Today may have been of the greatest days of my life so far in my 21 years. Growing up with animal planet, discovery channel and national geographic I think formed the basis of my interest in the natural world. Pictures of polar bears in Antarctica and a cheetah running down a gazelle in Africa are some images that come to mind when considering the highlights of these media productions. There are things that I would see in the magazines or on the television that I never thought I would have the opportunity to see in person. Today I was proven wrong.
We drove by bus from Lima to Parracas passing through the outskirts of town. This was the point in the trip that I was reminded we are in a third world country. The uneven distribution of wealth is clearly evident in the structures that line the highway. Many of the shack style homes and buildings are left to appear unfinished. I said to appear unfinished because in fact there are people living inside and because they have no intentions on completing the structure. It appeared as a foreign concept of first but money plays a role in the incompletion. The government can collect taxes from families once they are living in their completed residences. If the building appears unfinished the project is left alone, there is understandably no taxes owed.
The drive from Lima to Paracas was eye opening in a number of ways. The desolate nature of the communities that congregate along the road are suffering financially. Additionally being on a desert you are more susceptible to other weathering events like sand storms and landslides. The nature of the landscape in this area is at the hands of a higher power and if that is the only land you can afford to own then you will settle there.
After seeing this stark contrast from the busy populations in Lima to the stereotypical desert of the poor regions I began to look forward to what was ahead. Once in Paracas we began to see a huge population of stray dogs dispersed over the city. I got pictures of the children playing with dogs on the beach as if they were their own. It was hard to see because I wanted them to be happy but I kept my distance as I was instructed to.
Soon after arriving in Paracas we boarded a boat and headed 45 minutes out to the Ballesta Islands. First we saw guano birds cormorants, pelicans and blue footed boobies, the guano they produce is used a fertilizer. The guano industry, is reliant on the reserves that accumulate on the islands. Guano nicely put is the waste products of the birds so the more birds that are populated there the higher production potential there is.
The Anchoveta fishery and Guano harvesting are two major drivers of Peru’s economy. The intersection between the economy and the environment is clear in the culture and workforce of Peru. They rely on each other and when an aspect changes in one the other is similarly affected.
My eyes wandered the rock face of the island looking for birds and starfish along the waterline. The boat slowed and everyone started to all move to one side to look act something closer. I heard the shutters of the camera but no one was talking about what it was. Then I saw it, it was the only smooth surface on the angular rocks it was huge and fat. It was a fur seal. I gasped and began to snap pictures. I was subconsciously clicking away but my mind was somewhere else. It was off searching trying to comprehend what was happening. In the past two days I had left the United States for the first time ever, I had traveled thousands of miles on a plane to Peru and now I was standing on a boat in the middle of the ocean looking into the eyes of a wild seal. I do not know that I have ever felt that way before. After seeing the first seal they seemed to appear on any rock, over the next hour we saw upwards of 50 seals in and out of the water. This experience was something that I will never forget. It surpassed everything I could have ever imagined. Seeing things the way they should be, in their natural state made it clear to me that Peruvians have a certain level of respect for the environment and preservation of land and water.
It is through their emphasis on preservation that the Peruvian people have been able to develop another aspect of their economy, ecotourism. The ecotourism opportunities created in the area of Paracas have allowed it to grow to second largest tourism attraction in Peru behind Machu Picchu. The ecotourism in Peru supports the local economy and is based on harmonious interactions with the environment as its natural resources. That is not to say that their practices are perfect, the wake of the boat from the tours contributes to erosion of the island and disrupts the natural tidal wave pattern. It is nearly impossible for humans to interact with the environment not have a negative impact. Being able to utilize and protect your natural resources and develop a market around it is a sustainable investment that will continue to bring in profit by ways of ecotourism and appreciation to the people who chose to understand its ways.