The way most cruises work–especially those in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean– is that you have a day ashore and then motor at night to the next port, arriving early in the morning, allowing time for explorations and excursions. You cast off late in the afternoon, and the cycle repeats itself. This cruise is a little different because of the great distances that we will need to cover. Overall the cruise will take 35 days, and we will have 17 days at sea and 18 at port. We have just spent four out of the last five days in various ports in Ecuador and Peru, so we have some long sea days coming up. This port day, October 29, marked the end of our second week of the cruise. It will be our last port before our three-day journey at sea takes us to Chile.
When we woke up, the Zaandam was already tied up along a pier with no other vessels present. The area was desolate except for a small village at the other end of the bay. We were docked here, I presumed, because of two major tourist attractions– a large national park and what was described in the itinerary as Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands. Unlike the other ports we have visited, this one had no cranes, no place to stack containers, and no sign of human activity anywhere near except for a fishing fleet, a couple of tug boats, and the tiny village across the bay.
Embry had signed us up for the “Peruvian Galapagos” excursion to the Ballestas Islands. The drill is pretty much the same at every port. If you have signed up for an excursion, you report to the main theater for instructions. Otherwise you go directly to security, check out, then hop on one of the shuttle buses, which will take you out of the port area to a central drop-off place where you will be on your own. As part of an excursion we were directed with 23 fellow passengers to Bus 11 where we were met by our guide, a 30-something woman with a broad smile and twinkle in her eye. The bus ride to the other end of the bay was along a lonely road with sand dunes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was no evidence that the area had ever received any rain. The day was beautiful with sunny skies and temperatures around 70. My only complaint that day, and every day in Peru for that matter, was that due to very hazy skies we never got to see the towering peaks to the east, which we knew were there. That is where it rains. The rivers the rain produces make life possible along the coast. But you can’t see the mountains. Occasionally you think you can make out their slight silhouettes in the distance, but you are not sure.
The reason that it almost never rains in the coastal plains is that they are on the dry side of these invisible mountains. In the Southern Hemisphere, the prevailing winds are from the east, not the west, as is the case in the Northern Hemisphere. The humid air comes off the relatively warm Atlantic Ocean (warm compared to the chilly Pacific Ocean). When the air rises, it cools and is unable to hold as much moisture, first producing clouds and then rain. By the time the winds push the air west toward peaks of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, a lot of rain has fallen, sustaining the Amazon rain forest, and when the air falls back down the western slopes and warms again, there is no way it is going to produce rain. This is the phenomenon that affects the entire continent, though when we get to Chile and later to Argentina, I am anticipating that there will be differences from the climate in Peru. In any event the narrow coastal plain along Ecuador and Peru is about as dry as the Sahara.
After about a half hour driving along a dusty road, Bus 11 arrived at a village that was a mix of very modest housing and upscale, resort hotels and was buzzing with activity with at least a dozen buses lined up dropping off passengers. I had no idea where the other buses came from but guessed all or most were from our cruise ship. The center of activity was a large pavilion, jammed-packed with people leading to a long pier where guide boats were lined up to take tourists like us to the Ballestas Islands. I had no idea what to expect.
Our enthusiastic guide led her charge of us 25 old folks down the pier to one of probably a dozen, sleek speed boats with twin Yamaha 250 hp outboard motors that could accommodate about 25 people each. How she and the captain got all of us into the bouncy and unstable boat without losing anyone overboard was pretty impressive, but they did it. We all buckled up with orange life vests, and off we went.
The first hundred yards were not so bad as we slowly motored through a huge fleet of tuna fishing boats at anchor in protected waters. As we passed them and entered open waters with a two-foot chop, six to eight foot swells and a 25-knot head wind, the captain stepped on the gas. Off we went!
Lord have mercy!
I do not know how fast the vessel was going, but it had to be close to 50 mph. Had the sea not been so choppy, it probably would not have been so bad; but as it was, every time we blasted through a wave at breakneck speed, water would spray up into the sky and splash down on the passengers, especially those in the stern where we were seated, cowering in fear. I did not look up. In fact no one looked up, not because we were not apprehensive, but because keeping our heads down helped keep off some of the frigid spray splashing down on us.
My only comment to Embry, who was hunched down beside me shivering and trying to keep dry, was that there damn well better be some wildlife on this godforsaken island.
In about a half hour the boat started to slow down, the splashing on our heads ceased, and one by one heads poked up and started to look around. We had arrived. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.
Along with a dozen or so other speed boats, we found ourselves at the edge of the first of four contiguous tiny, rocky islands. We began to look around and dry out and to warm up in the morning sun as our boat rose up and then down in 10-12 foot swells. I could not help thinking that this experience would have to be something really special to justify the terror and discomfort of getting there.
Well, it was. I have never been to the Galapagos Islands. These Peruvian islands are much smaller and certainly can’t begin to compare with regard to diversity, but in terms of the seabird population and sea lions? Oh my goodness! I have not seen anything that comes close to it. I have never seen so many seabirds or bird activity. On these four islands on a typical day, our guide told us there would be well over a million seabirds and over 200 species. On one of the islands there is a tall hill perhaps as high as a thousand feet, and this day it was completely covered with tens of thousands of Peruvian terns. As our boat slowly motored from one island to the next, she tried to tell us what the birds all were when we got close enough to get a good look— many varieties of boobies, cormorants, gulls, pelicans, terns and so many more, some unique to this part of the world. However, there is no way she or anyone else could begin to describe the vastness of this extraordinary bird world. I could not help wondering what kind of fish population would be required to feed a million, flying, hungry creatures every day.
So as terrifying and uncomfortable as the voyage was getting out to these islands, I am the first to confess that it was absolutely worth it and an experience of a lifetime. (We also saw a whole bunch of sea lions sunning on the steep rocks at the edge of the sea.) On the way out before our captain let ‘er rip, he pointed out the side of a steep mountain beside the sea where there was an image carved out of the sand that appears to be a candelabra. The image is over 300 meters tall and 100 meters wide and has been there on the side of this mountain above the sea for at least 2,500 years. No one has been able to determine exactly what it means or who created the image or how they were able to do it. There are some similar giant images on other coastal plains in Peru.
The trip back was downwind with following seas and much, much easier. Back on board we enjoyed a delicious meal at the fancy Zaandam restaurant and then watched the Nats beat the Astros to force game seven of the World Series.
Many good memories of Peru. Now on to Chile where political instability has caused the captain to cancel our first stop altogether (too dangerous) and to alert us that other destinations may also be at risk. Stay tuned….