Seeing the world, one country at the time

Guano – Peru’s gold rush

Paracas and the Islas Ballestas

Who knew that you can earn a fortune from bird poop? The “guaneros” that live on the Islas Ballestas outside of Paracas, Peru, have known for decades. They are the people who collect bird droppings, a natural resource used as fertilizer, and sell it. Peru is the biggest exporter of this product. These islands, now part of a national park, lie outside of Paracas, just hours south of Lima, on the coast near Ica and Pisco, each boasting of their own national treasures, mostly archeological.

From Pisco we headed out to Paracas, a seaside town which is well known for its luxurious holiday resort and for its proximity to Islas Ballestas, or Ballestas islands, a natural wonder and lucrative location for the Peruvians since it was discovered that the “guano”, or bird droppings, that cover its surfaces, is an excellent fertilizer and could be sold for up to 40 dollars a kilogram. Guano collectors flocked to the island, scraping off its white covering, in order to eke a living from it.

Even decades ago, the guano was several meters high, but now, due to the exploitation of the resource and a decrease in the most prolific guano-producing birds, the quantity has decreased dramatically. Still, a few select people reside on the island making their living from collecting this material. It is no easy task these days, as the best bits are on the cliff sides. Their job can become life-threatening when they tie themselves into ropes and drop over cliffs or lean over ledges to hack at their treasure troves. 40 dollars per kilo may not seem like a lot to many of you, but to a Peruvian, it’s a decent salary.

Besides the birds, the island boasts colonies of sea lions. We take a tour boat out to the islands to see them. As we approach, we can see the white rocks and are reminded that the white is not their natural color, but the effect of the birds. The breeze gives us a stiff whiff of what life on the islands is like. It stings my nose to breathe the acidic odor. High on the cliffs a factory and the few houses where the guano collectors live appear. They are the only people legally allowed to step on the islands, and they have the right to shoot on sight, if anyone is trespassing. The Peruvians take their bird poop seriously.

We notice the swarms of birds, reminiscent of a beehive. Various kinds of birds fly, flit and dive off the cliffs in an endless flurry of wings. They cover most of the sides and top of the islands, though our guide tells us that this is nothing. In the old days, the island was completely black with birds and you couldn’t even see the white guano. Besides pelicans and gulls, we spot Humboldt penguins. This is a small and agile species of penguin compared to its mor
e famous cousin, the Emperor penguin, found in the Antarctic. Still, it is exciting to see it dressed in its recognizable feathered tuxedo.

As we near the sea lions, we can hear them roaring, honking and calling each other, warning each other of the boat and of the strange creatures on it. They cover the rocks, swimming in pairs in the water, and lounging about on the beaches, where they breed and protect their young as they grow. They are amusing and endearing to watch, as they definitely have personalities. Between them and the sea lions, we are all enthralled and a little giddy as we turn back toward shore. So, next time a bird poops on your shoulder, don’t feel disgusted. Remember, you could be on your way to building a fortune, one dropping at a time.

On the way back, we are duly amazed at a sand carving that reveals itself as we pass the sand dunes outside of Paracas harbor. It is the “Candelabra”, a monstrous carving that has withstood centuries of wind and erosion. Its symmetry is as surprising as that of the Nasca lines, though this is older. It was carved by the Paracas culture, prior to the Nasca culture, between 100 BC and 100 AD. The mystery remains regarding its meaning and origin, though the main theory is that it is a form of communication with their gods.

After the boat ride, we join a tour to the Paracas national park, made up of miles of unspoiled cliffs and dunes on the coast. Our first stop is at the Cathedral, an eroded cliff side with a cave comprising three natural arches, which are called the Trinity. We have to walk down a steep dune to get to the beach below to enter the cave. On the way our guide tells us about local sea life and warns us to stay away from the cliffs, which tend to break off overhead and tumble onto the beach as human-sized boulders. Standing inside the cave, our guide recounts that growing up, his father would take him there to see the sea lions that lived there.

We climb back up the steep embankment and continue to an overlook of the same area. Local fishermen risk their lives every day climbing down to a platform far below, using only a rope tied onto a spike in the rock as a harness. Seeing this, we feel a little silly worrying about our own safety as we stand on the edge of the cliff looking hundreds of feet down. There are no rails here, nor most places in South America. I prefer being able to see and get close to the views while taking responsibility for my own risks rather than being coddled, like we always are in the United States.

Our tour continues over steep and rough terrain where the bus driver at first refuses to drive and then races other bus drivers along the same route. We stop at a red sand beach, unlike any I’ve seen before. The deep red hue is due to erosion from a nearby cliff and is hypnotic. Our next stop is at a little isolated lake village, whose economy revolves around fishing and open-air seafood restaurants for tourists. We ignore the bus driver’s recommendation and choose one with very good food and reasonable prices, where the bus driver eventually ends up himself.

Our last stop is at the Julio C. Tello museum. He is one of Peru’s best-known archaeologists, having studied and preserved much from the pre-columbian cultures and striving to keep the finds inside the country. The museum focuses on the Paracas culture. It looks at their exquisite weaving, some of it still intact and finer than anything you can find today, as well as their lifestyle and funerary rites. They mummified their dead, placing their wrapped corpses in cocoons with their belongings. They also had a couple traditions that we today would consider curious.

One was the removal and preparation of their enemies’ heads to exhibit as warfare trophies. The other was head deformation, in which they wrapped their infants’ heads into either a “wide-head” or a “long-head”. These shapes were social indicators, expressing someone’s identity. They had an aesthetic quality, such as tattoos, jewelry or makeup in other cultures and could be considered distinguished or attractive. This practice undoubtedly caused future stress on the brain, inspiring refined brain surgery techniques, which archeological studies have shown to be successful. Holes drilled into the skull to release pressure or cure behavioral or physiological ills healed well, but it must have been painful, as there was no anesthesia. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Paracas period, when almost half of the population had this procedure done.