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Ballestas Islands in Paracas

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Sea Lions Ballestas Islands Paracas Peru

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

Pelicans on Ballestas Islands Paracas Peru

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.

Seagulls, Paracas

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.

Candelabra, Paracas

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.

Ballestas Islands, Paracas
Ballestas Islands, Paracas

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

Ballestas Islands, Paracas

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.

Ballestas Islands, Paracas
Sea lion pup in Ballestas islands peru

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!

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22 thoughts on “Ballestas Islands in Paracas”

  1. I think $20 USD is a pretty good deal, considering Galapagos tours cost thousands of dollars! That sea lion sunning itself is super cute! Great post!

    1. Agreed! It seemed pricey too us compared to our usual budget, but such a bargain compared to the Galapagos! They were such cute animals, love how fat and lazy they all look!

  2. Wow- that’s a lot of sea lions. Love the fact they go sunbathe alone. I need to take a page from the sea lion mama’s…Unique post on a unique post. It’s fun when I see what the backpackers pay for things…20 USD seems so cheap. I’ve been living in Europe too long. :-)

    1. Haha $20 was pricey for us. I like to post prices because it not only helps other backpackers, but it also shows how different other countries are. My favourite hobby is translating prices back to GBP – today we paid about 45p to go into a zoo!

  3. I’d love to do the same trip! Looks great especially looking at the wildlife of animals. I’ve never seen sea lions in their natural environment and I always considered them as very cute animals. I need to try to spot them one day!

  4. This so reminds of the beach of dreams by Henry de Vere Stacpoole. As I was reading your post, I kept thinking back to the island with its thousand sea lions. I wonder how close you got to them…judging by the closeups of some of these photos!
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful adventure.

    1. I´ve not heard of that – is it worth a read?! Always looking for new book recommendations! We got really close – not to the beaches but the ones on the rocks were just a few feet away, or less. One swam up near the boat and splashed about near us, too, which was awesome!

        1. Awesome, I´ll keep an eye out. Although might need to wait until I’m back in the UK, I’m not sure I’ll find it in any hostel book exchanges in Bolivia!

      1. Bianca Malata (@ItsAllBee)

        Not bad for $20. Well at least you managed to get some great pictures without having to set foot there.

        1. Yeah, it was pretty cheap really! Shame we couldn’t get out – but it would definitely disturb the sea lions. Amazing how well they thrive there, protected from predators and humans!

      2. Sea lions. I really like those animals. Just wrote a post about the 17 Mile Drive and posted some pictures of lazy sea lions. Would love to see the Ballestas islands too.

      3. countryhoppingcouple

        It’s always wonderful to spot the animals in the wild and natural setting!The tour is very interesting, and comes with a good price too!!

        1. Thank you, I was really proud of that shot!! I don’t think too many people have heard of the Ballestas Islands, but it was an awesome place to visit :)

      4. Sea lions are the best! I always love watching them in San Francisco. It looks like it may be the “poor mans” Galapagos but I don’t think that should make the trip any less special. Alex and I would love to head here when we head to Peru!

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