One of the main attractions in Paracas is the Ballestas Islands just off the coast, about 40 minutes ride by motorboat.
Dubbed the ‘Galapagos Islands of Peru’ by hopeful tourist agencies, this small, rocky archipelago wasn’t quite the abundant nature reserve Ecuador has to offer, but it was still really impressive.
Ballestas Islands Tour, Paracas
Since people aren’t allowed on the islands, there are no ferries and you can only visit as part of a tour, which we organised through Peru Hop – who we were travelling with between Lima and Cusco. The tour lasted about three hours and cost $20USD each, although I have a feeling there are cheaper tours on offer so do some research when you arrive if you’re looking to save money.
We headed down to the port at about 10am with a guide from the agency, who met us at our hostel in order to make sure that we didn’t somehow get lost on the five minute walk through the minuscule town to the port, and found ourselves on a pretty big boat with some thirty or so other tourists.
The tour was amazing. Stopping first at an abandoned boat in the harbour which is now home to hundreds of seabirds – and their rather foul-smelling poop – we then headed to the red sandy peninsula which juts out into the sea alongside Paracas, creating a natural harbour. This is home to still more seabirds, including huge colonies of pelicans – which we got a fantastically close view of – as well as a huge, old image of a candelabra carved into the cliffside by a pre-Inca civilisation.
Reaching the Ballestas Islands
After the viewing tour of the peninsula, we sped out into the open sea to reach the Ballestas Islands, and I mean really sped; the boat bounced heavily over the waves and sent up a huge wall of spray which drenched the people sitting on the other side of the boat, while we looked on smugly, not realising that we would get the exact same treatment on the return journey.
After about twenty minutes or so, we reached the small archipelago of tiny, rocky islands, and found ourselves confronted with a group of gulls so thick that at first glance I thought the tops of the cliffs were covered with a greyish coloured grass – until I realised it was moving.
There were endless seagulls and pelicans, together making a loud noise of hollering and hooting, and coating the cliff-sides in the grey guano, the nitrogen-rich bird poo which makes such a good fertiliser that it was Peru’s primary export in the nineteenth century. Although now, guano is only mined three months of the year to improve sustainability and to leave the wildlife in peace.
I lost track of all the names given to us by the tour guide, but according to my good pal Google, the birds inhabiting or feeding on the islands include Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, Neotropic Cormorants, Red-legged Cormorants, Guanay Cormorants, Turkey Vultures, Gray Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, Band-tailed Gulls, Elegant Terns and Inca Terns.
Paracas Sea Lions
Rounding the first rocky outcrop of the island, and approaching a mysterious network of jagged cliffs, caves and natural tunnels, we started to hear the whooping barks of the animals which the Islas Ballestas are famous for. An enormous amount of sea lions make their home here, thriving because of an abundance of food and no natural predators (the water is too cold for sharks).
With around 4,000 sea lions inhabiting the island in families or harems (usually multiple females to a male), the beaches were quite literally covered in their chubby, brown bodies and the air resounded with the sounds of their wails and barks.
Sea Lion Pups!
We arrived a month or two after the breeding season, meaning that from our nearby position on the boat we were able to glimpse hundreds of babies on the beaches, playing in the shallow surf or being fed by their mothers. All the racket is thanks to these adorable little guys; the only way for a mother to recognise her young out of the multitudes on the beach when returning from a fishing trip, is by a unique bark sound which mother and baby can both recognise.
We also saw many female sea lions taking a little break from their noisy, playful young by swimming out to rocks a little away from the beach to sunbathe in peace. The babies can’t climb rocks yet, so up on small towers or outcrops of rock the mums can have a bit of peace and quiet. However, just before we sailed away from the islands, we were lucky enough to spot one particularly advanced little slippery black baby receiving a lesson in rock climbing from his mum, with both struggling up a smoothish rocky surface side by side.
The sheer noise and numbers of the sea lions was staggering, and we got to see so many incredible, unique instances like that one that the trip was truly breathtaking. I’m sure the Galapagos have a lot more to offer, but the poor man’s equivalent off the coast of Peru is by no means a weak compromise!