[Our GPS track, UPPER ROUTE: We started just south of the northwest corner of the peninsula, rounded the point and headed east along the northern shore, then southeast across the Bay of Paracas to home.]
On the morning of the day we had planned to paddle around the peninsula I woke up to the sound of the wind howling. We wanted to get an early start and eat breakfast before sunrise. I could see the stars clearly. As it grew lighter, I saw a few wisps of clouds in an otherwise clear sky −− the first clear day all week. David said it was a bad sign. Wind in the morning is unusual. It could signal a paraca, a sand storm that blows with gale force winds. I could see the gusts ripple across the bay. The wind was coming from the south.
David had hired a Peruvian guide named Juan Carlos to lead us on a trip around the Paracas peninsula. Juan Carlos had worked as a biologist and ranger in the National Park of Paracas for several years and had apparently also kayaked along the south coast before. Juan Carlos doesn’t speak English and I was the only one in our group who doesn't speak Spanish, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk to him at all about his previous kayak experiences.
We had anticipated having a total of 5 people in our group but our fifth man cancelled at the last minute. He happened to be one of the Peruvians who had been involved in the ill−fated trip to Islas Ballestas a few years earlier where one kayaker died.
We packed our kayaks and gear the night before in preparation to leave as early as possible the next day. We planned to drive south through the desert in the National Park and launch from a beach south of Paracas called Playa Mendieta, and from there paddle north to Lagunillas, a small fishing port on a protected bay within the National Park. When we reached our put-in at Playa Mendieta I was happy to see that the surf was minimal so getting off the beach would be easy.
Dan launched first. He was wearing shorts and insisted on putting his neoprene booties on after he had gotten in his cockpit so that his feet would stay dry. I learned on our previous trip that he had this obsession with keeping his feet dry. I helped stabilize him while he got inside his boat and tried slipping his booties on. While he was an awkward position with one knee out of the cockpit a wave surged up and pushed us sideways, nearly knocking us over and flooding the cockpit with water and sand. So much for keeping his feet dry! After Dan scrambled out we emptied the cockpit and started over.
After Dan made it out through the small break, we started to help Juan Carlos. David introduced him to his kayak and adjusted his seat and foot peddles. Unfortunately, Juan Carlos arrived just before dinner the night before so he didn’t have a chance to try out any of the gear beforehand. He essentially got a a 5 minute crash course on the Epic 16X and coastal sea kayaking.
David pushed him out as the water surged in. Juan Carlos made it over a small wave but immediately capsized. David ran out and grabbed his kayak. I had my video camera on, but put it away to help empty the flooded kayak and another attempt at launch. Juan Carlos looked a little shaken. In a minute though he was ready to try it again -- a real trouper! He made it through the second time.
“My God,” David said. “Look at him! It’s like he has never been in a kayak before. There is no way he can do this. It’s too dangerous."
I reserved judgment for the moment but got a sinking feeling as I watched Juan Carlos paddle off. He was “arm paddling”, with short, choppy and sometimes hesitant strokes. The kayak veered off in random directions. He was obviously having trouble maintaining direction, even on totally flat water, and probably overcorrecting with the rudder. But all this time he was paddling with a big smile on his face, like he was having the time of his life!
David followed him out. Juan Carlos had just been fired! David was going to send him home with our support crew.
I waited onshore, thinking that if Juan Carlos is coming back I better stay to help bring him in. Some discussion occurred among the three of them on the water. After a few minutes I decided I should go out and find out what our plan was going to be.
In the end we let Juan Carlos come along. Although I agreed that having an inexperienced paddler along put everyone at additional risk, because of the sea conditions that day it turned out not to be a non-issue. The weather was perfect −− calm and overcast. We paddled passed rocks and sea stacks, keeping far from the big breaking waves close to shore and point breaks.
Juan Carlos lagged behind. David stayed close to him. Dan and I moved closer to shore to get a better look at La Catedral, the remains of a huge sea arch. Two years ago an earthquake sent it crashing into the sea along with other large sections of cliffs along the coastline. A tsunami followed. The 3 meter surge destroyed many of the fishing boats and houses in Paracas as well as the historic Paracas Hotel. Incredibly, no one in Paracas died. For a year afterward the ocean was muddy brown.
We ended the day midafternoon after paddling 11 nm in Lagunillas, riding the surge through a narrow slot in the rocks and onto the beach next to the Restaurant La Tia Fela. Our friends had gotten a table outside and were waiting with cold beers. La Tia Fela had no running water or electricity. Somehow they managed to serve busloads of tourists every day. They presented you with a tray of fish fresh off the boats for you to select to have fried or prepared as ceviche (served raw and marinated in lime juice and sliced onion).
[Our GPS track from June 1, 2009: We started at the southeast corner of the Bay of Paracas, headed northwest to the tip of the peninsula, then crossed to the Islas Ballestas, and drifted slightly south on the return path. 22.9 nm]
My friend David has a boathouse full of cool toys: six brand new Epic kayaks, sailboards and kite boarding gear. His house is located on the Bay of Paracas which is sheltered from the ocean swell but is known for having a lot of wind, which typically comes from the south and picks up late in the day. It's not uncommon for the wind to blow up to 25-30 knots, so we planned to be off the water before late afternoon.
We launched at 0730 under an overcast sky, toward the guano islands, the Islas Ballestas. The sea was calm. We didn't have a weather report, a chart, or a even street map. There was no way to get information on swell size and no one had been following the trend in the barometric pressure. There's not much of a tidal range at 13 degrees south so we didn't worry about that either.
What we lacked in the usual essential data we tried to make up for in "local knowledge". After crossing the Bay of Paracas to the northeastern tip of the peninsula, David stopped to talk to some fisherman. We needed to ask for directions because it was so foggy offshore that you couldn't actually see the islands from where we were.
"I told them that we wanted to go to the Islas Ballestas," he said.
"They said we were crazy."
Earlier David had told us a story about a group of three Peruvians who had paddled out the the Islas Ballestas in two kayaks. Two paddlers were in a double sit-on-top and another was in a single decked sea kayak. The person in the single was apparently an experienced kayaker and decided to break away and paddle toward Islas Chincha to the northeast by himself. Conditions deteriorated in the afternoon as they typically do and the two kayakers in the double abandoned their attempt at the Islas Ballestas and returned home safely. But the kayaker in the single was found dead by fishermen the next day, still tethered to his kayak but missing his paddle.
The fishermen pointed us in the approximate direction and said it takes them about 45 minutes to get there in their boat, going about 5 knots. That didn't sound too far.
I just got back on Sunday night after spending a week in Peru with a friend who has a house on the ocean by the Reserva Nacional de Paracas. The park is a desert peninsula where nothing ever grows and where it hasn’t rained for over a hundred years. This place resembles the surface of Mars -- totally lifeless. The shore just south of the peninsula and around the peninsula itself is made up of dramatic cliffs and small pocket beaches. There are numerous sea caves and arches, and islands just offshore. We spent the week touring along the open coast (more on that later).
This video is from the day we spent practicing in the surf zone with a couple 12 foot long Epic GPX kayaks (not the kayaks we took touring). We drove the kayaks across the desert looking for a beach with friendly surf. It came down to a choice between a beach with rocks and one infested with stingrays.
I got a couple good rides in and rolled around a few times. In my last ride I wiped out after I fell from the crest of the wave. While underwater I felt my kayak paddle break in half! I don't know if it hit the sand when I capsized, but it felt like it just fell apart as I was bracing into the wave. I had to roll up using one half of the paddle. Then as soon as I recovered another wave slammed into me. In the end I paddled to shore canoe−style. Check it out- −− it’s all there on the blurry video!
The paddle was a carbon−fiber Epic paddle that belonged to my friend David. Lesson learned: do not use an expensive carbon touring paddle for playing in the surf, unless it belongs to your friend, ;-)