Monday, 30 August 2010

penguins, sea lions and lots of poo!

Our final excursion before arriving in Lima was to Ballestas Islands – dubbed rather unfairly ‘the poor-man’s Galapagos’ and located a way off the coast a few hours from the capital. A natural reserve for what seemed like thousands upon thousands of birds, plus a few colonies of penguins, large groups of sea lions and the occasional dolphin, the group of small islands provide a safe refuge which is untouched by humans for most of the year.

Tourists are not allowed to dock, and the only human interference comes for three or four months every seven years, when workers land and collect the bird poo which sits over a metre deep on the surface of the rocky landscape. The most expensive fertiliser in the world, it provides a good income for Peru, but my word does it stink! The smell, combined with the overwhelming stench of diesel from the boat engines, became a bit overpowering by the end of the trip.

We left on a small speedboat and stopped first at the ‘Candelabra’ – a large geoglyph on the side of a rocky hill near the dock. Similar in style to the Nazca lines, but probably unconnected, it sits proud on the bank. As we came nearer to the islands themselves, we began to see sea lions playing in the frothy water from our boat engine, and frantically grabbed our cameras, although there was no need for haste – as we edged towards rocks jutting out of the sea they lounged lazily, draped over each other and happily posing for our pictures. We also saw a couple of colonies of penguins waddling over the rocky heights, and as for the birds…they perched high on the rocks, looking down at us, thousands of them – pelicans, a range of different small sea birds, gulls – an incredible sight.

We stayed for around an hour before heading back to port, and took the bus to Lima for a one-night stopover. Although Peru's capital is filled with colonial buildings, lofty churches and modern neighbourhoods, it also has a melancholy air thanks to the heavy white cloud that blankets it during the winter months, and the intense pollution makes breathing tough, despite the fact that we had returned to sea level and no longer suffered any of the breathing difficulties associated with high altitude. Wandering around the city centre was nice though, and we had a glimpse of the famed culinary side to Lima during dinner in the coastal Mira Flores neighbourhood.

With such little time, F and I only managed one activity – a tour of the catacombs in the San Fransisco church. With an estimated 25000 skeletons contained within, we were looking forward to hearing it's history. Unfortunately, our tour was rather bizarre – the guide gave his well-rehearsed spiel at lightening speed, regardless of whether or not the whole group were close enough to hear, and when we got to the catacombs themselves, he wandered off completely, leaving us down there with no explanation either about the tombs or the reason for his disappearing act… we went around on our own, and emerged to find him and two Americans who had managed to follow him (who were very apologetic and explained that they had told him repeatedly that he’d lost half his group…). He didn’t seem particularly bothered that he’d lost us, and although rather funny it was a bit of a shame as the guides we’d hired throughout the trip had been so superb that to have such an awful one near the end was a little sad. At least we weren’t rushed through the catacombs – although please don't ask me anything about their origins...

After almost three weeks it was time to say goodbye to Peru, and to our tour group, as the tour finished and we made our way back to Chile for one final adventure...

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