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Photo Essay: Paracas & El Carmen

We traveled north up the Peruvian Pacific coast, first stopping at the Islas Balestas near the town of Paracas, followed by the Afro-Peruvian village of El Carmen which lies in the province of Chincha. Peru has many influences including Italian, Spanish, Japanese and African. Chincha and especially El Carmen are at the center of Afro-Peruvian culture.  From native drumming on the cajon (a drum made out of a box) to African-inspired unique dishes, you can feel the rhythm in this dusty yet charming town.

The history of El Carmen dates back many years ago when the Africans first immigrated to Peru and were enslaved to work on local haciendas (farm estates).  The culture was born out of that time and has remained strong today.  Afro-Peruvian dancing and music, exemplified by festivals like the Verano Negra or the Festival de Danzas Negras (held in February & November, respectively), remain at the core of El Carmen.

Futher south, about 250 km from Lima, lie the Islas Ballestas, near the resort town of Paracas.  This town is very small but there are plenty of accommodations to choose from including budget choices to very high-end luxury hotels.  Paracas serves as a very convenient base for visiting the Islas.  Almost every hotel/hostel and even tour agencies in town will try to sell you some version of the boat tour to visit these bird-filled islands.

The tours are all pretty much the same-the boats leave in the morning usually between 8 am – 10:30 am and you spend about 2 hours out visiting the islands.  Try to get the cheapest tour you can because the boats are all of similar quality/hold the same amount of people and spend the same time visiting.  We got our tour for about 30 Soles (US $10).  The Islas are often referred to as a ‘poor mans Galapagos’ due to the high number and variety of bird/sea life you find here including dolphins, boobies, gannets, sea lions & even penguins!

My favorite part of this photo essay, was our time spent on Reserva Nacional de Paracas.  This expansive, desert coastline is home to a large population of birdlife.  But what really makes the reserve special is its coast.  Dramatic cliffs, windswept dunes, red-sand beaches, idyllic fishing villages and azure, crashing waters all add to the beauty.  You can easily join a tour bus group to visit the reserve but I urge you to simply hire your own taxi. Gentle haggling will earn you a private transport far away from the crowds.

We paid 70 Soles (US $25) for a cab with a friendly driver for 3 hours.  An early morning departure is a sure way to beat the crowds (the tour buses roll in around 11 am).  When we arrived at 12 noon for an early lunch to the small fishing village of Lagunillas, we had the place to ourselves.  We got a tour of the kitchen and the chef proudly showed us the fresh catch of the day and prepared a delicious ceviche using the fresh fish for us.  If you don’t care for tour groups, trust me on this one and hire your own transport.

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_IMG2073_IMG20851. Visiting charming Afro-Peruvian village El Carmen

El Carmen is a bright, colourful small town.  Afro-Peruvian drum beats sound out onto the streets, everything is painted in bright colors, people are friendly and good home-style Afro-Peruvian eats can be had all around.  The formidable, Spanish colonial church found in the plaza surrounded by tall, skinny palm trees acts as a focal point for the town.

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_IMG20792. But yes, they eat cats here

It’s really true and they are kind of proud of it, as evidenced by this mural depicting one of the felines happily caught in a flaming cauldron.  I can see you wincing but just keep in mind that this is part of the culture and cats have been eaten here for centuries.  We didn’t partake in feasting on the kitties but I heard from those that have that the meat is ‘muy suave’ (very soft).

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_IMG16583. El Candelabro (the candelabra) next to Paracas

The mysterious lines just don’t stop in this country.  If you thought the Nazca lines were intriguing, this is another extension of unexplainable geoglyphs in the sand.  No one is sure how the candelabra got there or what its exact meaning is but speculation abounds. Many feel that the candelabra, although very far from Nazca, is somehow related to the geoglyphs there.  One sound theory is that the candelabra was used as a guide for sea-mariners. The questions raised by these lines in the sand will forever remain a mystery.

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_IMG1696 _IMG17194. Welcome to Ballestas islands with penguins, sea lions

It’s called the poor man’s Galapagos for a good reason.  There really is tons of sea life here.  Interestingly, many years ago, the guano (the poo from the birds) was valued like gold.  Workers used to live on the island to harvest these excretions which were exported abroad to be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Since the islands are now protected, workers no longer live there but every few years people still come to collect this important substance and continue to sell it.  Now that’s some good shit!

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_IMG1733_IMG1793 5. Lots of birds

Birds fly continuously overhead the entire time you are visiting the boat.  Their loud cries creating a cacophony can be heard from far away.  It truly was a unique experience to witness such a large amount of sea birds in one place.

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_IMG1756 _IMG17686. Especially Gannets

The sheer number of birds on this island could have served Alfred Hitchcock well with inspiration.  The gannets were probably the most numerous and at times, black clouds appeared in the sky but they only turned out to be groups of gannets flying aloft.

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_IMG1884 _IMG18837. And Pelicans

Pelicans are one of my favorite sea birds. They are so oddly beautiful.  The Islas are a home to a profuse number of these awkward yet graceful creatures.

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_IMG1926 _IMG19598. Amazing Reserva Nacional de Paracas

The word ‘paracas’ refers to the sandstorms that are common in this area.  One look at the hauntingly beautiful, deserted coast with its windswept dunes and you could feel the effects of these storms.  The Reserva is barren and treeless with little to no vegetation. The water and wind rules this place and you can feel it as far as your eye can see.

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_IMG1990 _IMG20009. Red sand beach

Perhaps our favorite part of the Reserva was here at the red sand beach.  Due to the high amount of iron oxide, the sand takes on a deep, red hue.  The Pacific Ocean with its crushing waves and the brown dunes served to make the red color even more dramatic.  Simply stunning. A natural artistry.

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_IMG2032 _IMG205010. Fishing village of Lagunillas

Lagunillas is small fishing village located right on the coast of the Reserva.  Colorful boats bob around the waters while the men work hard to get the fresh catch of the day.  It’s become somewhat of a tourist trap due to the hordes of buses that usher in people every day but getting there early helps eliminate feeling like cattle.  There are two restaurants there to choose from and wherever you end up, you will be guaranteed fresh fish.  Touristy or not, the fish here speaks for itself.  Fresh and full of flavor.  Minimal preparation needed.

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_IMG202211. Fresh fish for lunch

The chef was so proud of the catch of the day, he invited us into the kitchen for a tour and proudly showed off his goods.  The fish was some of the fresh we have eaten and we literally watched him filet it right before our eyes.  Some limon, salt, peppers & onions and we had ourselves an award-winning ceviche.  Laurent loved it so much, I spied him licking the plate-yes, literally!

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_IMG197512. Last goodbye from the coast of Peru before going back to Lima

The reserve was our last destination before heading back to Lima. Even though I am writing this now, our visit was from November of 2013.  At the end of November, we took our first very long break from travelling South America.  Coming soon, in the next photo essay, I will explain why we took a break, where we went and what we are up to now!  Stay tuned!!

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, this place looks amazing. Penguins, sand dunes and red sand beaches? I’m really, really hoping to get to Peru this year, so Paracas and El Carmen are going on my list. Thanks!

    May 8, 2014
    • I definitely recommend Paracas and especially the tour of the Reserva. It was our favorite part. El Carmen is a unique, special place full of history but keep in mind, the tourists infa-structure is non-existent there. I highly recommend a visit during one of the festivals in November or February there. Not sure if that will coincide with your trip. Enjoy Peru! We really loved that country!

      May 8, 2014

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