Lima & the Paracas Peninsula

8th December 1999: Lima, Peru (Overall Day 140)

It was 5:30am when I awoke to find the bus meandering through Lima’s suburbia.  We’d heard so many reports on Lima from various travellers and books – none of them good in any way!  Apparently, it was extremely dangerous, dirty and unfriendly – a city you’d want to leave as soon as you could.  But like all places, we thought we’d start with an open mind.  More importantly, it was where we would be meeting up with Mum and Dad who were due to fly in later today to join us for the next leg of our trip.   We haven’t seen them since for 6 months so we are very excited.

From the bus station, a took a taxi to Hotel de les Artes which was recommended by the lady in Churup (our previous hotel in Huaraz).  Here, I booked both ourselves and Mum and Dad a good room with bathroom en-suite and once completed, we fell into bed and slept.

After what seemed like only 5 minutes, I awoke and Irinia misread her watch: “5:30pm!!” she gasped and then realised it was upside down making it only 11am.  With heightened security awareness from all the previous warnings, we stepped out to explore why Lima was so terrible.  The atmosphere was hot but breezy and the streets were dirty and filled with traffic but I liked Lima.  It had a very London feel about it so perhaps I just felt at home.  The buildings, underneath their graffiti and grime were quite splendid and people bustled about to add life to the colonial splendour.  The layout was unlike most other towns with much less emphasis on the usual grid system and instead included beautiful plazas filled with life.  We found a McDonalds and were soon reminded as to why we don’t do it more often yet somehow still feel the strange addiction to their burgers and fries.

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Jono, Irinia, me and Mark in Lima’s central square
Cusco central
A terribly badly composed shot of Lima’s ‘Cathedral Basilica’

With a few essential bits and pieces such as internet and laundry out of the way, we slowly made out way back.  At one point, we found ourselves surrounded by petty thieves – mostly kids.  They took a go at trying to snatch Jono’s watch but they were unsuccessful.  They wisely abandoned their attempt after he wrenched his arm away, made a fist and indicated what would happen if they continued!  Instead, they wandered down the road and attacked a woman walking the other way and were again unsuccessful.  We just thought they didn’t really seem very good at this.

Mark and I headed by bus to the airport only to discover Mum and Dad’s flight was delayed and it would be an additional 5 hours before they would arrive.  I passed most of the time chatting to a couple of waiters who seemed as bored as we were.  It was evening by the time the plane would have landed.  We waited outside the arrival exit gate with about 1000 other people who were mostly holding taxi or hotel signs with ridiculous prices for newcomers to Peru.

A low fence surrounded the arrival gate keeping everyone except ‘superior’ taxi drivers about 50 meters away from the gate.  Mark and I were shoulder to shoulder with everyone else but luckily we were generally a lot taller than the local Peruvian’s so easily spotted Mum and Dad as they came out of the door.  However, the appearance of a couple of gringos excited the waiting crowd of hawkers and they immediately began shouting in several hundred parallel sales pitches that their taxi or hotel was faster / cheaper / cleaner / bigger than anyone of the others.   Mum and Dad looked bewildered and unfortunately turned away from where we were even though we’d many to get to the front of our section.  It felt great just to see them and we didn’t want to risk them not finding us.  We couldn’t enter the gated compound so we cupped our hands and bellowed out their names as loud as we possibly could!  Without exception at this outburst, the crowd was silenced and they stopped and stared at us – these two gringos shouting wildly!  It worked – Mum and Dad soon spotted us and headed out way.  I apologised to the crowd but they had already turned to find some more gringos to harass.

Finally – hugs and kisses all round as we were reunited!  I felt so pleased that they were here.  Mark and I shooed off the remainder of the taxi hawkers and we went and found a quiet spot to relax.  Whilst we’d been waiting, we’d met another bloke who worked at our hotel and was at the airport to pick up a German couple on the same flight, so we all shared a taxi back to the hotel.

Conversation about the flight, the delay, stuff at home, our latest adventures immediately filled the car as we caught up with all the news.  Back at the hotel, Jono and Irinia were back from the wine bar at which they had been passing the time and we all chatted, took a first look at some of our own photos which Mum and Dad had developed and brought with them, opened Jono’s presents from Sue and Brian and generally caught up until later into the night.

Finally, our now group of now six hit the sack with the Irons family very happy to be reunited.

9th December 1999: Lima, Peru (Overall Day 141)

The cafe across the road wanted to charge s/20 (sols) for breakfast until we got it down to s/5.  M&D would have paid the s/20 and still thought it good value which is a reminder of how much cheaper it is here even though we moan of how ‘expensive’ Peru is compared with Ecuador.  It is annoying that the locals feel free to try and take advantage I guess ‘why not’ in their position.  And it makes me feel even better when we negotiate and manage to get the same price we know a local would pay!  I think the trick to bartering is knowing how much you should pay for something and then offering that (or less) instead of just saying ‘how much?’ and then trying to bargain.  Also to be prepared to walk away if you are not getting the right price and try elsewhere.  Taxis for example – there are so many so walking away hardly costs any extra time.

We took a slow walk towards the Plaza de Armas area of Lima where we hoped to catch the changing of the guards at 12:45.  In the Plaza de San Martin, we found a large crowd gathered around a game of Twister – not what we would have expected in this ‘dangerous’ city!  All the buildings were really quite beautiful and completed in a similar style to give this part of Lima a very grand and elegant feel.

Further up the road, we came across the money changers.  Almost every shop was a money exchange and in the street, about 2-300 people stood holding huge wads of both dollars and sols.  They seemed desperate to sell sols but only at one price which seemed fair compared to the banks and we even got them for our travellers cheques which was great since it isn’t that easy to get hold of Switch machines around Peru.

The Plaza de Armas was even more spectacular than San Martin with beautiful facades on all the surrounding buildings.  The square was very large and covered in palm trees and colourful plants.  Beyond the grand Presidential Palace on one side, we could make out the word ‘Peru’ which was written in huge letters on the side of a far away mountain.

The changing of the guard was a bit pathetic but because of this – very funny!  Instead of crisp marching, firm postures and dignified tradition – there were a few soldiers (who were in traditional dress) just ambling around the courtyard.  At more or less the right time plus half an hour, some other soldiers came out of a nearby building, wandered across to the first lot and proceeded to have a bit of a chit chat.  One by one, the various conversations between them came to an end and the first group slowly meandered back to the barracks.

Many shops were around selling worthless tack and we wondered past these to a small cafe to grab a drink.  It was great being able to take M&D around and to watch their reactions for the first time as travellers in Peru.  We continued our wandering through the colonial streets and we found a large market where M&D bought a little day pack.  A bus took us to Miraflores – the trendy part of Lima where Irinia needed to change her flight ticket back to London to a more distant date (she wasn’t bored of us yet!).  Although we didn’t need to come, doing these little things was a good way of exploring Lima and we discovered all sorts of beautiful and distinguished mansions en route.

Later that afternoon, we spent some time in a bar where a Marlon Brando-esque Peruvian took it upon himself to explain Lima’s culture.  Back at the hotel, we relaxed and watched a strange film called ‘End of Days’ until it was time to head out for dinner.  To properly celebrate our reunion, M&D treated us all to a pizza in a lovely restaurant which tasted great – especially accompanied by a bottle of Chilean wine, chocolate pancakes for dessert and a slug of fine brandy each to finish!  After the best food we’d eaten in months and a taxi back to the hotel, we crashed out within minutes!

10th December 1999: Lima to Pisco, Peru (Overall Day 142)

Our room in this hotel was lovely and quite unusual spread over two floors and little shuttered windows to the street outside.  We’d also very much enjoyed our time in Lima and it was a shame to be moving on.

Irinia and I went on a long quest to change some more money while Mark, Mum and Dad went to find a museum.  Jono stayed in bed!  We all met up a couple of hours later.  M&D and Mark had spent ages trying to find the museum and then spent only about 5 minutes inside before deciding it wasn’t worth any more effort and so came back again.

At the bus station, we found the bus to Pisco wasn’t leaving for another couple of hours but we passed the time by gorging ourselves on some really good empanadas sold by a nearby street seller.  They were the best we’d had since Venezuela although these ones were different in that they were baked as opposed to fried.   Having finished off his whole selection, we finally boarded and set off for the next leg of our journey as a group of six.

It was a boring journey through miles of beige desert and barren hills.  The land here seemed completely void of plant or animal life and yet still, there was an occasional house or shack that appeared every now and then.  I couldn’t work out how anyone could live in this region – there didn’t seem to be any water or electricity which is a reminder of what we all take for granted elsewhere.

The bleak desert continued all the way to Pisco with only an occasional slash of greenery tightly following an occasional water way.  Pisco was a small and simple town yet the main plaza was surrounded by beautiful buildings.  We found that many towns in Peru are generally quite ordinary except for the central core which is often quite special and very well cared for.

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Buses somewhere on route to Pisco

A large number of hawkers at the bus station besieged us like never before.   They thrust grubby leaflets in our faces shouting the usual mix of “mister, mister” / “good hotel” / “best price for you” / “very clean” etc.  We ignored them all and made our way to the San Isidro hotel which had been recommended.  This was full but after a little bargaining, we managed to get him to put us up in a nearby hotel for one night and then agree to transfer us tomorrow for only s/12 (about £3) per night.

We took a couple of bicycle-cabs into town and found a nice bar overlooking Pisco’s busy central plaza.  We had a simple supper of salad and chips complimented with a few drinks on the side.  The waitress flirted with Mark, Jono and me but soon got upset when Jono called her “señora” (married and or old) instead of “señorita” (young and single).  The young man who ran the place also took a shine to Irinia and ended up massaging oil into her swollen ankle (which was flaring up from a fall she had in Mexico).

At bars and restaurants, we have noticed that in general, the service one gets is very strange.  The strangeness is not really the sometimes bizarrely long time it takes between requesting something and actually getting it – but really the timing of when these things happen in relation to each other.  You have to ask for salt and pepper well before the start of the meal if you want any hope to actually get some with your meal – the waiter will think nothing of bringing you these items 30 minutes after we’ve finished eating  without any understanding that it would have been nice with our food as opposed to our coffees!  But for this bar at least – the service and dinner was good!  Perhaps Irinia’s ankle did the trick with the waiter.

We had discussed plans to head out to a club and continue the fun but not long after the meal, we were overcome with tiredness.  We took another bicycle-cab back to the hotel and fell into a long sleep.  Sitting on a bus for 4 hours can be tiring!

11th December 1999: Lima to Pisco, Peru (Overall Day 143)

All the tours to the nearby Ballestas Islands (known also as the “poor man’s Galapagos”) were full.  So instead we made our way to the Paracas Peninsular just south of Pisco – a national park entirely of coastal desert.

A taxi dropped us off by a small isolated museum which had some interesting information about the Paracas people and their culture who lived here around the first millennium B.C.  The most interesting thing was the way they would shape the heads of young people by bandaging two short planks of wood on either side.  The effect was to elongate the skull and give the Paracan people cone shaped heads.  As result, they suffered from numerous head problems and this in turn is thought to have led to them developing a surgery technique known as trepanation.  Trepanation describes the act of cutting a small hole in the skull of a living person and removing a section of the bone.  Many people did actually recover from this technique (and many didn’t!) and elongated skulls, these small holes with lots of scar tissue (which indicates a recovery period) have been found.

Near the museum was a small wooden tower where some flamingos could be seen at a distance towards the fishing village of Lagunillas.  The majority of the peninsular lay beyond the museum – a beautiful vista of low sandy hills and plains shared in many different hues of yellow and red.  We decided to try and make our way across the peninsular towards Lagunillas probably without sufficient concern in hindsight that there was just empty sand for as far as the eye could see.  It was the middle of the day and the sun was scorching and our water soon ran low.  It took an about hour and a half of walking through the beautiful, hot desert before we reached the top of a sand dune over which the fishing village appeared and the ocean beyond that.  There were many boats in the harbour but only three or four buildings – all of which were little restaurants.  We chose one of these and had a fish lunch including a Peruvian delicacy known as ceviche which is a bit like sushi and very tasty.

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Dad on the beautiful coastline of the Paracas Peninsular

By the time we finished, we discovered we had missed the last bus back to Pisco but we the restaurant owner called us a taxi which took us all the way back to the hotel.  It had been a really great day.

Hotel San Isidro had a really annoying pool table.  It was a huge table – much bigger than a normal pool table – and it was badly warped which led to a rather chaotic path for any moving ball which alone evened out any mismatch between the players.  However, to make things ever hard, the pockets were tiny.  The end result was a long, irritating and in the end boring game as people just ended up hitting the balls over and over until by some chance they happened to squeeze down the tiny pockets.  But despite all this – it helped pass the downtime as we rested for a while in the afternoon heat.

Before long, we headed back into town, booked a trip to the Ballestas islands for tomorrow and then discovered some tasty snacks at the Pisco Hotel: garlic bread, guacamole and a couple of good Pisco sours!  We remained here for several hours discussing the good and bad points of each person in our little group.  At the time, it all seemed so clear but I can never remember the results of these discussions – probably a good thing considering.

Back at our hotel, Mark and John managed to block our toilet and, with only a curtain separating it from the bed area, stink out the whole room.  What a smelly night.

12th December 1999: Pisco, Peru (Overall Day 144)

By 7am – we were up and ready, foregoing breakfast to wait outside the hotel since this is when we’d been told by the ticket seller “7am!! Must must!! No later!!” that we were being picked up for our trip to the Ballestas islands.

15 minutes passed and no sign of anyone so we thought sod this and grabbed breakfast at a nearby cafe.  Our man did eventually arrive at 7:30 and we told him to wait for us instead.  10 minutes later, we were all being shepherded in a bus along with several others back down the coast to the small port in Paracas.  We don’t tend to like organised tours but there are some things which can’t easily be done any other way so we sat back and let it be.

At the port, about 150 tourists were slowly boarding a number of 20 foot speed boats and whizzing across the flat, calm bay towards the distant islands.  The first spot on the boat tour was a huge 200 meter long trident shaped figure carved into a large sand dune on the north side of the Peninsular.  Apparently, the Paracas Candelabra (as it is known) has been there for over 2000 years and no one really knows its significance, but it was interesting all the same.  Theories range from align sign-posts to modern day pranksters.  The most accepted theory is that it was a sign-post for ancient coastal boats – perhaps a way to indicate the natural harbour nearby on the otherwise barren coastline.

Next, 40km later we arrived at the Ballestas Islands.  The boat drove close to the shoreline and huge Sea-Lion colonies filled every bit of the beach and any flat rocks, with many swimming all around the boat.  They seemed quite unconcerned about us and would even seem to dance in the water around us.  Higher up the rocky slopes of the islands, the cliffs were stained white from the excrement form thousands of sea birds waddling, nesting or flying all around.  The birds were mainly Peruvian boobies and guacharos, but we also saw a few penguins on the lower slopes and even a colony of vultures high up.

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Sea Lions on the Ballestas Islands

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The large bird colonies on the Balestas

Although we couldn’t leave the boat to explore, I thought the islands were amazing.  The boat headed back to Paracas and by lunch time, we were all sitting in a cafe in Pisco talking about the day.

Suddenly, we were all shocked by a violent shudder which jerked us to one side.  Earthquake!  All the glasses and cups rattled sharply, and bits of plaster came down from the ceiling.  It only lasted about a second, but the sudden violence left us all feeling apprehensive!  This was my first earthquake (ignoring the one in Bogata which I had managed to sleep though despite the others jumping out of bed!).  It was quite different from what I had imagined – much more sharply violet as opposed to a rumbling tremor – and it made me realise how destructive a bigger one would be.

That night, we discussed where to head next with M&D over a couple of Pisco Sours.  After a long pow-wow about future options, we agreed upon leaving to explore Ica tomorrow and then to head on to reach Nazca by nightfall.  We are travelling through this large country very fast!

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