I barely notice the desert sands at first. Then, two hours into my taxi ride down the Pan American Highway from Lima toward Peru's southern coast, I spot flashes of green among the dunes. Crops grow in the Peruvian desert? My driver explains that visiting Israelis shared their knowledge of desert irrigation, transforming the landscape. Soon we're pointing at rows of vegetation: "Grapes! Tangerines! Asparagus!"
Signs for Paracas appear by the roadside, gulls squawk overhead, a ray of sunshine breaks through the white mist, and the shoreline bursts into view. I realize we've been beside the water the entire drive—the first in a string of wondrous discoveries.
Despite spending years living the gypsy expat lifestyle in South America, I'd never wandered near this stretch of Peruvian coast. Now I'm here to explore. The tiny fishing town of Paracas, located beside a national reserve, is near the Ballestas Islands and their abundant marine life—fish, dolphins, turtles, sea lions, and dozens of species of birds—yet it has remained in the shadow of nearby Ecuador's world-famous Galápagos Islands.
I have two expeditions in mind: out to the islands, and into the sand dunes of the national reserve. Even as I check in to my suite at the luxurious Hotel Paracas, nature announces itself: Pelicans perch idly on the roof. Walking past palm trees and down the hotel's whitewashed boardwalk, I have to dip my head to dodge a sudden cloud of swooping terns on my way to board a waiting yacht. Just 20 minutes later, after racing through aquamarine waters, we reach the Ballestas Islands—a collection of jagged red rocks, eroded by the elements over centuries into gaping caves and craggy archways with glimpses of the sky beyond. They shoot upward from the turbulent, white-tipped waves and appear to me, as we approach by boat, to be writhing—as if they have a life of their own.
A closer look reveals why. Flocks of cormorants, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and waddling Humboldt penguins nest in the crags, plummet below the waves, and hover in the air. An avian stream pours over the edge of a cliff and heads toward our boat, skimming the water's surface to dip and douse feathers. The soft sound of a thousand pairs of flapping wings envelops us.
From those Darwinesque island landscapes to dunes more reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, I venture into the vast emptiness of Paracas National Reserve in an SUV with a guide and my fellow guests. We drive into these 300,000 protected hectares of coastal desert, which feels like a no man's land until I step out into the dry air and look down to the hardened sand beneath my feet. It is studded with fossils from 46 million years ago: sea snail shells, chunks of wood, calcified shark's teeth, and the bones of giant penguins—reminders of an ancient ocean floor.
We walk to the edge of a cliff to spy the terra-cotta-colored sand below, raked by an angry, green-tinged tide. We snap photos while the wind howls in our ears, whips our hair, and billows into our clothes. The energy here is so raw and primal that only the red-necked vultures hovering above the shoreline appear to be in their element.
Later, in the calm of my balcony, I listen to birds chatter in the treetops and watch the sky become transformed by watercolor streaks of pink and orange. I can feel, even in this serenity, the swirling natural world that informs this moment. Here—in this surreal place—where the desert meets the sea, where the wild allows for the civilized.
What a discovery. What a lucky adventurer I am.
First, get to Lima: LAN Airlines offers direct flights from Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, and New York; lan.com. JetBlue offers direct service from Fort Lauderdale; jetblue.com. The three-hour scenic drive to Paracas can be made via bus (cruzdelsur.com.pe) or shuttle, which can be booked for guests by Hotel Paracas.
With two swimming pools and a spa, the 120-room Hotel Paracas is a perfect luxury basecamp. In addition to guided journeys to the Ballestas Islands and into Paracas National Reserve, the resort's list of adventures includes sandboarding to a tented dinner in the middle of the dunes, and sightseeing flights above the famous Nazca Lines. Rates start at $180; libertador.com.pe.
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SPECIAL READER DISCOUNT!
Enjoy two nights of luxury accommodations, three meals, late checkout, and complimentary Thermal Circuit treatment at the spa, plus other benefits at the luxury resort, with 10 percent discount off the published rate. Mention promo code "COASTAL LIVING 2016" when making your reservation.