Jumping on a big red Peru Hop bus, we bounced out of metropolitan Lima and through the remarkable landscapes of southern Perú. Along the way, we hopped-off the bus at a marine ecological reserve, lush desert oasis, and one of the world’s most mysterious places.
A couple hours south of Lima, we entered the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. According to Fernando, our energetic and well-organized Peru Hop guide, the last time it rained here was 1988! To us, this seemed like the perfect place to hop-off and hydrate for a couple days.
In the coastal town of Paracas, the desiccated rust-colored landscape appeared extraterrestrial. On a late afternoon hike, we followed a coastal cliffside trail to witness the contemporaneous vermillion sun setting into the Pacific Ocean and the full moon rising over the Martian-like terrain.
At this spot, the small but prominent Paracas Peninsula juts into the ocean, forming a productive marine habitat sheltered from the cold Antarctic Humboldt Current. These tepid waters support a diverse population of birds and marine animals, protected in the Paracas National Reserve, the only marine wildlife preserve in Perú.
The area’s biodiversity is concentrated in the Ballestas Islands, a small archipelago known as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”. Just ten miles by boat from Paracas town, we spotted seals, sea turtles, and even an orca whale from our seats. At the islands, dozens of bird species flourished, including low-flying pelicans, kamikaze-diving Peruvian Boobies, and tuxedoed Humboldt Penguins.
Hopping back on the bus, we continued to Huacachina, the only natural desert oasis in South America. Here, we stayed the night in a small village built around a tranquil lake, framed by verdant palm trees and surrounded by the largest sand dunes on the continent.
For a little adrenaline rush, we hired a dune buggy, hurdled across the dune field, and sand-boarded on our bellies down the steepest slip faces we could find. From the crest of the highest dune, our panoramic view revealed wind-sculpted mountains of sand extending for as far as the eye could see.
The aerial views only improved at our next hop-off destination of Nazca, famous for the mysterious Nazca Lines. Created between 100 BC and 700 AD by removing the iron-oxide stained surface layer to expose light-colored underlying soils, there are thousands of lines, including geometric shapes and over 70 plant and exotic animal figures.
In high school during the late 1970s, I read Erich von Däniken’s book “Chariots of the Gods?”, which postulated that alien “astronauts” persuaded the ancient Nazca people to build the lines as landing strips. Ever since then, seeing the Nazca Lines has been one of the oldest remaining items on my travel bucket list.
Although still a mystery, the lines are now thought to be astronomical markers indicating the solstice and constellations to be seen by gods from the sky. Now that I have observed the Nazca Lines for myself, I seriously question their alien origin, and simply believe them to exhibit the genius of human ingenuity.
In less than a week, we contemplated the Nazca Lines from the air, found our thrills in the desert oasis of Huacachina, and absorbed nature in the Paracas Natural Reserve and Atacama Desert. Thanks to Peru Hop, it was fun and easy to access these varied adventures, hopping around southern Perú.
Feature Photo: Our Peru Hop group hiking (and hopping) on the Paracas Peninsula at sunset
Blogger’s Note: Just for the record, I have absolutely no personal interest in tooting Peru Hop’s horn. For independent travelers like us, Peru Hop allows for individual and flexible schedules, and takes care of all the transport logistics. With Peru Hop, we hopped-off at each location, stayed for as many days as we liked, and then hopped-back-on to reach our next destination. Peru Hop also provided convenient hotel pick-ups, an onboard English-speaking guide, and several in-route tour stops.