Lost in the Desert

On Wednesday 17 July 2013 a friend and I went to camp for a few nights in the Paracas Desert National Park. This would be my first time in the desert.

Soon enough all my beliefs about deserts were shattered. Sand comes in all colors—brick red, curry yellow, talc white, black and brown. Kernels are large and small. At some places Rocks rule the landscape or salt slabs covers the ground. Only few areas had the classic sand dunes that we imagine deserts to be made of.

Roads are mere car tracks in the dirt that get overblown and fade away. New ones reappear seemingly at random so that no map can ever be accurate. This is a coastal desert and life exists only on the steep cliffs where the constant wind is more forgiving and birds roost.

The Humboldt Current cools the air and pushes any humidity up and away, back to sea. Clouds and fog are produced but make up no more than an annual precipitation of 3 to 15mm. Paracas is in the Suchara Desert, one of the outskirts of the Atacama Desert, the oldest and driest desert on earth.


Yellow is our first visit, blue the correct route we found the second time…
Arrows point the direction of our movement and tents are our camp sites with numbers indicating which nights we stayed there.


Day 1-2 — Mendieta Camp
Yowling boobies, roaring sea lions, waves bashing on cliffs and the wind tugging on our tent. This surely is one of the most amazing camps I’ve had. The birds’ uninterrupted chatter is only overruled by the random belting of Sea Lions (sounds like Chewbacca).

We have a lazy day, waiting for UFO’s to arrive (as the locals have confided us to expect). Well, they never showed up. So we read, sunbathed, flew a kite, watched the birds, cooked and made drinks.

Day 3 — No idea where we are…
Even with the most detailed map, a compass and one of us having been here before, it is all too easy to get lost in the desert. However small (Paracas N.P. is only 80km long and 20 wide). We can’t find our turns and are unable to determine where we are. For hours we’re hoping to find a way to the beach, but the compass shows that the roads we are on could not bring us near it.

We had set off around 10:00 and at 14:40 finally see the water before us, way down big sandy dunes with no way of us getting down there. Two fishermen were working. It was very windy. We made a lunch.

To get onto the beach we were going to try to find a way across the sand dunes to another track. David had recognized the beach as Barlovento, the place we had been trying to visit. We would follow previous cars’ tire imprints. These side trails go everywhere, all the time and there is no way of telling where they will bring you.

Another Challenge
At 16:15 we attempt to cut through a shallow pass in the dunes and our truck starts to slide sideways in the sand. David has stepped out to check on how deep we have sagged into the soil and notices a flat. We cut it on a sharp, flat rock that was sticking up vertically but under the sand’s surface.

So we roll down the hill while I keep an eye on the tire not spinning off. At the bottom of the hill we change the tire in personal record time. There is no more space for any risk-taking since we had used our only spare tire. This means no more attempts to cut across. But we are getting low on fuel and would not make it back to the town of Paracas if we were to finish our loop. We will have to divert to a small town closeby and find a gas station.

Unexpected Camp Site
After 15 min back on the road, going at great speed, it becomes clear we need to find a camp spot soon. Setting up the tent etc. takes about a half hour and we had an hour of light left. And that is how we got to an isolated spot in the interior with untouched sand dunes in every direction.

We leveled some sand for the tent, set up, made Pisco Sours (a local cocktail) while the sun set and had pasta with artichoke, pepper sauce and Parmesan cheese—pretty impressive.

The silence is intense…

An almost perfectly full moon illuminates the sand dunes enough to go about without lights. The Southern Cross is clearly visible and I marvel at the emptiness and virgin, yet masculine feeling of the place… I always thought I might be uncomfortable or bored with the desert, but I love it!

We set out this morning hoping for a 55km drive down the coast, then back up it for 20 and find a spot to camp in the dunes away form the sea. We made it to a dune camp but have driven 134km somewhere in the desert. So we don’t know where we are but got exactly where we wanted to go.

Sunday, July 21 – Dune Camp

Our morning today consisted of watching the sunrise from our tent with water and crackers. Then it became clear that we were up for a hot, sunny day. I cooked bacon, eggs, tomato and avocado on the side. Followed up by cinnamon/sugar/raisin pancakes done slowly in butter. Coffee of course. Kitchen business takes a lot of time out here, so we got done eating around eleven.

Right now I’m hiding from a genuine—albeit mild—sandstorm. The finest sand dust is blowing into the tent underneath the tarp and through the mosquito netting. Our bags, which were out drying, had a dusting of fine sand all over. Pillows, blanket… everything is covered! David is building sand dunes around the tent edges to keep the stuff out.

Monday, July 22 – Dune Camp
Today we will back track and attempt to find one of the major roads leading out to a town called Pampa Pozo Santo where we hope to buy some gasoline. Then we shall head back to Mendieta beach to camp one more night. Hopefully we can also get the tire fixed, but the cut is in the soft side part and will be tricky to patch up properly. So we will still have to be very careful. We cannot risk another flat.

We can’t try to ‘cut across’ any more which means to repeat our tracks which are long, tedious and unnecessarily far. But hey, what visit to a desert would be complete without getting lost and into some form of trouble? Especially having me on board…

Tuesday, July 23 – Paracas Town
We ended up driving along the Panamerican Highway to Santa Cruz for gasoline and a tire patch. Upon getting back to Mendieta beach news had reached us of a wind storm that had started two days ago and was to keep up for a few more. That explained the conditions.

We checked out our Mendieta camp spot but after some hours it became clear that the winds were planning to keep it up. It would have been impossible to set up tent or cook in that stuff. So we drove out after 5 nights in the desert.

One Week Later
We have camped in the park another three nights, this time taking all the right turns. We did not get lost and drove the route we intended to drive last time.

Lost Riders
On our way out we noticed fresh tracks indicating one motorcycle and two pedestrians alongside. It looked as if someone had ran into mechanical trouble and had to walk. Sure enough later on a motorbike was parked in the middle of nowhere. A half kilometer further a man came running from the sand with his arms up… A young man and his friend had been walking up the road for four hours, looking for help, water and gasoline. Their tank had run dry. We asked if they had gotten lost but they’d just set off with too little gas.

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