Off the coast of Paracas, Perú, the Islas Ballestas are covered in more birds than you can imagine. You can almost picture them sprouting out of the barren rocks like plants — a bumper crop of Incan terns, boobies, cormorants, and pelicans. It’s a stunningly beautiful site, and an ecological treasure for Perú.
My tour of the islas came two days after I visited Lima’s Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (LUM), and only hours before I stepped onto the grounds of the Hacienda San José in Chincha. Tributes to Perú’s decades of terrorism and the slave-driven plantations of the 18th century, respectively, these are “ugly” tourism sites that show a darker history of the country than you will find highlighted in a PromPerú pamphlet.
It’s a difficult line to walk between remembering a complicated and dark history, while simultaneously respecting the diverse stories and sufferings of the human beings who lived through it. These sites expertly navigate the challenge by combining passionate testimonies with undeniable, objective truths. The LUM is a fact-driven museum that is free to the public and dedicated to preventing history from repeating itself by educating younger generations about the period of terrorist attacks brought about by the Shining Path in the 1980s to 2000s.
The Hacienda is now a hotel, and it would be easy to wander the beautiful grounds and never give a thought to the horrors inflicted on the thousands of Afro-Peruvian slaves who were forced to work there. The carefully respectful tour pulled me back into reality, however. Our tour guide didn’t sugar-coat the details when showing us the “punishment rooms”, the catacombs where slaves would be left in the dark for weeks at a time, and the elaborate chapel where no slave was allowed to set foot.
These sites were painful for me to visit, and they certainly didn’t leave me with the same full heart and big grin as my morning of marine bird-watching. However, understanding Peruvian culture beyond the surface-tourist level was a goal that I set for myself when I began this journey. I don’t want to be just a fair-weather tourist, which means being willing to see beyond the bustling market stalls and dance festivals. To truly be a part of the community where I am living for nearly half a year, I have to learn about and acknowledge the darker elements of my host culture. I have to embrace my role as more than a tourist, as an observer, an ambassador, and an active participant. I want to see everything: the beautiful, the ugly, and absolutely everything in between.