By Terry Wade
LIMA (Reuters Life!) - Most tourists come to Peru to see the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and stop in Lima to visit some of the oldest churches in the Americas, but they often overlook a chance to swim with sea lions.
A colony of 8,000 sea lions lives on desert islands in the bay of Lima, the capital. They spend most of the day lounging on rocks or catching fish. Anyone with a strong enough stomach to tolerate a bumpy boat ride out to their island can jump into the chilly Pacific Ocean and swim with them.
They don't bite, but sometimes bark. On a day with clear water, swimmers equipped with a scuba mask can dip down below the surface and watch the sea lions dart around in circles. Several companies run boats out to the Palomino Islands each day, among them is Ecocruceros (www.ecocruceros.com), which charges $30 a head for a day trip.
The bay of Lima also offers other surprises for those brave enough to travel despite lingering worries about H1N1 swine flu.
If nature is your thing, you can see flocks of pelicans flying low over the water hunting for fish, a colony of several hundred Humboldt penguins that nests on an island near the sea lions, and parts of the old port city of Callao that tumbled into the ocean after a devastating earthquake.
The sandbar created by the earthquake is now a famous surf spot called El Camotal, which only breaks nicely a few times a year.
A rich fertilizer called guano -- or bird droppings -- is still occasionally harvested from islands in the bay. Before the invention of petroleum-based fertilizers, guano was a valuable commodity in colonial times and has recently come back into vogue among organic farmers.
For political history buffs, you can check out San Lorenzo island, a navy base where Abimael Guzman, the feared leader of the Maoist insurgency known as the Shining Path, was taken after his capture in 1992. In January scientists found pre-Hispanic mummies on the island.
A stone's throw away, you can see the ruined foundations of the prison on El Fronton island. In 1986, frustrated that Shining Path inmates had staged a rebellion, then-President Alan Garcia told the navy to attack it.
The prison was bombed by airplanes before soldiers went in on the ground to retake control. More than 200 were killed at El Fronton and two other prisons where rebellions were repressed, and human rights groups want to charge Garcia with human rights violations stemming from the incidents when his current term as president ends in 2011.