Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Port City of Paita Peru

Paita is not just another fishing village, though fishing is its major economy as evidenced by hundreds of fishing boats clogging the port, and several modern fish processing plants on the southern edge of town. These companies also process shrimp, clams, scallops and octopus. Paita also serves as Peru’s fifth busiest port, receiving cargo ships from Columbia, Ecuador and many other countries. Ships from the United States unload rolls of paper produced in various paper mills, and leave with bales of Peru cotton and other products including seafood. Still, in appearance it has that same slow sleepy look and feel as do most other coastal towns we’ve seen.

The waterfront area is remarkably clean for a fishing town. There is a lengthy boulevard (Malecòn) that skirts an attractive ocean beach offering a good view of the town and waterfront activities, and also a number of quality tourist restaurants…with inflated tourist prices. There are no standard tourist attractions. A man in the tourist information office who tried hard to answer questions but has little knowledge or information about Paita past or present, indicated the boulevard and an old building serving as the port customs administration as the only points of interest.

The town is not laid out in the typical block grid pattern. Streets are narrow, winding and rarely level, obviously following the contours and dictates of the towering bluffs that pin the village to the ocean. Spanish colonial influence is very evident throughout the town.

We had been told that Paita is a worthwhile ½ day stop and it is, but we had another reason for visiting. We had come to see the port where a ship from a bygone era had docked and provisioned nearly 200 years ago, and from here had gone on to disaster.

On August 12 1819 the whale ship Essex (painting by artist A. D. Blake) left the port of Nantucket Massachusetts with a crew of 20 bound for whaling grounds in the Pacific off the shores of Chile and Peru, a voyage typically lasting from two to three years. The ship made a provisioning stop at Paita in the summer of 1820 to take on vegetables and probably pigs before going on to the Galapagos Islands and then far out to sea.

On February 20 1820 the ship was rammed head-on not once but twice by a solitary bull sperm whale estimated at 85’ and weighing 80 tons. The 87’ ship weighing 238 tons was holed and actually driven backwards. It turned on its side and filled with water within 10 minutes, leaving the crew stranded in three 25’ whale boats one thousand miles from the nearest land. Ultimately only eight men were rescued; five of them by resorting to cannibalism.

Paita today is of course not as Captain Pollard and his Essex crew saw it, but perhaps not too different. They would have recognized this view of the bluffs; semi-white sand beach, and a few buildings not very different in appearance from those in 1820. Had they known what was in store for them they may have chosen to stay.


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