Wetlands in the desert

Lima sits at the Northern edge of the Atacama Desert, the only true desert that experiences less precipitation that the polar deserts. It’s dry here, so we were intrigued by Haku Tours‘ Nature Tour, which promised a trip to a Wetlands reserve 20 minutes from Lima. We signed up and were picked up from the hotel on Saturday morning to be whisked there. Our tour guide today was Edwin, a true native South American who could speak Quechua.

Ishbel and I were the only guests on this tour so we were in a nice 4×4 with Edwin and the driver, Jorge. This is a recent addition to their catalogue of available tours and, to date, not many people have signed up for it. They’re hoping to be able to introduce more ecology tourism to their itinerary and this is an early step in that direction.

The Pantanas de Villa Wildlife Reserve is located in the Chorillos district. I’ve mentioned a lot of Lima districts in previous posts so at this point, I will clarify the structure of the City / Region. The province of Lima is divided into 43 districts, each of which elects its own mayor who wields significant power over the public finances of that district. One of these mayors is also elected to be overall mayor of Lima, an even more powerful political position. In Lima, the district is important.

On to the Wetlands. We stopped at the entrance and paid our fees (included in the tour price) then drove into the park itself, where we encountered another gate, this time for a gated residential community. It transpires that money talks and if you can persuade a corrupt mayor to let you build a residential development in a Nature Reserve, nobody can stop you. Anyway, off through the houses till we reached the beach. Just inland from the beach is a large lagoon which is home to a wide variety of bird life.

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From egrets and herons…

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…to skimmers and gulls. It wasn’t easy to get close to them because burrowing owls nest in the area around the lagoon and we need to keep to the footpaths to avoid disturbing them, but Ishbel did her best with the big lens.

We had arrived here at around 10:30am, and the day was really heating up. There’s no shade out here either, so we were glad of our hats and pleased we had brought plenty of water. We walked past a group of Black Vultures feasting on a dead sea lion on the beach, and were glad to get upwind of that little party.

As we strolled on, we saw more and more birds, but they were moving around quickly and it was difficult getting a decent photo of them.


Eventually, the heat got the better of us and we made our way back to the car. Just as we were meeting up with Jorge, Ishbel spotted a bird sitting on a telephone wire and occasionally jumping off to catch flies on the wing.


It turned out to be a Kingbird.  We had an enjoyable visit and we were pleased to have seen some wildlife during our Peru trip. But it gets pretty hot there in the middle of the day.

We got back to the hotel and relaxed for a little while then Ishbel decided to pop down to our little courtyard with the camera to see if she could catch any of the bird life that we had seen over the last couple of days at breakfast.

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Eventually, her patience was rewarded with a little Bananaquit that finally stayed in one spot long enough to be photographed. These things are about 8cm long, but make an incredibly loud noise. You will always hear them before you see them.

She also caught on camera the Rufus Collared Sparrow.


But she was beginning to despair of catching the main prize that we had seen a couple of times at breakfast: the Amazilia Hummingbird. As luck would have it, one arrived just as she was getting ready to pack up, so she hastily re-attached the camera to the tripod and fired off a couple of shots before it disappeared again.

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It’s hard to make out the green head and bronze coloured body, but it’s so rare to see a hummingbird with its wings straight out that I thought I should share it.

“When my eyes beheld an eerie sight…”

I’ll admit some of the titles are getting a bit obscure but any fan of novelty songs will recognise the second line of the classic Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers.

On Friday, we signed up for another excursion with Haku Tours. This time, it was a walking tour around Lima’s historic centre. We were accompanied by two others on this trip: Sheila, an English lady who is retired and enjoys travelling, so leapt at the chance to visit Peru while her son was here on business; and Eric, a gentleman from the USA who was accompanying his wife, who is here on business. I have to avoid calling him American because he told me that he has been corrected several times when he used that term. “Well, we’re all American,” reply the Peruvians.

Amadeo, who took us around Pachacamac the previous day, was to be our guide once more. We were picked up at the hotel and driven to Plaza San Martin where the tour commenced. The square is named after General Jose de San Martin, one of the three main liberators of South America, the other two being Bernardo O’Higgins and Simon Bolivar. Bolivar, of course, is the only one who had a country named after him. Had things been different we may have had the chance to visit O’Higginsia, but it was not to be.


The depiction of Victory on the statue’s pedestal is interesting for its iconography. If you look closely at the helmet, you will see that it is crowned by a llama. The story is that the sculptor was commissioned to create the statue wearing a helmet crowned by a flame. The Spanish word for flame is llama. Anyone could have made the same mistake.

Peru’s centre is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoys the protection such status endows. It also suffers the associated restrictions imposed by UNESCO. Any repairs or changes must maintain the outward appearance of the building and, where possible, use the same materials as the original. Most of the city centre buildings are privately owned by wealthy Peruvians who moved away decades ago and, to a large extent, subdivided them into multiple commercial or residential units. This makes getting any kind of repair done difficult and effectively kills the chance for any major work to be undertaken.


This building suffered a fire 8 months ago and has been left in a state of disrepair ever since. Nobody is willing to foot the cost necessary to rebuild it in a manner compliant with UNESCO’s regulations. Amadeo told us that there were currently six burned out buildings in the historic centre awaiting repair.

We then walked down Jiron de la Union, admiring the Spanish Colonial architecture which is visible if you look up one storey. The ground floors of the buildings are now all commercial buildings, but it’s interesting to see all of the international brand names and logos depicted in black instead of their usual corporate colours.


That, again, is a UNESCO requirement. We stopped for a look inside the ornate Convento de la Merced before walking through the old financial centre.  The Peruvian Stock Exchange was one of the first in South America, founded in 1860 and still trading today. We passed by the building that houses it, but weren’t allowed to enter without prior permission.

We saw a lot of the city before eventually arriving at St. Francis’ Basilica, the largest church in Lima. The Franciscans were one of the first evangelising orders to arrive in South America and held an important role in Lima as the city’s funeral directors. At the time, it was believed that you needed to be buried under a church in order to get to heaven. Tens of thousands of Lima’s citizenry were buried under St. Francis’. We were able to get a visit to the catacombs under the church and saw the bones of many of the people buried there. The practice was that a service would be held in the church. The mourners would then leave and the body would be removed from the coffin and stacked, with several other bodies, in a niche in the crypt. They would then be sprinkled with lime to aid decomposition and to keep down the stench of tropical, rotting flesh. The introduction of cemeteries with consecrated ground finally put paid to the requirement to be buried under a church.

We weren’t allowed to take photographs in the catacombs themselves but managed to snap an image of bones through the grating in the aisle of the church above. I assume this is intended to remind worshippers of their own mortality.

Emerging back into the afternoon sun, we walked on to Plaza de Armas where sits the Government Palace. We arrived just at the changing of the guard, but had a poor view since most of the square was cordoned off in anticipation of an impending protest, although nobody seemed to know in what cause. Escaping the potential flashpoint, we zig-zagged down a couple of side streets to rendezvous with our driver and headed back to the hotel.

We relaxed for a little while in the afternoon then decided to head out for dinner. We’d been relatively frugal in Lima to date, so decided to head to a nice looking steak restaurant not far away called La Vaca Loca. We refused to let its being called The Mad Cow put us off and they seated us promptly upon our arrival. The food here was amazing. We shared two starters: morcilla, which is Spanish black pudding; and a dish simply named provolone that the waiter recommended and which turned out to be a red-hot skillet full of deliciously seasoned melted cheese. It was reminiscent of the famous Stewed Cheese dish served up for the last 100 years at Simpson’s Tavern in Lombard St, London.

The steaks that followed were excellent and we had ordered one of only two bottles of Peruvian wine on the list. Since there were about twenty each from Chile and Argentina, I was slighty concerned but there was no need. The wine was delicious and complemented the meat perfectly. At the end of the meal, I happily called for the bill and paid the requisite amount with a song in my heart and a smile on my face. We strolled hand in hand back to the hotel, where I found that my Revolut payment notification was for a good 25% more than the bill.

I stormed back around there in high dudgeon, accusing the staff of skullduggery. They dug out their records and showed me that they had in fact put through the amount I had agreed on.

It transpires that, in Peru, there appears to be a habit for someone – and it may be Revolut themselves – to add a conditional percentage in case…I’ve no idea what it’s in case of, but I was embarrassed to have accused the restaurant staff of wrongdoing. This is the first time I’ve had cause to take issue with Revolut and I’m not entirely content with the customer service. I’m still waiting for the bill to be corrected, a week later.