The Paracas National Reserve—A Journey of Discovery
By Awake! writer in Peru
FOR many years tourists from all over the world have been drawn to Peru. The itinerary usually includes Lima; Cuzco, the Inca capital; the splendid ruins of Machu Picchu; the majestic Andes; and perhaps even a boat ride on the Amazon. Recently another attraction has been added to the list—the Paracas National Reserve. It is about 150 miles [250 km] south of Lima, by way of the Pan-American Highway.
The Paracas National Reserve covers some 800,000 acres [335,000 ha] of coastal areas and the Paracas Peninsula. It was established in 1975 by the Peruvian government for the preservation of the abundant wildlife that permanently inhabit the area or annually migrate there. The reserve serves to encourage respect for the environment, while also promoting tourism. Over 100 archaeological sites have thus far been discovered, evidence of centuries of Paracas culture. The marine areas afford a home for sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, over two hundred species of birds, and four kinds of sea turtles.
On a map, the Paracas Peninsula looks like a mere button on the much larger bulge of the continental landmass. As a result of this geographic position, the area is buffeted by vigorous trade winds, locally called paracas. These winds surge northward, pushing along the cold Peru Current, or Humboldt Current. The combination of chilly waters, shallow shores, and ocean upwellings has made the peninsula one of the most prolific marine wildlife zones in the world. The Pacific Ocean here is green with an abundance of microorganisms, including both phytoplankton and zooplankton, and these serve as food for the millions of anchovies and other small fish that swarm in these rich waters. This marine banquet, especially the anchovies, sustains many seabirds, penguins, and sea mammals that are protected in the reserve.
Visiting the Ballestas Islands
Our journey begins at the docks in the bay at Paracas. Numerous small fishing boats are bobbing at anchor, their only passengers the local pelicans that sit preening and observing the activity of the people around them. Our speedboat arrives, and we eagerly step in and don our life jackets. Once away from the portside congestion, our boat picks up speed, giving us an exhilarating ride as we skim across the mild swells of the bay.
Our first stop is near the end of the peninsula. There, our guide comments on a huge design on the hillside. It is called the Candelabra, although you might think it looks like a three-armed cactus. Some have suggested that the design is part of the drawings of the famous Nazca Lines.* Others have speculated that it was drawn by pirates or that it is a Masonic symbol made by the soldiers following revolutionary leader José de San Martín in 1820. Whatever its origin, this desert work of art is impressive to behold.
Once we are past the peninsula, our ride gets rougher. We can see the islands gleaming white in the morning sun. This, however, is not rock and sand but guano—seabird dung—which covers the islands.
We draw up to the Ballestas, or Crossbow, Islands, so named by the Spanish for the islands’ natural bowlike archways. The pilot slows down the motor. Our first thought is, ‘Who is observing whom?’ for perched on crags and the uppermost rims of the islands are countless seabirds—pelicans, terns, sea gulls, boobies, a variety of cormorants, and even Humboldt penguins. While it may seem strange to see penguins in a tropical zone, the extremely cold waters and abundant fish supply make them feel right at home. Next, we spy sea lions sunning on every available rock platform. The islands are, for the most part, rock formations that plunge directly into the sea, and we admire how penguins and sea lions, so clumsy on land, manage to reach their perches.
Our guide regales us with facts and figures. “A male sea lion can weigh more than 300 kilos [650 pounds] and has a harem of as many as 20 females,” she explains. While the females have a shapely sea lion silhouette, the huge males look like bulging sacks of blubber. We learn that these males are strong and fearsome mammals that contend with each other for control of the harem and territory. The loser is often fatally wounded, thus providing food for the turkey vultures and condors that are also part of the food chain in these coastal waters. A sea lion has a rather hearty appetite, often devouring 20 pounds [10 kg] of fish during just one nighttime feeding. But these creatures are not aggressive toward us—just very curious.
As our pilot slowly steers us around each of the three islands and the stone archways, we notice the air is filled with the strong smell of guano. “In the archways,” our guide explains, “live vampire bats that feed on the sea lions while they sleep.” In the distance, we see what looks like a large, dark stain on the biggest island. It is a flock of guanayes, or cormorants, water birds that love togetherness. They are clustered tightly together resting and producing guano. Boobies make plummeting dives into the sea, while other birds glide past us at eye level.
Finally, we come to the ‘maternity ward,’ the largest beach area on the islands. We are thrilled to see many sea lions with squirming groups of dark-colored babies wriggling around the females. The beach is noisy with bellows, raspy guttural sounds, and high-pitched squeals. We are told that the pups may nurse for up to six months and that they learn to swim on their mother’s back.
As we make our way back to the docks, our guide says: “Sixty percent of the baby sea lions will perish before they are one year old. Some are squashed or are purposely eliminated by the males. Others drown. The El Niño weather phenomenon can also wreak havoc, as it forces the anchovies south to colder waters. Young sea lions do not have the strength to follow the adults to new feeding areas.”
Ironically, the greatest threat to the survival of the wildlife here may be man. Large numbers of sea lions have been slaughtered by hunters for their fur and by fishermen who consider them a nuisance. Sea turtles have been harvested for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their shells, which are collector’s items. Bird populations have been disturbed by guano harvesters. The food supply has been depleted by overfishing. We are told that wildlife conservation methods are now the law. Perhaps such laws will influence people to be more conscious of conservation.
A Journey Into Paracas’ Past
Stepping onto solid ground, we are ready for the last half of our tour, which takes us to the Julio C. Tello Museum on the peninsula.
In 1925, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello and an associate made their first discovery on the peninsula. They named the area Long Head, for the elongated human skulls that lay half buried on the surface of the desolate ground. These were remains of the Paracas culture, which scholars estimate existed from 1000 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. The Paracas people had no written language. So while it is known how these people elongated skulls—using cushions, wooden rods, and string—no one knows why. In this same area, Tello made his next discovery—underground funereal caves shaped like upside-down goblets. The cloth-wrapped bodies, squatting in a fetal pose, were placed side by side, ready to be “born again” in the next life. Corn, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, as well as musical and ceremonial instruments, were also found in the caves.
Two years later Tello and another associate discovered an enormous burial ground, which they named Paracas Necropolis. It contained 429 burial bundles, some over five feet [1.6 m] tall. These squatting mummies were each placed inside a basket. They were swathed in amazingly colorful, luxurious robes with multicolored embroidered designs, often with magical-religious motifs.
Samples of these burial robes, along with hundreds of other fascinating artifacts from the Paracas culture, can be viewed at the Julio C. Tello Museum.
We hope that our journey through the Paracas National Reserve has whetted your appetite for exploration of more of Peru’s treasures.
These are drawings of animals and geometric designs on the plains of Nazca, Peru, that are too big to be seen from ground level. See the article “The Nazca Lines—A UFO Spaceport?” in the January 8, 1982, issue of Awake!
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[Picture on page 18]
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[Pictures on page 18]
Artifacts of the Paracas culture—a burial robe, a mummy, and one of the long heads
[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]
Pelican: © Archivo de PromPerú; sea lions: © Michael Tweddle/PromPerú
[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]
Coastline: © Carlos Sala/PromPerú; flamingos: © Heinz Plenge/PromPerú; penguin: © Arturo Bullard/PromPerú
[Picture Credit Lines on page 18]
Top left sea and tern: © Archivo de PromPerú; artifacts: Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú