Pisco Sours and sweet sea creatures

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Pisco Hotel

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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Another overnight bus journey, another morning of being dumped at a bus terminal at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and with no idea of where we are... Hola Lima! And... Vamos!

We certainly didn´t hang around in Peru´s vast capital on the morning of 29 December: had no intention or desire to see the place (you know us, we detest big cities) even though what we glimpsed of the old centre in the grey light of dawn looked attractive - grand colonial buildings, plazas filled with geraniums. Barely half an hour after getting off the night bus we were on board a local bus to Pisco. However, we got horribly ripped off the process... paid 10 soles (about 3 USD) for a one-minute taxi ride from one bus terminal to another (due to the fact that we had no idea where we were!). A ride this short should cost no more than 3 soles.

The bus journey to Pisco took is through vast desert landscapes... huge plains of rock and dull-golden sand, with no vegetation, not even a lone cactus. Flimsy little bamboo huts dot the wind-blown landscape... a godforsaken place to live! However, every now and then patches of green would loom in the distance, and we´d see crops sprouting miraculously from the desert sands. As we would come to discover in our travels along the super-arid Peruvian coast, underground water is abundant in this seemingly lifeless desert, allowing for the development of marvellous green oases.

We arrived in Pisco at midday, and checked into the Pisco Hotel on the Plaza. After a nap (for me, I was knackered!) and a cheap and cheerful ´almuerzo´ (set menu lunch, always excellent value throughout South America) we did the rounds of travel agencies in search of a well-priced day tour to nearby Paracas National Park and the Ballestras Islands - settled for 35 soles each with Ballestras Expeditions. The Ballestras Isles are often called Poor Man´s Galapagos, and is really the only reason why travellers come to this dump called Pisco...

Oh, and the other reason would be to sip a Pisco Sour, that iconic, lemony South American cocktail, in its namesake town. So that what we duly did, seeing we were now firmly on the Gringo Trail. In the early evening, we parked off on a pleasant little balcony above the main shopping street for a single glass. Very sober and civilised.

At 7.30am the tour bus collected us and we were driven to the nearby seaside village of El Chaco, from where the speedboats to the Ballestras Isles depart. There was quite a bit of chaos on the pier as 10 or more boats (carrying about 24 passengers each) milled around to collect their passengers. Rich and I seemed to have disappeared off Ballestras Expeditions´ list, and were asked to get off the boat and onto another, bigger one. It was a real squeeze 'em in, pile 'em high tour (not just our operator, but all of them).

First stop was the Candelabra, a massive geometric design in the sand (like the Nazca Lines). Very little is known about it; our guide, Pedro, swiftly rattled through the various theories. Then it was on to the Ballestras themselves. The rock formations are quite spectacular and the islands teem with birdlife - cute little Humboldt penguins, Peruvian boobies, very similar to their masked cousins in the Galapagos, pretty Inca terns with red legs and beaks, and cormorants. Pedro told us that the islands are still periodically harvested for guano, which disrupts the birds´ breeding. However, there was little sign of this disruption when we visited... the rocky islands were solidly covered by nesting birds.

And then there were the sealions, of course. We´d loved the antics of these creatures in the Galapagos, so it was great to see them again, darting in the water, basking and heaving their great bodies onto rocks and small beaches. The ´beach-masters´ (alpha males) we saw here at Ballestras were much bigger than the chaps in Galapagos and sported more impressive bumps on their heads. We had very little time to take it all in, though, as our boat did a short 30 minute lap around the islands... half of the hour-long tour around the islands we were promised when we signed up! Oh well, there seems to be no such thing as a really well-priced tour...you get what you pay for!

After returning at speed to the pier, we boarded a bus for the rest of the day exploring around Paracas National Park. First stop was the interpretation centre (very interesting) overlooking a bay where flamingoes may be seen. We were warned that this was not the season to see them, though, as they would have migrated to the Andes; however a single individual graced the bay with its presence, to the delight of the group.

We drove on to ´The Cathedral´, a magnificent window-like rock formation with some stunning views of the Paracas Peninsula. Our last stop was a beach (I forget the name) with a small fisning port and few nice seafood restaurants. Rich ventured a swim and took his snorkelling gear along, however the visibility was poor. We had a lovely seafood lunch, including the Peruvian classic ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon juice) before heading back to Pisco. All in all a pleasant day, though the tour didn´t quite match expectation. The company was good, though. We met some interesting folk and were amused by our guide´s posh Cambridge accent!

Just after 5pm, we caught a bus from Pisco to Ica, only an hour away. Our plan was to spend New Year at Huacachina, a little oasis village near Ica we´d heard about. So, how would we spend the last day of 2005? The next entry will reveal all...
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