265 Km south of Lima in Peru lies a dry desolated coastal desert. Here you will find one of the most beautiful National Reserves of the country. But once there you'll discover that this place isn't that desolated at all. This is Paracas National Reserve and Isla Ballestas.
Due to my work i had the privilege to visit Paracas National Park several time. Unfortunately i always had been on a time schedule for this park and never had the possibility to truly visit all the parks highlights. And there are more highlights here than you would think of at first sight.
Paracas National Reserve
The park itself is established in the year 1975 and contains an area of 335.000 hectares. Of this area 217.594 is at sea the rest of it is land. The big empty landscapes are a beautiful and breath taking sight. And especially the coastal lines of this park with the contrast of the yellow soil and blue sea are worth admiring. When you enter the park you first can pass by the Julio C. Tello museum. Although it is just a small museum it is worth a visit because it will give you additional information of the place you are about to visit and also of the history of this area that was once the home to the Paracas tribe. The museum is open every day from 09:00 am till 3:00 pm. From the museum you also can take a small walk down the path towards the bay where you might find the American flamingos foraging in the shallow waters. Unfortunately the flamingo's most of the time are too far away to really take a good picture of them. But still it is worth observing them, preferably through binoculars. These pinkish creatures tremble with their feet through the water so their food like shrimps and algae come out of the soil so they can filter them out with their beaks.
When leaving the museum and entering the park you can go to several places of interest. One of the most visited sights at the coast is La Catedral. This is a place with a majestic view of the coast lines with it yellow sandy cliffs. The name La Catedral was derived from the fact that there was a small island connected with an arc to the mainland just for the coast. Unfortunately in the year 2007 the area suffered from a large earthquake that besides destroying big parts of the towns of Paracas and Pisco also made the arch collapse. But still it is worth the 20 minute drive from the entrance to this place. Other beautiful coastal views you will get from the Playa Roja and Costa Rossa. If you want to conquer the cold waters of the Pacific you might consider visiting the Playa La Mina.
Inside the National Reserve there are also the Salinas de Otuma. A part of the salt pans are used for the production of salt. Though this area still is interesting to explore because not all of the salt pans are being exploited. The park also has several archeological sites of which the El Candelabra is the most famous one. The El Candelabra is a geoglyph that is situated on a slope next to the coastal line and actually only can be seen from a boat. The geoglyph is dated back at least to 200 years B.C. though scientist aren't really sure about that and it could date back even before that period. The date is set back to 200 B.C. because they found pottery at this site that dated back to that period. The size of the geoglyph is more than 240 meter in height and 180 meter in width and can be seen as for more than 10km from open sea. The Candalabra is made by cutting out 60 cm of the surface and placing this at the outlines of the figure. The real purpose of this geoglyph is just like the famous Nasca lines still a debate. Still people don't know if it had an astrological purpose or that it was used as a beacon for as the Paracas people where fisherman as well. Though whatever the true meaning for this symbol was, it still is an impressive sight.
As mentioned before the biggest part of this National Reserve is a Marine Park. And this is where you can find an abundance of wildlife. Directly in front of the coastal lines you will see the Peruvian pelicans, once thought to be a subspecies of the brown pelicans, American flamingo's, and various types of gulls. The best tour to do here is the boat ride at 8:00 am leaving from Paracas. This boat not only will take you to see the Candalabra but also will get you to Isla Ballestas. These islands are like a true paradise for bird lovers. They islands are literally stashed with different species of seabirds. On the islands you can encounter 3 species of boobies. The blue-footed booby, famous from the Galapagos Islands, the masked booby and the Peruvian booby of which the latter one is represented by tens of thousands. One of the islands is occupied by an uncountable amount of guanay cormorants that color parts of the island black. The poop, or guano of this birds are collected once every 7 years to sell on the market. Also you can encounter Peruvian diving petrels, gulls and the beautiful Inca Tern with his white 'mustache' and bright red beak.
Though this massive amount of birds are unforgettable the animals people are most willing to see here are the Humboldt penguins and the American sea-lions. The island houses a small population of penguins that choose this place as their home because of the huge amount of krill and fish that lives in the water around the island. It is a pleasure to see the penguins waggle clumsy on the rocks. But once in the water these clownishness bird changes in a true predator when almost rocketing through the water while catching fish. Though the kings of the Ballestas islands are the sea-lions. Some packs can be found around the island. Most of the time they are just being lazy and hanging around on one of the rocks. But in the water they catch fish and devour around 30kg of them per day. Also the penguins just have to take care not to end up between their jaws.
Besides the sea-lions sometimes other marine mammals can be seen. During the month of September there is a bigger chance to see humpback whales. Also now and then the bottlenose dolphins show themselves just like, very rarely the famous Orca. But don't book this tour to encounter the whales or dolphins because chances aren't that big.
When visiting the park buy an entrance ticket that will give you access to Paracas National Reserve as well as the Isla Ballestas. Although you never get of the boat at Isla Ballestas, you still have to pay entrance to the marine reserve. Entrance fees for the park separate are 10 Sol but buying them together will cost you 15 Sol. Then you book a boat-tour for around 19$ and you have to pay around $1 tax for using the peer. Prices can vary on the place you book and if it is included transport or not. The boat-tour is included a Spanish and English speaking guide. Though... the noise of the motor makes that most part of the information the guide gives won't make it to your ears. But the tour is worth every single penny anyways.
Where to stay?
Finding a place to stay to visit Paracas and the Ballestas islands gives you some options. The closes town to the park is Paracas town. A small fisher town with some hotels and a small boulevard that houses some restaurants as well. The other option is the city of Pisco a 20 minute drive north of Paracas. Here you can find several hotels around the Plaza de Armas. Be sure that if you go with your own transport that you can park your car at the terrain of the hotel itself. Also Paracas isn't a really safe town so don't go exploring all the streets of this town and stay around Plaza the Armas and surrounding streets. A little further away is the city of Ica and the small oasis in the desert of Huacachina. Both have also hotels and still isn't a too far drive to the national park.
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