From the Desert to the Mountains

I’m sitting in the lounge area of our Cusco hostel using a public computer, huddled in a warm hoodie, leggings, and my coziest socks. Shivering and rubbing my hands together to stay warm, it’s hard to believe that just yesterday I was sitting poolside enjoying the breeze amid the 31 degree Celsius weather.

It’s a bittersweet reality. My cousins and I spent three hot, enjoyable days in the desert area of Peru, first in Paracas, and then in Huacachina, a desert oasis close to the town of Ica. Last night, we then got on a bus to take a seventeen-hour long trip to the high-altitude, much chillier Cusco. It was the longest bus I’ve ever been on, but we had fancy bed-style chairs so we could sleep more or less comfortably. The scenery was stunning as well: canyons, mountains, valleys, and even a large alpaca herd walking nearby right as we woke up. *Aww.*

It was cool to see the changing landscapes, going from the desert towards the Andes, the trees and shrub growth going from almost none, to some but dry, to green and lush. In a way the Cusco area is pretty similar to some parts of Colombia. The desert of the past few days however, although there are deserts in Colombia too, was something completely new to me and my cousins. I don’t think any of us realized just how “deserty” our stops would be. We soon realized.

Right after we got off the bus in Paracas and grabbed our bags, there were some staff there who asked us if we were interested in doing a tour to the Paracas National Reserve. It was leaving in twenty minutes so we had to think quickly. We were a bit skeptical, not sure how legitimate it was, but it seemed normal enough and the price was right so we decided to go for it. We were so glad we did! We were the only ones on the tour so we had our own personal guide, Luis. He was really passionate and knowledgable about the reserve, and he explained a lot of the science behind the unique landscape. We were blown away by the beauty and the desolation.

Luis encouraged us to reflect on what we were feeling: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting (he got us to lick some crystals so we could discover they were salt). He gave us what sounded like a riddle – “The hotter the temperature, the colder it feels,” which we were surprised to realize was true, feeling the cool breeze. He explained it in more scientific terms; the hot and cold air pressures mix  to cause the strong wind we were feeling. I’m no scientist though, so can’t explain it much further than that!

Although we giggled at first at Luis’ hippie-esque approach, we soon found it to be meditative and humbling to open up all our senses to what we were experiencing in the moment. He made us appreciate it all the more. Afterwards, he took some funny photos of us and drove us around to other interesting spots with nice views onto the ocean.

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After the tour, we headed to our hostel to spend the rest of the day relaxing by the pool and the beach, and enjoyed a delicious ceviche and seafood rice at a nearby restaurant near the seaside boulevard.

The next morning we went on what is probably the most popular adventure in Paracas – a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands. It’s about a half hour ride to the islands, where you then spend around an hour puttering slowly around the islands to see the amazing diversity of wildlife that live there. We saw lots of sea lions, Humboldt penguins (eee!), and uncountable numbers of birds. One section of the island seemed to be black but it was only because it was completely covered with birds!

With all those birds, of course, comes lots of bird poo. This soon became evident as the pungent odour hit our nostrils. Some people were already feeling a bit sea-sick, and I’m sure that smell didn’t help at all. Interesting though is that this bird poo coming from a diet of mainly fish, called guano, is highly sought after for use as a fertilizer, as it’s very rich in certain minerals needed for plant growth. In this way, the Ballestas Islands are very important for the production of this guano, desirable for agriculture around the world. 

But enough about bird poo. As Luis had mentioned the day before, if you really think about what is going on in this part of Peru, it’s fascinating. There are penguins living within half an hour boat ride from a desert! The world never ceases to amaze me. Here are some photos from Islas Ballestas:

Another really cool thing about the Islas Ballestas tour is that the boats pass an enormous geoglyph in the sand that is known as “the candelabra.” Nobody knows who drew it there, or when, or how, or even how it has stayed intact all these years even with all the wind and waves that it is susceptible to. Some materials found in the area were carbon-dated to around 200 BC so it could be as far back as that. Or maybe it’s more recent. Aliens? Who knows. Yet another great mystery of this planet!

That night we took a bus to Ica, and a taxi to our hostel in Huacachina. Huacachina is a really neat little place that is principally touristic. There is a small lagoon surrounded by hotels and restaurants, which is then surrounded by desert. You can walk around the whole place in about ten minutes! We went dancing at night at a resto-bar funnily called “Huaca-F**king-China,” a popular place with the locals as well as with tourists. We downed some pisco sours and headed onto the dance floor, happy to be able to sleep in the next morning.

unnamedThe main touristic draw of Huacachina, besides being the only oasis in South America, are the activities that you can do in the neighbouring desert: dune buggy tours and sandboarding. They were so fun! Some of the dunes we boarded down were really steep and launching yourself off the plateau, it kind of felt like you were offering yourself to the Incan gods, but luckily we all left in tact, giddy with the excitement. Carlos had a good taste of the sand when he wiped out on one run, and Elena was the pro of the starfish pose when going down on her belly. If you are ever in the area, definitely try it out, it’s a good laugh!

We finished off our day with a dip in the pool and then a hike up some dunes to see the sunset. We were a bit late for it, but it was a big workout to get there so we stayed a while and watched the moon get brighter and the nighttime dune buggies go by.

When it was time to leave for the bus station, we asked the guy at the front desk if he could call us a taxi. He said sure, went away from the desk, stuck his head out the main door and whistled. A taxi then showed up a few seconds later. We laughed our heads off; it gave a whole new meaning to “calling a taxi.” We then went a bit crazy in the bus station, waiting for an extra two hours due to an accident on the highway, and promptly passed out once we finally got on the bus. Seventeen hours later, here we are! We’re excited to explore Cusco tomorrow, and preparing mentally for the Inca Trail hike we will do in a few days. But first – sleep!

unnamedHave any tips on Cusco, the Inca Trail, or Macchu Picchu? We’d love to hear them. Comment here or send me a message if you do!