Spanning 335,000 hectares of desert-like peninsula, ocean and the famous Ballestas Islands, the stunning Paracas National Park is a coastal reserve south of Pisco that teems with wildlife. The Reserve was established in 1975 to protect the marine wildlife, and is Peru’s first park for marine conservation.
Most visits start with a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands archipelago, and ours is no exception. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see an amazing diversity of marine and birdlife up close. Porpoises leaping through the surf… pelicans and cormorants swooping over the water… sea lions basking on the rocks… Humboldt Penguins… Hammerhead Sharks… Leatherback and Hawksbill Turtles… the list goes on. Having the highest concentration of marine birds anywhere in the world also has a rather lucrative spin-off: Bird droppings, or Guano. The deposits of guano built up over thousands of years on the islands created a natural reserve of nitrogen-rich fertilizer over 50 metres deep in some areas. By the mid 19th Century it had become Peru’s major export. Today its extraction is limited to every ten years.
Another highlight of the boat trip is the view of the famous Candelabra geoglyph, a 150m high and 50m wide representation of a candlestick etched into the dune mountain. Was it created as an ancient guide for sailors? Is it in some way connected to the Nazca Lines? Whichever theory presses your buttons (and there are many more to choose from) you can’t deny it’s an impressive sight.
Looking at the arid desert landscape of the peninsula, it may come as a surprise that as well as the wildlife there is also a strong human history here, as the Paracas culture thrived here over 9,000 years ago, reaching their peak between 2000 and 500BC. The people were fishermen and farmers who cultivated beans, maize and peppers. From excavations at the Paracas Necropolis we know they were exceptionally skilled craftsmen. The tombs contain obsidian knives, pottery, shell and bone necklaces, gold ornaments and finely woven textiles. The dry climate and lack of light in the underground burial chambers ensured that these artefacts were well preserved.
The chambers were discovered in the 1920s by a team of archaeologists led by Julio C. Tello. They found mummy bundles wrapped in cloths as well as feathered costumes, fine jewellery and food offerings. Two sites were excavated between 1925 and 1928, and together are known as the Paracas Necropolis.