San Fernando National Reserve

40 miles (70 km) north of Nazca, one of Peru’s last marine shelters graces the coast. The untouched, rocky beauty of the bay and the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in peace there bring visitors to this still somewhat “secret” place between the desert and the sea.

The Bay of San Fernando’s protected area, spanning 380 acres (154 ha), was only declared a national reserve in 2011, when its abundant ecosystem was threatened by the building of a nearby “megaport” for huge cargo ships en route between the Andes and Brazil. With the declaration of the bay as a reserved zone, the Environmental Minister of Peru believes some of the country’s “most important natural resources” will be better protected.

One of the most valuable of these resources, interestingly, is the algae in the bay’s waters. The health of algae in the ocean dictates the health of all life in the food chain above it, and after a frightening 2012 incident in which over 200 dolphins died in Peru’s waters from what is thought to be invasive, toxic algae blooms, the health of Peru’s algae is more important than ever. In addition to keeping the gorgeous and varied ecosystems of places like the San Fernando Bay running, Peruvian algae is also used in traditional salads and some ceviche recipes.

The animals that flourish in the bay include 252 species of birds, 90 different kinds of fish and crustaceans, and amazing reptiles and mammals like the Adean fox and the puma. Hundreds of sea lions can be seen playing and napping on the beach, and bird enthusiasts come to see the Andean Condor make its incredibly long daily food-catching journey from the mountains to the bay and back. But it is the sight of the adorable Humbolt penguins – now an endangered species – scuttling around in this safe and natural environment that is almost worth the visit alone.

To see these natural wonders, off-road vehicles leaving from Nazca (typically offering hotel pickup) blast visitors through the desert sands – some tours stopping to sandboard down the massive dunes – and to the bay. Because the tour will commence in the desert and end by the chilly Pacific waters, it’s recommended that travelers dress lightly in the morning and bring a jacket or sweater for the latter part of the day. From desert “surfing” to seeing rare marine life up close in one day, this is truly a Peruvian experience.

South Coast, Peru, South America

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South Coast