Our time in Pisco and Paracas
´Are you sure you want to go to Pisco? Paracas is much better. ´ As usual, our taxi driver was of the mildly skeevy persuasion; I simply assumed he was pulling for a bigger fare – I´m not such a sucker!, I thought. We were pulling off the PanAmerican after two full days of travel, headed to the coastal town of Pisco, Peru. We were lured by the promise of unparalleled, inexpensive wildlife viewing at the nearby Islas Ballestas – yet another national park dubbed ¨Poor Man´s Galapagos.¨ Unfortunately, in all my enthusiasm for sea lions, I´d failed to fully understand the gravity of the tragedy gripping the little town: an August earthquake of 8.0 magnitude had claimed the lives of some 510 Peruvians and 58,000 homes. In hindsight, my optimism regarding the situation was not only inappropriate – surely after 10 months reconstruction will be well underway, I´d thought – but wholly ignorant and tainted by self-interest. ¨It can´t be that bad, and maybe we can help!¨ The usual humanitarian fantasies were floating around my head.
We rolled into town with all the enthusiasm we could muster - pointedly ignoring an extraordinarily filthy beachfront and the floating stench of a nearby fish factory. In spite of our good intentions, we could not shake a creeping sense of silent horror: dusty, dilapidated Pisco was still destroyed. Major streets were wholly unnavigable and most buildings looked utterly assaulted, with only one level standing amidst the skeletons of a former glory. Scores of inhabitants were reduced to living in shoddily constructed temporary buidlings, roofless ruins, or tents in the street. The scarce bit of new construction constrasted glaringly with the surrounding devastation, emphasizing the tragedy of it all. The air of desperation was so potent, I could not ignore the chills tingling down my spine. I felt uncomfortable, unsafe, utterly conspicuous, and totally powerless in aiding the situation.
Our taxi driver, still emphasizing the superiority of Paracas, dropped us off at a cheap, lonely planet-recommended hostal. ´We´ll only be here for one night,´I assured Kelsey. She looked a bit uneasy. The hotel was well (re)constructed, clean, and astronomically beyond our means. ´But that´s not the price advertised in the book!´I said, pointing to a lonely planet recommendation posted nearby. The response was swift, brief, and patient: ´There are only a couple of hotels still standing in Pisco. There was a disaster, the prices from last year are no longer relevent...we need to pay for reconstruction.´ I flushed, embarassed by my indignation. I led Kelsey back to the street, with my bruised pride bringing up the rear.
We stood on the street, looking lost and terrified, and decided against tracking down the remaining hotels. Instead, we hailed another taxi and drove the ten minutes to Paracas, mentally apologizing to our first well-meaning driver. I felt tremendously defeated - after hearing about the earthquake, I´d been optimistic about our time in and contributions to the little town. Faced with the reality, we fled. I´m not terribly proud myself, nor of the flooding relief I felt upon arrival in pleasant Paracas.
We settled into our comfy $5 hotel, chatted with the friendly resident youths and made a brief return to poor Pisco. I was out of cash and without an ATM. Awesome, I thought, I was going back to ground zero to withdraw a generous chunk of money. I felt a new wave of guilt wash over me as taxi driver number three pointed out the ruins of the town cathedral: a half-intact belfry lay sideways on a sky-high mess of rock and rubble. Pisco residents of all persuasions - even an abuela or two - worked to excavate the heap. ´Four hundred people died here,´said the driver, ´They found three more bodies a couple days ago...a ten year old boy, clining to two adults.´My response of ´how tragic, how sad,´seemed painfully inadequate. Uncomfortable as spectators of such a macabre sight, we headed back to Paracas.
We shook off our discomfort with frightening ease, spending the rest of our evening with our new Paracas friends. Like a bad summer movie, we sat around a bonfire on the beach with too-big beers and lots of laughs. When the fire burned itself into the sand, we were drawn into a furiously fabulous impromptu salsa lesson. Our instructor, none other than the pudgy, middle-aged owner of our hotel, barked ´1-2-3!!....5-6-7!!!´ as he demonstrated the intended steps on any nearby unsuspecting gringa. For such a stocky, masculine man, he sprinted around the dance floor with all the finesse of the world´s finest dancer. Every woman swept into his fury - Kelsey and I included - responded with a curiously mixed expression of terror and glee...none of us could explain the suddenly coordinated behavior of our flurried feet. After our instructor demonstrated the midnight finale move on his favorite estudiante - (me, of course!) - we all stumbled off to bed in a dance-induced daze.
We awoke the next morning ripe and ready for some wildlife. Joining the herds of equally enthused foreigners, we jumped into a little white boat, donned our big orange life vests and set off for the Islas Ballestas. The islands are a rocky collection of staggering cliffs dropping dramatically into deeply turquoise water. Fantastic rivulets, bridges and caverns have been carved by billions of sea currents, and the whole place looked to be plucked from a pirate´s imagination. Of course, the high wildlife concentration had graced the area with the strong scent of guano and unidentifiable animal urine - (a fact easily overlooked with our first sea lion sighting).
Perched on the rocks like great brown sacks of potatoes, the sea lions indubitably reigned supreme by imperiously thrusting their noses into the air. With the occasional grunt or yelp, wobble or nod, the creatures stretched out under the sun, wholly unimpressed by the hoardes of admirers. It was truly incredible to see such fantastic (and adorable!) animals in the wild - babies, bellies, and barks of communication rendered a truly fascinating scene.
No less interesting, we were also privileged to see a number of waddling Humboldt penguins - a sight I´d never thought I´d see beyond a zoo. Though certainly smaller than those of my Antarctic expedition fantasies, the penguins were just as adorable as one would expect. I felt quite sorry for the other resident birds - including a number of Peruvian boobies - for being so much less exciting. (okay, I´m a little biased.)
By the time our boat turned back toward Paracas, we were completely and totally content with the results of our seafari. We finished off our day with an absolutely phenomenal seafood lunch (I had the entirety of the ocean swimming on my plate), and breathed our last breaths of Peruvian coastal air. After two days of all kinds of excitement, we were off to Arequipa.