Snapshots from Peru: The Necropolis at Paracas National Reserve


David led a group of us on mountain bikes through the streets of Paracas to the National Reserve. We entered the park off the main road and behind the gate. 

“If the guard starts to yell at us, don't pay attention. Just keep going,” he said. We were trying to avoid paying the 5 soles entry fee.
Although we slipped in silently several yards away from the gatehouse the guard still spotted us. He yelled but we ignored him and continued further down the road and over a slight rise.
Then I heard a motorcycle approach from behind. The guard had chased us down. He pulled up right into the middle of our group. We stopped and David spoke to him. David explained that we were just going for a little ride. We weren't going to the museum. Plus we've been coming and paying the entrance fee every day for the past week. And Oscar said it would be OK. You know Oscar, don't you?
I think that was the gist of the discussion. It actually went on much longer than that. In the end the guard relented. This time he would let us go, probably because we were friends with Oscar (whoever he was).




We continued further up the road, and after checking to see that the guard was out of sight, turned off into the sand. David led us up a steep hill to the top of a ridge called the Cerro Colorado, then onto a carpet of red sand between the low rolling mounds along the top of the ridge.
“Stay out of sight of the gatehouse”, he said. Obviously we weren’t supposed to be up there. Our tracks scarred the pristine hills. There were signs that others had been up there recently as well, from a motorcycle and probably an ATV.




Finally we stopped at an area at the northeast end of the ridge. We had a sweeping view of the Bay of Paracas below. The sand here was littered with bones -- bleached, white, weather−worn human bones. David walked over to a pile of rags and bones lying next to a deep hole in the ground. These bones were different −− ruddy brown. They gave off the sweet, sickly smell of rotting flesh.
“This is fresh,” he said. “Within the last six months. Someone’s looted the graves. See the smaller holes? Those are test holes dug to try to located the chambers.”




Two thousand years ago a rich civilization flourished in Paracas. They left a wealth of artifacts in their tombs, including pottery and textiles. They wrapped their dead in embroidered cloaks, which are among the finest examples of the art of textile making. The looters extracted these artifacts to sell on the lucrative black market for pre−Columbian art. The mummies themselves have no value to looters and are left behind. Animals probably eat or run off with the bodies, which apparently are still appetizing after sitting underground for two thousand years.
Nearby we found other objects: a scrap of textile, a fishing net, and a braid of hair. Later we found two deformed skulls. The Paracas culture practiced artificial cranial deformation.
Unfortunately, the looting of Peru’s treasures is nothing new. In fact, looters are usually the first people to discover new archeological sites. The older, weathered bones we saw were from graves that had been robbed in the early 20th century. It’s sad and ironic to think that the guards would chase down tourists like us for not paying a 5 soles entry fee, yet can't protect the park from the looting of this country’s precious archeological artifacts.

Snapshots from Peru: Playa Los Viejos

Snapshots from Peru- Playa Los Viejos from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

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.

We decided to wait to see how the conditions evolved, but couldn’t wait too long. I wanted as much time as possible to complete the trip, which would take us 23 nm from Lagunillas, the little fishing port south of the peninsula where we landed the day before, up along the spectacular thousand foot tall cliffs of the west coast of the peninsula, around the north end, and across the bay back home. As far as we knew, there could be nowhere to land along the way.


[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.]


Juan Carlos arrived for breakfast. Even though we advised him that he should not accompany us on the trip today, he continued to support us in an advisory role. He did, after all, take two days off of work for this and was still getting paid. Yes, he said, the weather had changed. It was unusual. Yes, it could be a paraca. Hard to say. He advised that we wait and see. Unfortunately, weather reports were unavailable. We didn’t even have a barometric pressure reading.
Juan Carlos said he knew of a beach along the western part of the peninsula called Playa Los Viejos where we could put in. This would cut the trip in half, and the remaining route would be relatively protected from the south wind. We would also avoid paddling the rough passage between the peninsula and Isla San Gallán. We didn’t have a map but he knew how to get there.
We waited a couple hours longer. I watched the bay. No whitecaps. The wind had died down. By this time the whole team had joined in and the discussion went on a little longer before we finally decided to find this beach Juan Carlos was talking about. At least we could go and see what conditions were like there.
Since David and I were the only ones paddling that day, we left the kayak trailer at home and strapped two kayaks on top the SUV. Juan Carlos led the way in another truck. The route wandered through the middle of the peninsula, first west, then south, within sight of Lagunillas at the south end, then west, then north again. It was taking longer than expected and we were very low on gas. As Juan Carlos led us over and down an alarmingly steep ridge, we caught sight of the ocean and stopped at the edge of a cliff. From the top we had an impressive view of the cliffs along the coast and the clear water of the protected cove below.
I estimated it was at least 100 ft down to the water. At first I thought there was no way we were getting down there, but David found a trail. He followed it down and said it felt stable.
We unloaded the kayaks and carried them down empty. Point of no return, I thought, because there was no way we could carry the kayaks back up that cliff. Honestly I preferred taking my chances in the ocean than taking the truck back, given the real possibility of running out of gas in the middle of the desert. I happened to have my helmet with me and wore it for the climb down. Cheap insurance.
Once at the bottom we carried the kayaks further along the beach to a sandy spot. Juan Carlos and Dan helped us launch. The wind had died down considerably and we had it at our backs. That little bit of wind helped keep us cool now that we were paddling in the full sun.


Peru Sea Kayaking-63


To the south we could see Isla San Gallán. San Gallán is a marine reserve and enjoys a reputation as one of the finest surfing spots in Peru. It has been made famous because of an unusual long right−breaking wave that comes off the island in the west. 
I didn’t see anywhere to land along the western shore. The surf would make landing and launching difficult. Even if you could find a pocket beach it would be too small to camp on, and because of the huge surrounding cliffs climbing out would be impossible. 
Seabirds nested in the cliffs, mostly pelicans and Peruvian boobies. Large sections of the cliffs had collapsed into the ocean during the 2007 earthquake, destroying many nests in the process.


Peru Sea Kayaking-64
Peru Sea Kayaking-67
Peru Sea Kayaking-69
I was happy with the Epic 16X kayak I was paddling. It featured the same integrated rudder system and foot board as the 18X Ultra I had at home. It had a familiar feel, but the 16X is an inch wider and more maneuverable and playful −− a good all−around touring kayak.
The Epics are not without problems though. For one thing, the hard seats are uncomfortable and could use extra padding, especially along the sacral area. In Peru I stuffed a folded−over 3mm neoprene hood back there. At home I padded my seat with half inch minicell foam, which still isn’t enough to avoid some skin breakdown over my boney sacrum! I’m either going to have to pad it out more or replace the seat entirely.
For another, every time you adjust the foot brace for a new paddler, you need to adjust the rudder cables. It can be a frustrating procedure, but is not an issue if you are the only one who ever uses the kayak. There is also no way to lock the rudder in place in the center position. And in a rough following sea, the boat broaches. Maybe the rudder doesn't have enough “bite"?
Some of these problems are supposed to be solved by Epic’s new rudder system (scheduled to come out in 2009, and now overdue). 
Finally, the foot board is slippery. I fixed this easily with a grippy adhesive padding (the kind used to keep furniture from sliding on hardwood floors). 
Peru Sea Kayaking-71Peru Sea Kayaking-72

[VIDEO: Carrying our kayaks down to Playa Los Viejos]


Snapshots from Peru: La Playa Mendieta

Peru Sea Kayaking-33

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 (see my previous post about our attempt to paddle to Islas Ballestas).

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.

Peru Sea Kayaking-35Peru Sea Kayaking-34

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.

Peru Sea Kayaking-37

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.

Snapshots from Peru- La Playa Mendieta from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

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. 

PlayamendietaPeru Sea Kayaking-40Peru Sea Kayaking-51Peru Sea Kayaking-55

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. 

Peru Sea Kayaking-21

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).

Snapshots from Peru: Paddle to Islas Ballestas (almost)

Islas ballestas

[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.

Peru Sea Kayaking-1

Peru Sea Kayaking-4
Peru Sea Kayaking-5


A number of tourist boats joined us at the northern shore of the peninsula by the Candelabro de Paracas, a famous geoglyph of mysterious origins. It was probably made a few hundred years ago as a landmark for sailors, unlike the Nazca lines which are far older. The symbolism may be Masonic. As the boats sped off to the Islas Ballestas I took a bearing on them with my handheld compass and we followed them into the fog. I also set a waypoint on my GPS.


Peru Sea Kayaking-6
Peru Sea Kayaking-8


This close to the equator I expected to be paddling in much warmer conditions. It was the beginning of autumn in Peru and in the upper sixties -- cool enough to wear a drysuit with a thin base layer, much like the Pacific Northwest in the middle of summer and perfect sea kayaking weather.
Our heading was 280-300 (it depended a lot on whether my compass was lying level on my sprayskirt). My compadres questioned the heading because they thought the islands were somewhere southwest, not northwest. I honestly had no clue if it was correct: I was just following the tourist boats. Fortunately we were able to use other islands to the east and west as landmarks even though we lost sight of the mainland. After about 3 nm we were finally able to make out the faint outlines of the Islas Ballestas.
As we paddled closer the swell grew bigger but the sea remained otherwise calm. A group of penguins swam by. It was hard for me to judge the remaining distance to the islands because I had no sense of scale. In any case it sure seemed like we had paddled a lot farther than we expected. 
We stopped at 11 nm and rafted together for lunch.  We were about 6 nm from where we left the fishermen, and I estimated within a mile of the islands. I could make out the steep cliffs, arches, and surrounding spires of rock, and see and hear the waves breaking on the shore. I wanted to see if I could find a small beach protected from the south swell. David advised against it. Again it was difficult to judge scale so I had no idea of how big the surf was. No one was allowed to land on the islands anyway, except those workers with permission to mine the guano. In fact, David recommended that we turn around and head back after paddling this far. He hadn't expected the trip to take as long as it did and it starting to get late. He thought the wind might pick up. It was difficult to for me to break away from the island. I wanted to get just close enough for some good pictures, and possibly land and stretch my legs, but in the end decided against it. David knew this sea better than I.
We followed our reciprocal heading back to the north shore of the peninsula.  We paddled along the cliffs among caves and sea arches. I was impressed by how totally lifeless the land is, in contrast to the richness of the ocean. Nothing grows here -- not one blade of grass or tuft of moss or lichen.  


Peru Sea Kayaking-9
Peru Sea Kayaking-13
Peru Sea Kayaking-14
Peru Sea Kayaking-15


On my last day in Peru I had the chance to return to the Islas Ballestas, this time on one of the tour boats. There were thousands of birds, of course, lots of sea lions lounging on the rocks, and everywhere the strong smell of guano. The islands are riddled with huge arches and sea caves, the inside of which resembles interior of a cathedral. With a gentle swell and calm wind, this could be a sea kayaker's paradise! If I had known that it was this beautiful earlier, I would have spent the rest of the week trying to get out there again.

Snapshots from Peru: Islas Ballestas from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Surfing the Epic GPX Kayak on the Peruvian South Coast

Snapshots from Peru: Kayak Surfing in the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, Peru from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

The desolate coast at Paracas.
The desolate coast at Paracas.

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).

Preparing to break out through the dumpy surf on a stingray-infested beach.
Preparing to break out through the dumpy surf on a stingray-infested beach.
Peru Sea Kayaking-29


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.

One of the restaurants in the National Reserve at Paracas.
One of the restaurants in the National Reserve at Paracas.

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, ;-)