Early in the morning of our arrival in Peru, our ship maneuvered along a mountainous and austere coastline, escorted by solicitous tugs flying the Peruvian flag, into a tiny harbor almost entirely enclosed by a long jetty of rip-rap. The harbor was so minuscule that it seemed impossible for our ship to fit into the available water, but with the help of two busy tugboats, we swiveled 180 degrees and fetched up neatly against the pier, facing back toward the sea. And suddenly we found ourselves at Matarani, the port closest to the city of Arequipa and subsequently to Cusco, high in the Andes. Since we weren’t making the excursion to Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain” to the Inca), and I wasn’t feeling up to taking the nine-plus hour trip to Arequipa, we decided to stay on board and just relax.
To our surprise, this turned out to be one of our favorite days of the cruise, beginning with the vista from our veranda as we sailed into port and ending with a perfect sunset. Matarani has no tourist facilities, nothing to come between us and the serene beauty of the mountains beyond the port or the sparkling sea cradling a small fishing fleet at anchor beyond the pier. In the harbor itself, tiny fishing boats lined up in a colorful array, welcoming dinghies from the larger boats as they entered the harbor one by one. The air was soft and clear, and the entire day drifted past like a peaceful gift from nature. And when the sun set in a cocoon of rose and gold and amethyst behind the fishing boats to our west as our ship sailed out of the harbor, we watched from our veranda in awe. Sometimes the unexpected is the best.
At Pisco, our next port to the north, we looked forward with anticipation to a tour for which we had been waitlisted and which we did not want to miss. Luckily, we made the cut and climbed onto one of the buses headed for Paracas, a resort area on the beach. We drove past shanties roofed with corrugated iron lining dirt streets, tumbledown hostels with hand-lettered signs dangling above their open doors, and eventually down a narrow road leading to an absolutely beautiful five-star resort hotel, with villas set in pristine landscaping along the seafront. We walked down a pathway banked with perfectly pruned topiary and oleanders in full bloom to board big speedboats, thirty passengers at a time, and head out to the Ballestas Islands.
Until 2009, these three islands, along with nineteen others, were valued solely as sources of guano, bird dung used as fertilizer. Every seven years, for example, workmen (presumably without a sense of smell) were – and still are – housed on the islands while they collected guano and shipped it to the mainland and eventually overseas. Then in 2009, the Peruvian government awoke to the fact that the area comprised a critical marine ecosystem that should be protected and preserved; and the National Reserve System of Islands, Islets and Coastal Guano Concentration Areas was established. The Ballestas Islands (North, Centre, and South) have been compared to the Galapagos Islands of Chile because of their concentration of birds and sea mammals, a comparison with which we agree.
This part of Peru was home to some of the earliest Andean civilizations, including the people who carved the famous Nazca Lines into vast expanses of a barren plain. These geometric drawings of birds, animals, and symbols have baffled archeologists for a century, since they can really be seen only from the air, and the people who carved them could not fly. Naturally, those who believe in visitors from outer space have a ready explanation for the mystery, but for now the rest of us remain in the dark.
On the other hand, the indigenous Paracas people, who lived here from 200 to 800 A.D., carved on a hillside facing the sea the huge stylized “Candelabrum,” depicting an artifact used in religious rituals to hold sacred (and hallucinogenic) liquid in its cups. The Paracas are also famous for their beautiful weaving, examples of which have survived more than a thousand years because of the dry climate.
As we approached the Ballestas Islands, we could see birds by the hundreds – even thousands – perched on the jagged cliffs, their white heads and necks identifying them as Peruvian boobies. Clusters of grey-headed booby teenagers gathered on small rocky islets just far enough away from their parents to avoid being given a sharp peck or two to keep them in line. We had been warned to cover our heads and arms, since birds have a tendency to use human targets to practice their aim, and I was glad I’d worn a windbreaker with a hood once I found myself in the cross-hairs of one avian bombsight.
The driver of our boat steered us into coves and along cliffs, until we began to see long stretches of beach completely covered with South American sea lions, mothers and babies on the sand and huge bulls patrolling at the water’s edge. One colony of these beautiful creatures numbered more than 500; we were there during the first weeks and months of the pups’ lives, so they were just learning to swim and hadn’t yet learned to fish. Some of the adults, though, swam fearlessly around our boat, trying to get a closer look at these peculiar marine mammals who appeared to dislike water.
The structure of the islands is very beautiful, with caves and arches carved from the rock by the constant motion of the sea. The faces of the cliffs are sculpted with ledges where birds build their nests and raise their young, so when you look up at the island from your boat, you can watch them going about their daily lives as if they were performing living theater for your entertainment.
The Ballestas Islands are the breeding grounds not only for sea lions, but for many kinds of birds, some of which we were able to recognize. The Peruvian booby looks just like the blue-footed booby we saw in the Galapagos – except, of course, minus the blue feet. Then there was the American oyster-catcher with its long red beak, Peruvian pelicans and glossy black vultures, seagulls and red-legged cormorants and terns skimming over the water, and a few other species we couldn’t identify on the fly, so to speak. We’d hoped to see a condor, since they are commonly found in the area, but no such luck. We did, however, see three Humboldt penguins having a quiet conference on a rock, which was a real treat.
On the way back to the dock, we noticed that the mountains to our right, which had been a rich café au lait earlier, seemed to glow with iridescent color: red and gold and green and purple, all shading from one to the other in the folds of earth on the hillsides. We never knew what caused those colors, but it was as if an artist had dipped his brush in random pots of paint and swept it across the hills.
We agreed that this was one excursion we wouldn’t have missed for anything – it was like being on safari in Africa and seeing our first (and second and third and . . .) pride of lions in the wild. There is something liberating about being so close to animals without a fence or a pane of glass to separate us from them. It requires a level of mutual trust that has to be built without words. We feel very fortunate to have had this experience once again.