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Getting to know the locals

I slept really well and had a good shower into the bargain. Breakfast was served on our little balcony overlooking the inner courtyard and small pool. We're hitting the typical tourist trail today  for the first time. Tour number one this morning is a trip to the Islas Ballestas (described in Lonely Planet as a mini Galapagos) and then on to the Paracas National Park (tour number two). We were picked up in a sand dune buggy (possible tour number 3 which we have so far declined). Great marketing from the tour company as it attracted interest at the dock.

The islands trip is in an open glass fibre boat which is very basic. Everyone has to put on life jackets but I reckon if we capsized they'd be useless. The guide and boat driver only wore theirs on the way out from the dock and coming back in again when they would be visible from land.

We were warned not to eat breakfast before the tour as it could be rough. The boat skimmed along with the odd up and down but nothing compared to the sailing we've done. A chap next to me looked decidedly uncomfortable and got gradually greener as the trip progressed. After about 10 minutes it stopped so we could see the "candelabra" or cactus tree on the side of the dunes. This is apparently similar to the Nazca lines (we'll see when we get to Nazca). No one knows who produced it or why. Was it a navigational aid or is it a sign from aliens?

The main part of the tour is wildlife watching on the islands. There are more birds here in one place than I can recall seeing for a long time. Long lines of birds were flying to and from here as we came by boat and they seemed to be racing us (they won). The sides of the islands are in part carpeted wall to wall by birds. There are cormorants, pelicans, turkey eagles and humboldt penguins. There are also lots of sea lions.

One sub has been on its own on the rocks for four days. Our guide reckons its mother has been killed by fishermen so its probably got no one to learn from and will simply die. I also found out why you also see sea lions in clusters. Each male has a hareem of around ten females and they swim and bask together.

The islands produce an export crop for PerĂº - bird droppings! They are full of nitrates and are exported to the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia as fertiliser. There are always two people living on the islands, partly to protect them but I suspect also to manage the industry. I don't envy them their home - its a pretty foul smelling place to be be. The sand coloured parts of the rocks aren't sandstone but their export crop.

In true tourist trap style, we had time at the dock to kill before the next tour. There's a small feria artesenale selling the usual collection of t-shirts, beaded necklaces and bags. The strip of restaurants are doing a booming trade with late breakfasts. For the trip to the National Park we got on a little bus causing a bit of confusion. We'd booked locally so the guide didn't have us on his list and couldn't make his numbers tally.

First stop was a viewing platform to see flamingos. There were about 20 or so but thousands are expected in early July. Apparently the Libertador of PerĂº landed here and the flamingos inspired him to choose red and white as the colours for the national flag. They are huge birds but very graceful with it. Next stop was the small, and not very informative, visitors centre. The main message here was don't leave litter as it gets washed out to sea and eaten by the sea lions and penguins who subsequently die as a result.

We then bumped across the desert to the coast. The landscape is mainly a salt flat (all this area used was under water millions of years ago). Despite now being arid and with no vegetation people used to live here. Fresh water used to be just 30cm under the surface. Now with intensive farming its 30m under ground. Every now and again we pass piles of shells - I couldn't decide if they were natural or if they were somehow stage managed.

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Nice parking! (yes, that's the cliff edge right behind the rear wheel)

At the coast we stopped to see a rock formation called the Catedral. It's a big rock that's been eroded by the tides and the winds but I've seen more spectacular sights in the UK. Here too there are birds galore. The locals claim that the top of the Catedral is the same shape as a Peruvian lady in national dress - peaked hat and wide layered skirts. Not having seen any yet I can't really comment.

The final stop was to a small bay with restaurants so we could buy lunch. We were back at Paracas by 3pm and decided to take a look at the Hotel Paracas - Lonely Planet's top end recommendation. We could have been anywhere in the world. Perfectly manicured lawns and gardens, three pools (two being renovated), gym, crazy golf, children's play area, private jetty for tours to the islands (the hotel alone has 6 boats) and very attentive staff. True five star luxury if this is what you want. There must be over one hundred rooms all set out bungalow style and there's a large, formal(ish) dining room. Our budget didn't stretch to staying here and I'm not sure if I would have wanted to anyway - it was a bit too clinical.

We're pondering where to go next. Should we stop at Ica as planned for the museums and pisco places or just head to Nazca to see the lines? Probably the latter will win out but the office to check bus information and buy tickets is now closed so we'll have to wait until tomorrow morning to finalise our plans.