Week 26 – Huacachina, Paracas and Lima, Peru, and San Cristobal, Galápagos
Hi everybody! We’ve had a lovely week in Peru and are now in the airport waiting for our flight to the Galápagos. This week we’ve travelled along Peru’s south coast, from Huacachina to Paracas to Lima!
Today we woke up in the very surreal town that is Huacachina. In fact, town is a generous word – you can walk from one end to the other in a manner of minutes. It has grown up around a small desert oasis, around 5km from the city of Ica, mainly as a tourist destination. It is surrounded by towering sand dunes.
After breakfast we went for a walk to the lagoon, and then up the sand dunes. Although they were very close and not too high, it was a difficult walk. The sand shifted below our feet with each step, making progress slow going. As we gained some height we started to be rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding dunes, making it easier to keep going to the top. We could see Huacachina with its lagoon, then Ica sprawling in the distance. Ica was funny – in between the streets there were isolated dunes that had been surrounded by the city on all sides.
We wanted to explore the dunes a bit more, but it was getting quite hot so we returned to our hostel. We had lunch and then relaxed for a while, swimming in the pool and reading in hammocks.
At 4pm, we headed over to the meeting point for our sand-buggy tour of the dunes. The buggies had huge wheels, a welded metal frame and open sides. Our seat-belts were more like harnesses, going over both shoulders and attaching between our legs. It felt a bit like getting ready for a rollercoaster. We were driven sedately out of the town and onto the sand dunes, where our guide stopped for photos and to see whether we wanted to do this tour ‘the slow way or the fast way’. We all agreed on the fast way – go big or go home!
It was definitely fast! The driver took off in a burst of acceleration and started driving us up and over the sand dunes. It was really bumpy and we were glad of our harness seat-belts. We’d drive up dunes that looked impossibly steep, and then find ourselves going down insanely steep hills on the other side. It was exactly like a rollercoaster, although thankfully without any loop the loops. It was amazing!
We stopped in the middle of the dunes, and our guide unloaded boards for us all. We were going to get the opportunity to try sandboarding. The boards had straps for your feet, although they were quite old and didn’t really stay done up. We could try standing up, or we could go with the easier sitting or lying down options. I went for the latter.
Lying down on the board was really fun. We went down some quite steep dunes, with the guide giving us a starting push. It felt really fast, and was a bit like going down a snowy hill on a sledge. It was a lot of fun. At the very end I tried going down a very small hill on my feet, but it didn’t really work as I wouldn’t let go of Ben and almost pulled him down with me!
We finished sandboarding and were driven to the top of one of the dunes in time to watch the sunset. It was really beautiful, particularly with such a dramatic foreground. We stayed until the sun disappeared behind the horizon, and then got back into the buggy to go back to town. Our driver gave us a ride to remember, with more steep dunes and dramatic swerves that made us all scream out loud. It was really fun!
We got back to Huacachina just in time to board our Peru Hop bus to Paracas. The journey was relatively short, and before long we were checking in at our hostel. We’re staying in a dorm room, and are both super impressed by it – each bed has its own wardrobe, locker, shelf, plug, light and a curtain to give you privacy. It might not sound like much but compared to some places, this is luxury dorm living!
This morning we went to explore Paracas. It’s a relatively small seaside town, close to the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area of coastline. It’s also the main port for day trips leaving to the Ballestas Islands, or ‘the poor man’s Galápagos‘. Seeing as we’re going to the real Galápagos next week we decided to give these islands a miss.
The beach in Paracas was quite small and not particularly beautiful, with lots of seaweed. There were lots of boats just offshore, which were pretty to look at. We wandered along the beach and then stopped for a drink in a cafe before heading back to the hostel. We found two sun-loungers and spent most of the rest of the afternoon swimming, sunbathing and relaxing!
This morning we went on a tour to the Paracas Nature Reserve. Our guide was really friendly and gave us lots of information along the way. We learnt that Paracas means ‘raining sand’ in Quechua, because the area experiences frequent sandstorms.
Our first stop was a viewpoint over part of the coastline and to a huge rock named ‘the cathedral’. I couldn’t really see the resemblance to a cathedral; to me it looked like a disgruntled sphinx. (I appreciate that’s not quite as dramatic a name though). The coast was really beautiful, although it was a lot more stark than the coastline we’re used to in England – it made me miss Cornwall! The colours were very striking, with the bright yellow sand against the blue sky and sea.
Our next stop was at another viewpoint, this time looking down over some of the beaches. Apparently it’s a common holiday spot for Peruvians. They bring tents and camp near the beach for a weekend. It looked like a great place for it.
Finally, we went down to a beach that was particularly special in the Reserve due to its red colour. I’m not sure why only this beach out of all of them was covered in tiny red pebbles, but it was very beautiful. We also enjoyed looking at the rocks which had been eroded down by the sea into wave shapes.
We were driven back to Paracas, and spent the afternoon by the pool in our hostel until our evening bus to Lima arrived. On the way to Lima, we stopped at a place called Chincha and a 17th century property called San José Manor House. It was owned by a Spanish couple named Rosa Josepha and Don Andrés Salazar, who also owned a number of slaves. Our guide showed us a painting which had been completed by one of the slaves, and pointed out the various activity of the people in the courtyard, giving us an idea of what life would have been like for them. This house in particular was special because it had a secret. At that time, slavery was not illegal in Peru, but there were taxes on the slaves that you owned. Therefore the owners of the house constructed an extensive set of tunnels under their property, leading all the way to the coast. They would buy slaves and then smuggle them into their property through the tunnels so that they could avoid paying the taxes. In later years, when piracy became rife in the area, the owners expanded the tunnels so that they would have an escape route if they were ever raided.
Our guide took us down into the tunnels. It was hard to get past their grisly history, but they were very interesting. The first room wasn’t so bad but after that the tunnels got really narrow and it became a complete warren, with numerous rooms on either side. If we hadn’t had the guide with us we’d have gotten completely lost. It was quite a relief to come up out of the trapdoor, although it made me feel ill thinking about the slaves who used to be kept down there as a form of punishment. Thank goodness for progress.
We arrived in Lima past midnight, and had to creep into bed so as not to wake our roommates!
After breakfast this morning we went out to explore Lima. We’re staying in a district called Miraflores, which seems to be quite fancy. We walked down to the coastline, past lots of fancy flats and hotels. Lima is built on the top of the cliffs near the sea, then there’s a dramatic drop down to sea level and the beach. Lima’s beaches are pebbled and not particularly beautiful, so the city has focused on making its high coastal path the place to be instead. As well as beautiful views down over the sea, the coastal path had parks, statues and a shopping centre. We even found Paddington Bear!
We ended up looping down to the beach, where Ben tried to help me skim stones (I’ve never been able to do it consistently). We enjoyed the sound of the sea dragging the pebbles down the beach. It made me think of Brighton.
We found a restaurant on the coastal path with a great view down over the sea, and settled ourselves in for the afternoon. We dawdled over lunch, then drinks and then pudding, while we enjoyed the view and made the most of their fast wifi. It was a very relaxing (and yummy) way of spending the afternoon.
In the evening we walked to a place called Kennedy Park. It had an evening market which was fun to wander round. We were really surprised to see loads of cats in the park, climbing the trees, chilling out or just sleeping. I’ve looked it up and apparently there have been loads of stray cats there for years. It’s now a bit of a tourist attraction, and we saw a ‘Feline Protection Volunteer Group’ kiosk; an organisation who feed and spay/neuter the cats, and try to get them adopted. I think that it’s a great idea – if animal rescue centres shared public spaces in England, maybe there’d be more rescue animals adopted.
This morning we went to Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan pyramid complex in the middle of Miraflores. It was built by the Lima people between 200-700AD, out of bricks moulded from clay. It is believed to have been a ceremonial and administrative area for the community.
Our tour of the site was really interesting. There were models demonstrating how the clay bricks were made, and when we considered the size of the site we were staggered at how many bricks must have been required. Quite a lot of the site now has been reconstructed, which I also think must have taken incredible dedication (although at least they had moulds to make the bricks more quickly). The central pyramid area was made from multiple staggered platforms, which were used for ceremonies. It was weird standing at the top of the pyramid and looking out onto modern-day Lima on all sides. The old and new contrast was striking. I find it amazing that we have preserved buildings like this that are over 1,300 years old.
We had to hurry back from the pyramid in order to have lunch and grab a taxi to the airport. All flights to the Galápagos leave from Ecuador, and the cheapest way we found to travel was to fly to the city of Guayaquil today, stay overnight and then catch another flight to the Galápagos in the morning. We had booked a hostel right next to the airport. It’s funny that we’ve come a full circle back to Ecuador!
Today we flew to the Galápagos! The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago around 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They are volcanic and were formed by a hotspot under the earth’s crust. The westerly islands are younger (Fernandina is the youngest and is still active), and the eastern islands (including San Cristobal) are older and are volcanically extinct. For the first half of our trip we are staying on San Cristobal.
We arrived at the airport and had to pay the entry fee to the Galapagos ($100 each, plus a $20 tourist card – visiting here is expensive!), and then we walked into town. We’re staying in an airbnb which seems really nice and, crucially, has air conditioning! It’s very hot here.
After dropping off our bags we walked down to the seafront, which is just 2 minutes from our hostel. The shore line alternates between rocky areas and small beaches. There were lots of boats anchored just offshore in the sparkling blue sea – it was really beautiful. We walked along the seafront and instantly began to spot some Galápagos wildlife. There were loads of sea lions, either sunbathing on the rocks or swimming in the sea. We saw a group of young sea lions playing together in the shallows, almost like a nursery. They were really chilled out and weren’t bothered by humans at all. They were also surprisingly well camouflaged against the rocks – it took us a while to pick them all out. We also saw lots of colourful crabs, and even our first marine iguana!
The bay sea lions were really cute as they still had their furry coat. We saw some of the slightly older ones who looked really scruffy because they were in the process of losing theirs, and then the adults who were sleek and shiny,
We had lunch in a restaurant looking out over the sea. It was so amazing to be able to sit drinking lemonade while looking out over a beach full of sea lions. We enjoyed watching the wildlife while our food was prepared. Sea lions look so graceful in the water, but much less so on land. They walk on their tail and every so often they would either faceplant the sand, or just give up and lie down for a while. It was really funny. They also sound terrible – a group of sea lions sounds like a mix between a flock of sheep, a group of drunk people retching, an evil man laughing in slow motion (Mua-ha-ha-ha) and some seals. It puts a slight dampener on your enjoyment of the atmosphere when a sea lion sounds like it’s throwing up behind you!
We spent the rest of our afternoon wandering around different tour agencies and booking ourselves onto tours for the next couple of days. The tours here are very expensive, which is hard to take after the ridiculously cheap ones in Peru. It’s still cheaper than the alternative of going on a cruise though and we’ve budgeted for this so it’s ok – it’s just alarming to be parting with so much money!
In the evening we went for a walk to a beach called Punta Carola. We walked past a sea lion sunbathing on a bench on the way – they literally go wherever they like and people just move around them, it’s so funny!
Punta Carola was a really beautiful beach, and a perfect one for watching the sunset. We went paddling in the sea which wasn’t too cold and felt really refreshing. The sunset was gorgeous and a group of sea lions came to play close to the shore just as it was setting, which felt like an appropriate finale to the beautiful day! As we walked back to our accommodation the sky turned from golden to lovely shades of orange and pink – it was lush!
Next week will be a week full of Galapagos memories and hopefully a lot more wildlife, and then it’ll only be a couple more days until we’re back home!