Explore Nasca and the south coast
Less than three hours by bus from Lima, the old port town of PISCO has long been a rewarding stop en route to Nasca, Arequipa or the frontier with Chile. Along with the neighbouring town, Paracas – 12km away and previously known as El Chaco – Pisco makes a handy base for visiting the Paracas National Reserve, Ballestas Islands and the well-preserved Inca coastal outpost of Tambo Colorado. The two towns, with good facilities and plenty of tour operators, restaurants and hostels, are also decent stop-offs before heading up into the Andes: you can take roads from here to Huancavelica and Huancayo, as well as to Ayacucho and Cusco.
The region’s past has been far from uneventful. An earthquake hit in the evening of August 15, 2007, and, measuring 8.0 on the Richter Scale, devastated Pisco and the entire surrounding area – and it’s still reeling from the aftermath. Hundreds of people were killed and over 15,000 made homeless. Pisco, which remains one of the most active seismic spots on earth, is still complaining that little of the promises made for rapid redevelopment have thus far materialized.Read More
Paracas is arguably a more scenic place to base yourself than Pisco. The resort (also known as El Baneario or El Chaco) was once a spot for wealthy Limeños, whose expensive resort hotels and large bungalows line the beach close to the entrance to the reserve, but now reasonably priced hostels and restaurants dominate the scene. It’s also possible to camp on the sand, though the nearby Paracas Reserve is a much nicer place to pitch a tent. The wharf here, surrounded by pelicans, is the place to board speedboats (lanchas), for a quick zip across the sea, circling one or two of the islands and passing close to the famous Paracas Trident.
The Ballestas Islands (often called the Guano Islands, as every centimetre is covered in bird droppings), are similar to the Galapagos but on a smaller scale and lie off the coast due west from Pisco. They seem to be alive and moving with a mass of flapping, noisy pelicans, penguins, terns, boobies and Guanay cormorants. The name Ballesta is Spanish for crossbow, and may derive from times when marine mammals and larger fish were hunted with mechanical crossbow-style harpoons. There are scores of islands, many of them relatively small and none larger than a couple of football pitches together. The waters are generally rough but modern boats can get close to the rocks and beaches where abundant wildlife sleep, feed and mate. The waters around the islands are equally full of life, sometimes sparkling black with the shiny dark bodies of sea lions and the occasional killer whale. It’s best to take a tour to visit these islands; guides on the boats vary in ability, but most are knowledgeable and informative about marine and bird life.
Paracas National Reserve
Paracas National ReserveOf greater wildlife interest than the Ballestas Islands, the Paracas National Reserve, a few kilometres south of Paracas, was established in 1975, mainly to protect the marine wildlife. Its bleak 117,000 hectares of pampa are frequently lashed by strong winds and sandstorms (paracas means “raining sand” in Quechua). Home to some of the world’s richest seas (a couple of hundred hectares of ocean is included within the reserve’s borders), an abundance of marine plankton gives nourishment to a vast array of fish and various marine species including octopus, squid, whale, shark, dolphin, bass, plaice and marlin. This unique desert is also a staging point for a host of migratory birds and acts as a sanctuary for many endangered species. Schools of dolphin play in the waves offshore; condors scour the peninsula for food; small desert foxes come down to the beaches looking for birds and dead sea lions; and lizards scrabble across the hot sands. People have also been active here – predecessors of the pre-Inca Paracas culture arrived here some 9000 years ago, reaching their peak between 2000 and 500 BC.
On the way from Pisco to the reserve, the road passes some unpleasant-smelling fish-meal-processing factories, which are causing environmental concern due to spillages of fish oil that pollute the bay, endangering bird and sea-mammal life. Just before the entrance to the reserve, you’ll pass a bleak but unmistakeable concrete obelisk vaguely shaped like a nineteenth-century sailing boat, built in 1970 to commemorate the landing of San Martín here on September 8, 1820, on his mission to liberate Peru from the Spanish stranglehold.
Cycling is encouraged in the reserve, though there are no rental facilities and, if you do enter on a bike, keep on the main tracks because the tyre marks will damage the surface of the desert.
Some 48km northeast of Pisco, and 327km south of Lima, the ruins at TAMBO COLORADO were originally a fortified administrative centre, probably built by the Chincha before being adapted and used as an Inca coastal outpost. Its position at the base of steep foothills in the Pisco river valley was perfect for controlling the flow of people and produce along the ancient road down from the Andes. You can still see dwellings, offices, storehouses and row upon row of barracks and outer walls, some of them even retaining traces of coloured paints. The rains have taken their toll, but even so this is considered one of the best-preserved adobe ruins in Peru – roofless, but otherwise virtually intact. Though in an odd way reminiscent of a fort from some low-budget Western flick, it is an adobe complex with everything noticeably in its place – autocratic by intention, oppressive in function and rather stiff in style.