From Pirates to Penguins: Discovering the Diversity of Peru
Although the coast of Peru is a barren tract of seemingly lifeless desert, its shore and waters are teeming with life. Only 60 miles apart, the coastal town of Ica and the Paracas Peninsula are virtual geographic opposites. Their differences demonstrate the rich ecological diversity of Peru.
When you look down on Ica from a surrounding hill you wonder how it can even exist. Encircled by mountains of sand and constantly under siege by winds blowing in from the sea, the town appears to be on the verge of being engulfed by the desert. One of my new friends from Ica, a tourism student named Juaquin, offered to show me a nearby oasis, nestled in the towering sand dunes just outside of town. As we sat at the tiny beach and waited for the noon sun to cool, Juaquin told me about sandboarding, which is like snowboarding except on sand. That sounded good to me, so we rented a couple of boards and hiked out onto the dunes. It was hot, and hiking in sand is hard work, but once we arrived at the top of a dune, the view of wave after wave of golden sand was very calming. We sat at the crest enjoying the view for a few minutes, then strapped on our sandboards and gave it a try. You can go pretty fast down the steep hills, and it is important to stay calm. As soon as you get nervous and start to buckle, you fall down. Also, you don't have nearly as much control in the sand as on snow, and sand feels a lot harder than snow when you fall. But the key is to keep your balance low, your confidence high, point your board straight down and go for it!
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Eighty kilometers away from Ica's ocean of sand, jutting into the Pacific Ocean, is the Paracas Nature Reserve, home to hundreds of species of birds and marine animals. For an in depth tour of the Paracas Peninsula, I signed up for two trips: one by boat out to the Islas Balletas and another by bus around the peninsula itself. There were about twenty of us on the tour, and I met people from Europe, China and tourists from Lima who were just getting away for a day or two. We set out by boat at around eight o'clock in the morning and zipped along the rocky coast for a bit until we came to a huge candelabra-shaped indentation in the side of a hill. Although little is known about the origin of this structure, there are a number of theories. Some researchers believe that it was made by the Nazca people, famous for their giant designs in the earth, and others think that it was made by the Paracas people. Another theory suggests it was made by pirates in the 1600's as a guide to their treasure.
We set off again into the open sea and slowly the little floating specks ahead grew into huge white islands as we approached. Although all the sand and rock of this desert area is of a very light color, these islands were bright white, as if covered by snow. As we approached it became clear that it was not snow that covered them, but bird poop! Thousands of birds sat perched on the rocks or circled above us, loudly screeching and cawing. There were several types of seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, and hoards of turkey vultures patiently waiting for death to offer them a meal. As you can imagine, these birds produce quite a lot of poop or guano, which, believe it or not, is very valuable. Bird guano is very rich in nitrogen and other nutrients and is used worldwide as plant fertilizer. Although Paracas is protected, every four years it is opened for guano collection and hundreds of people come armed with bags, shovels and, of course, hats to collect this valuable commodity.
One of the peninsula's more unusual residents is the tiny Humboldt Penguin. What are penguins doing in the desert? Although the climate here is hot and arid, this part of the Pacific Ocean is very cold because of the Humboldt Current, which pushes the icy waters of Antarctica north up the coast of South America. For most penguins, life here would still be unbearably hot, but for these little birds, the climate is perfect. As we rounded the little island that is home to the penguins, the shore of a big island, crowded with thousands of sea lions, came into view.
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These chubby ocean mammals live on the rocks of these islands year round. Most of them are females because the adult males kill the male babies to limit competition for females. Male sea lions are much larger than the females and have a mane of hair around their neck that gives them their name. One male can have up to thirty mates! One sea lion must eat about ten kilos of fish a day, in order to maintain the thick layer of fat which protects them from the cold water. The fish in turn feed on micro-organisms which only survive in cold water. If the water gets warm there are no fish; when there are no fish, there are no sea lions. El Niño, which is a warming of the Humboldt Current that causes worldwide weather changes, was responsible for killing thousands of sea lions in 1997-98, because they simply starved to death. Fortunately these playful mammals are making a comeback and we saw hundreds of babies waddling on the rocks or awkwardly learning to swim.
Returning to the mainland took about 45 minutes, and I felt as if our time in the islands had been much too short. Even if we had spent all day out on there watching the birds and playing with sea lions it would not have been enough. Once on dry land, we took a break for lunch, and then some of us piled into a van to explore the peninsula. We drove down a hot dusty road until we got to the Paracas Museum, full of mummies and artifacts that have been well preserved for thousands of years by the dry conditions of the area.
At the museum, I learned about ancient practices such as skull trepidation and elongation. It was considered beautiful to have long heads in pre-Colombian times, and the children of this area wore boards strapped to their heads to stretch them while they grew. Another common practice was to cut open the skulls of people suffering from mental disorders, as it was believed that this would allow evil spirits to escape. Many people died during this procedure, but it continued nonetheless, because they believed that evil spirits, if not released, could return in the next life.
By the end of the day I felt overwhelmed by Peru's incredible diversity. I went from pirates to penguins to pre-Colombian elongated skulls in less than twenty-four hours! What sort of activities, artifacts or landscapes make your home unique? Send me an e-mail and tell me about diversity in your area!
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