As we pull off the Pan–American Highway that parallels Peru’s coast, the irrigated greenery of the plain gives way to barren brown hills. Finally, we come to a stop outside a cinderblock building in a dusty, single–storey village, and a deeply tanned man in a faded camouflage shirt limps toward our pickup. Our driver rolls down the passenger–side window, filling the cab with the smell of cigarettes and stale sweat in the ambient 37°C heat and the newcomer reaches in to shake my hand, introducing himself as Mario Urbina Schmitt, paleontologist.
We had no idea who would be guiding us to what my 16–year–old son, Alex, had described as the world’s richest known deposit of marine fossils. An avid naturalist and amateur paleontologist since the age of two (he could pronounce Xenotarsosaurus before many everyday words), Alex runs a paleontology–themed Instagram (“Paleontology Aficionado”) with 30,000 followers. He had lobbied hard for this spring–break jaunt to the south of Peru, arguing that the Ocucaje Desert fossil bed and the living fauna of the nearby Paracas National Reserve should be top of the list for our family of two adults and two teenage boys.
While Paracas, “the poor man’s Galapagos,” is well known within Peru and abroad, the Ocucaje fossil bed is not. Back in Canada, I’d googled three tour companies offering to take people there. One offered the excursion only as part of a very pricey three–week tour. The others never responded, but one had an office in a hostel in Huacachina, a quirky oasis town on our route – and that’s how we found Urbina Schmitt.