Monday, October 17, 2016

Paracas, Peru: Sanctuary for Marine Birds and Travelers Alike

After far too many days in a row in the city, it was a delight to find myself in an adorable seaside town called, Paracas.  I ended up there on advice from a Peruvian friend of mine.  I sure owe him big time!

Though the area is very touristy, it still somehow maintains its charm.  I arrived late in the afternoon from a 4 hour ride from Lima.  I hustled down the main drag trying to find a hostel that I was told about and was highly recommended.  I found it easily, reserved a bunk, dropped my gear, and quickly headed off to the beach for sunset.  I made it just in time to see a remarkable sunset and snap a few pictures.

Over the course of the next few days, I enjoyed a splash of sunshine, the warm and helpful hospitality of a terrific hostel, and indulged in the local sites, endearing Paracas in my heart forever.

The roof deck of Backpacker's House in Paracas, Peru.

The view from the roof deck

Paracas Reserve

One of the cool things about Paracas, is that it is adjacent to a very large national reserve, about 2km from town.  Most of the reserve is inaccessible to visitors, but there is a loop frequented by tour buses that visits some of the key sites within the reserve.  In a desire to “go it on my own,” I decided to skip the tour, and instead rent a bike to see the reserve.  After a bit of price shopping, I found a bike, paid my S./20 (about $6.50), and headed off with nothing more than my camera gear, and vague directions described by the clerk.

No too far into the journey, it became clear to me that I did a terrible job of choosing a bike.  I had selected a larger frame bike, as I would for a road bike, but it was a mountain bike.  My cyclist friends, I think you know just how uncomfortable that is.  To my non cyclists, to put it succinctly, I was perched awkwardly on this bike, balancing on a narrow, uncomfortable seat, and leaning far too far forward for a mountain bike.  This meant a steady increase in discomfort in my back, as well as a very steady increase in “saddle discomfort.”  Needless to say, I felt like a dummy, but I was already too far into the journey to turn back.

The journey took longer than I expected, taking me through the hotel district and some modest neighborhoods.  Finally, I came upon a sign that indicated I had reached the reserve, but another sign that said do not enter.  Clearly I had not done well with my vague directions.  Oh well.  Rule breaker!  I entered anyway.  This was largely for 2 reasons:  1) I was not about to add any more distance to this trip than was necessary on this awkward bike, and 2) not 500 m in front of me, wading in the shallow water, was a huge flock of flamingos.  So I looked left and right, debated the morality of my decision, and decided to go for it.  I walked my bike through the fence, ignoring my moral alarm. 

Would this view cause you to break the rules, too?

I rode as far as I could on what remained of an old pathway.  Upon reaching the end, I decided to get as close to the flock as I could, but trying not to disturb them.  No matter how close I got, it never seemed like quite enough.  No exquisite pictures of flamingos, despite going so far as to remove my shoes and socks and wade through the mucky shoreline.  (By the way, I was to find out later that doing what I did was forbidden...  so, don't do as I do!)

My own tracks in a very slippery, mucky shoreline

Next, I turned my bike around, and made my way to what looked like the actual access road to the park.  There, the park ranger gave me a map, and explained the 23km loop.  Now, on ordinary paved roads with my beautiful road bike (that fits me), 23kn isn’t that bad.  It's about 10 miles.  Depending on the roads, that can be as little as an hour.  But, on bumpy, winding, windy roads, on an ill-fitting mountain bike, 23km seemed incredibly daunting.  I wasn’t dissuaded, though, and I headed off, decided to head the 2km first to the visitor center.  

A seemingly endless road made this trip daunting

Of course it was at this point in the ride, that the wind really kicked up.  It was blowing so strongly that I had to put on my sunglasses just to protect my eyes from the blowing sand.  I made my way, ever so slowly, down the long entrance road, all the while cursing and laughing at my choice.  A quick pass through the visitor center proved valuable only in access to bathrooms, so I begrudgingly mounted my trusty steed, and headed off.  

Patterns in the sand left by heavy, red grains of sand
The view of the dunes on the access road
Not far into the ride, which was really a steep hill climb with a headwind and continuous potholes, I knew there was no way I could make the whole way.  I was just too uncomfortable, and plus, I would need to ride back!  So I stopped along the road, taking pictures of whatever caught my eye.

When I finally decided I had had enough, I took on one last challenge.  There was a large dune, which appeared to have a great view of the shoreline.  I decided to climb it, pushing my bike all the while.  Huffing, puffing, and laughing at myself, I made my way across the loose sand, and up the side of the dune, and was rewarded with lovely views, plus a delightful, fast glide back down the access road.

I'm going up there
Made it!

So I left the reserve that day tired, sore, and a little cranky, having seen little of what it had to offer, but having enjoyed that which I was able to see.  The moral of this story?  Use a car.

Pier Bird Watching

Far more accessible, and much less painful, were the mornings I spent in Paracas.  The area is part tourist mecca, and part fishing town, so with its proximity to the reserve, the shoreline and pier are swarmed with seabirds.  Every morning I woke just before sunrise, and made my way down to the pier.  There, I enjoyed watching the chatter of daily life, and the comings and goings of the more common birds.

Neotropic Cormorants
Taking over an abandoned boat

The main characters here at the pier were Peruvian Boobies, 3 species of cormorant, seagulls, Capped Herons, and Peruvian Pelicans.  Each had such different habits, that it was really amusing to watch.

The gulls mostly stayed on the shore, or perched on the many boats moored off of the pier.

Grey-hooded Gull

One of my mornings at the pier, the place was overrun with Capped Herons.  They seem to be everywhere.  These guys were interesting to watch, as they seemed to be supervising the fisherman.  I never saw one dive, fish, or catch anything, but they did a lot of territorial fighting!  It seemed like such a contradiction for such lovely, graceful birds to be so feisty.  In the pictures that follow, you will see how different the heron can look when it is resting, versus when it is puffing up to scare aware competitors.

Relaxed, fishing Capped Heron
Just threatened off a competitor
Capped Herons

Capped Heron

Though I knew cormorants from the pond where I grew up, this was really the first time I had watched them up close.  There was a school of thousands of small, silver fish that seemed to live right under the pier, so the cormorants could be seen diving down repeatedly, hoping to catch their breakfast.

On the left, a Red-footed Cormorant, and
on the right, the more common Guaray Cormorant.
(The small bird is an Inca Tern)
This is one of my favorite pictures from Paracas.
This juvenile Cormorant was lots of fun to watch, returning to dive time and time again.

There was a real magic to how the cormorants dove in the water.
You could actually just watch the water glide over their feathers.
This was my first time actually seeing the birds underwater.  They were so highly efficient.
I saw more than one victorious bird, awkwardly trying to swallow a fish half the size of their head.
They swallowed it hole, like a snake!
The Peruvian Boobies were lots of fun to watch, reminding me back to when I visited the Galapagos and enjoyed watching the Boobies there in their dramatic fishing display.  Essentially, a Booby will fly around in circles until it spots it’s prey.  Then, all at once, it stops flapping, and makes a nose dive from 10m, folding it’s wings back behind it.  With a splash they are in, and almost immediately, they fly out again, swallowing their catch on the way.

Nesting Peruvian Boobies
Grabbing a quick bite...
Look out below!
The Peruvian Pelicans were my favorite to watch, though it is nearly a three-way tie…  They are such big, bulky, awkward looking birds.  These pelicans, too, had beautiful coloration compared to the species I had seen before, the colors on their bill especially lovely.  I watched these large creatures spend most of their time perched, whether on the bows of boats in the harbor, or on the roof right over my head!  I was lucky, though, as a few times I happened to catch one just as it dove into the water, coming out with a huge mouthful of fish.

A common sight in Paracas- Birds overrunning the boats
Right about my head on the pier roof

Talk about having a mouthful!  And that one little guy managed to escape!
Perfectly designed to catch a lot quickly
One morning, after spending a few hours on the pier, I walked along the shoreline, following a beautiful boardwalk.  Between the birds I saw in this walk, and those I saw on the pier, I saw about 20 of the 150 species known to frequent this shoreline.

This is the walkway that threads along the waterfront
Whimbrel, searching for food
More Sanderlings
Though not an sea bird, this West Peruvian Dove is still rocking blue eye shadow!  Worth a mention
Moral of this story?  Birds are even cooler than I thought!

Islas Ballestas

As much as I loved my mornings at the pier, there was one more experience in Paracas that was even more impressive.  In fact, it was the reason I had first wanted to visit this area.  Called “The Galapagos of Peru,” Islas Ballestas is a collection of very small islands/rock protrusions a 45 minute boat ride out from Paracas.  Every day, lots of these long, torpedo-like tourist boats bring heaps of eager visitors to see them.  

My tour boat, a typical 40 seater 
On the way to the islands, you pass the Candelabra,
an ancient mark in the side of the dune, for which there are at least 4 theoretical explanations
A surreal and eerie landscape
Not only are the rock formations themselves interesting and beautiful, but they are a wildlife preserve, and refuge to millions of seabirds and passersby.  The sheer impact of seeing millions of birds at once was incredible.

This is the largest island where the ranger station is (seen here).
Apparently, rangers take shifts living on the island for 3 months 
Yes, each one of those black dots is a bird
The sky was streaked with formations like this...  It felt like something out of a Stephen King movie...
This is more of what it looks like close up
And this...

Even saw this large group of penguins just in time before they dove beneath the waves!
 Not only are the islands a refuge for birds, but they also have a few groups of sea lions in residence there, who were delightfully unperturbed by our presence.

Despite heaving waves and a bobbing boat as a result, it was a very satisfying day of shooting.  It did my heart good to know that there are places like that still around as a safe haven for our wildlife.  The moral of that story?  You have to go!