lined with seafood restaurants and souvenir vendors selling the usual seashell necklaces and stuff. We got a quiet, breezy room on the roof of a pretty whitewashed hotel. Ate ceviche by the beach and listened to a really great old man who played afro-peruvian songs and some latin favorites (Besame Mucho, Quizas, Quizas) on guitar while we lunched. Waded in the water – Paracas is on a bay, so the water is calmer and warmer! Got caught up on work. Paracas doesn’t seem to have a real internet connection at all, I think the only connection is via wireless phone networks? There was one “internet cafe” which was tortuously slow but allowed me to get enough work done so I could get back to relaxing. In the hammock on the hotel roof, I finished the book that I’d started in the hospital in La Paz. Finished writing postcards. Felt like we were really on vacation. Enjoyed a few last days of calm and peace and quiet.
The major attraction near Paracas is the Islas Ballestas, a sanctuary for millions of birds and sea lions and other sea fauna. The Islas Ballestas are a group of rocky islands, home to Humboldt penguins, pelicans, boobies, sea lions and seals, among many other species!
We caught a boat early in the morning from the beach in Paracas out to the Islas Ballestas; it was a two or three-hour trip in all. We passed The Candelabra, a mysterious geoglyph on the sand dunes (maybe created around the same time as the Nazca Lines?). It’s been there for thousands and thousands of years, nobody knows how they got there or who made them! And then we cruised around the islands admiring the zillions of birds and sea lions. It’s a sanctuary and breeding ground for many species, so visitors aren’t allowed to go on the island, just ride around in a boat. Every three years there is a legal guano harvest, hundreds of workers descend on the island to harvest the nutrient-rich bird poop that covers all the islands. The whole island has a pretty intense animal-poop smell, even from the boat. And the sounds are amazing – tons of sea lions breed on these islands, and we arrived in early summer, so there were thousands of babies and parents covering the beaches with shiny brown, flopping bodies, crying and calling and shouting – an unbelievable mass of animal noise. On our way back to town, a flock of pelicans flew overhead in V formation, then swooped down to playfully chase our speedboat – they caught up with us and swooped down beside us, cruising past the boat just inches above the water, one by one, and then flashing back up into the sky.