Humankind settled this most arid of coastlines some 9,000 years ago. They were migrants, having arrived from the highlands carrying with them their own knowledge of agriculture, hunting and weaving. They came, from a fertile region of seasonal rainfall to one blessed with just two millimeters of annual precipitation in the form of coastal mist, in search of just one thing: the ocean’s rich harvest.
For this is no deserted coastline. Who would believe, standing at the rail of one of the many cruise ships that anchor off Paracas and viewing a seemingly barren shore, that this is in fact a narrow strip of extraordinary biodiversity, wedged between the desert and the sea?
It is off the coast of Paracas where the cold Humboldt Current wells up from the ocean floor, creating a water temperature ideal for the plankton that is the basis of a food chain ending with mankind and incorporating Humboldt penguins, marine otters, dolphins, flamingoes, the desert fox and countless sea birds and seals.
There are many ways to see the Paracas Peninsula: the tracks of four wheel drive vehicles crisscrossing the desert are testament not only to the activities of artisan fishermen and treasure seekers in search of ancient necropolises (and the exquisite textiles their mummified dead were wrapped in), but also to the thousands of travelers who come to the Paracas National Reserve each year.
But for many, the only way to experience the singular beauty of this anhydrous region is on foot. And for me the journey did not begin in the air conditioned comfort of the bus as it seemed to glide over the Lima traffic, or even at the sumptuous breakfast table of the Hotel Paracas, but rather the moment I eased my shoulders into my backpack at Atenas beach and felt the weight of the seven liters of water I was carrying, together with my tent and sleeping bag, and set out with my friend and colleague Victor Villanueva, wondering if his camera equipment made his pack heavier than mine.
Crossing the pampas towards Talpo beach, with the ocean ahead of us punctuated by the island stacks known to mariners as the Tres Marías, I remembered how I had read that the Australian aborigines used to value a strong pair of legs above all things, and when I saw that Víctor’s calves were thicker than my thighs and heard him mutter “we’re going to suffer today”, I wondered if I had packed lightly enough.
But I had forgotten how quickly a walker adapts: how one’s pack moulds itself to the body until it is forgotten, and what the writer Bruce Chatwin called the “metaphysics” of walking takes hold. Walking is the most natural activity the human being engages in. We are all descended from nomads and, to paraphrase Chatwin again, it is no accident that when we rock a baby to sleep we are reproducing the rhythm a Kalahari infant feels on its mother’s back.
After four kilometers we reached Talpo. When I stopped I felt a silence gather as the echo of my footfalls died in my ears, and then the wind rose to cool the sweat on my limbs and the ocean’s mixed cadence filled the void.
Turning southwest we followed the coastline. The map of Paracas resembles that of the Iberian Peninsula, and our general direction for the next two days would be south, then east after Punta Huacas.
We lunched at Punta Los Viejos, a narrow pebble beach mosaic and the only breach in more than twelve kilometers of fulvous cliffs ending in white water. One’s sense of taste is heightened when trekking, and we ate our tinned tuna contentedly in front of an ocean crammed with sea bass and flounder.
The afternoon dissolved in impressionist tones of umber, sepia and saffron, as the wind rose and the ocean air blurred the horizons over sea and sand and we climbed to a narrow pass among the dunes, where we made our camp.
After we had weighed down the tent with our packs to stop it blowing away, we climbed the nearest dune, emerging from its shadow to await the sunset. And while Víctor told me that thirty-five years ago there were an estimated twenty-eight million birds on the Paracas Peninsula, and he remembered how, when he was a five-year old on fishing trips with his father, they had gathered in flocks that blocked out the sun, we watched sea and sky fuse in a spectrum ranging from yellow to grey over the white-stained guano island of San Gallán and Orion emerge like a desert fox to hunt across the land.
We rose with the sun the next morning and before nine o’clock we had climbed to the summit of Lechuza, five hundred meters above the muted ocean. It was like being on an island: for the first time we could see the entire peninsula. The wind ripped the pages from my notebook and below us the pampas seemed to fade as gusts lifted the desert’s surface and swept it along. Paracas is anything but static: it is a landscape in constant flux, subject to wind and ocean.
Lechuza was not the physical end of our journey – we still had some fifteen kilometers to walk – but it was the spiritual climax: the highest point on the peninsula and the mark we had aimed for during the entire first day. We now hiked south another three kilometers to La Ballena, some 360 meters above sea level, before veering east with the prevailing wind, descending to the plain and climbing Arquillo Hill, the final major hurdle between us, the colonies of rare South American fur seals at Punta Arquillo, the popular beach of La Mina and the fresh fish and cold beer of Tía Fily’s waterfront restaurant…
- The Candelabro, an enormous image etched into the sand by an ancient culture or, it is also said, by the pirates who raided the Peruvian coast in the 18th century.
- Paracas is a refuge for huge colonies of Southern sea lions (Otaria byronia) and the rare South American fur seal (Arctocephalus australis).
- More than 200 hundred species of resident and migratory birds have been registered in the Paracas National Reserve.
- The fine Paracas textiles covered mummies buried in the fetal position together with ceramics, fishing nets and food for the afterlife. The Julio C. Tello Site Museum houses archaeological remains discovered in the peninsula.
- Paracas is one of the most arid places on the planet, with less than 2 millimeters of annual precipitation.
- The marine otter (Lutra longicaudis) is the world’s smallest otter and inhabits the rocky coastlines of Peru and Chile.
- San Gallán Island is situated some 8 km off the peninsula and is a refuge for huge colonies of seals.