I shouldn’t speak so harshly of the Peruvian coastal desert. Although I’m a creature of green, hilly places, deserts can be spectacularly beautiful places to visit that have a marvellous effect of putting things into perspective and making day-to-day worries seem very small indeed.
The Peruvian coastal desert is arguably part of the mighty Atacama, which stretches 1 000 km from northern Chile and eastern Bolivia all the way along the Peruvian coast until just shy of the border with Ecuador. Covering 128 000 square kilometres, the Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world: the Andes to the east block the arrival of warm, rain-bearing winds, and along the coast the Humboldt Current maintains the dry, stable conditions while also keeping the temperatures cool, which is why it never rains in Lima.
The Humboldt Current is also responsible for the incredible richness of marine life on the Peruvian coast. The current drives the up-welling of deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters which supports huge levels of productivity. The sea here smells strongly of fish and algae and absolutely teems with aquatic life. The resulting abundance of seafood, coupled with the cool climate and river valleys carrying fresh water down from the Andes, has meant the Peruvian Coastal Desert has been home to a variety of human civilizations for thousands of years.
One of the older societies of the Peruvian coastal desert was the Paracas culture, established between 800 and 100 BCE, in the area of the Paracas peninsula, about 4 hours’ drive south of Lima. A large part of this area is now covered by the Paracas National Reserve, which protects the cultural heritage of the Paracas people as well as the natural values of this striking stretch of desert coast. It’s a zone of stunning contrasts between the extremely arid desert and cold waters of the Pacific, as famous for its bird life as for the archaeological sites. Indeed, it was the bird life that took me down with a couple of friends for a weekend of relaxing and casual bird-watching in the Reserve.
Although I did get to see Chilean flamingos (very blurry and tiny in the distance), a Humboldt penguin, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies and a huge array of migratory waders, I was more captivated by the colours and sculptural forms of the desert itself. The stark, sandy landscape is unlike any other desert I’ve visited, and the play of light on the sands was beautiful to see. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to take the sunset photos I’d wanted to, or to head out by boat to visit the seal colonies, as a surprise allergic reaction to bad seafood sent us running back to Lima a day early where I had to rest up while my face slowly deflated.
I’ll just have to go back again, when I can find the time. Like everywhere else I want to re-visit in this jaw-droppingly scenic country, never mind all the places I haven’t even got to yet… For now, I hope you’ll enjoy the photos I do have from my too-short trip and that I’ve taught you a little more about the ecology and human history of Peru. Here’s to Paracas, where the desert meets the sea in spectacular style, and where, over 2 000 years ago humans were building intricate irrigation systems to build a complex culture in the sand. They were also into shaping the human skull into weird forms, mind you! Human genius is a strange beast whatever era we’re in.