Islas Ballestas: Sea lions, penguins and pelicans, oh my!

The Islas Ballestas are often nicknamed as Peru’s very own Galapagos Islands, and while I think this title is a bit farfetched, there is some pretty cool wildlife to experience on these islands.

Islas Ballestas, Peru

Boats in the harbour in Paracas, Peru

Visiting Paracas

We stopped in Paracas (which is the jump off point for the islands) on our way down to Ica for the weekend. I was a bit worried about showing up without a reservation, but as it turns out, tours for the Ballestas Islands leave quite frequently especially on the weekends when both Limeños and international tourists choose to make the trip to the famed islands.

The main street in Paracas was lined with tour operators offering their services, but we ultimately walked into the boat terminal and booked everything there.

The Paracas Candelabra in Peru
The boat trip from Paracas to Islas Ballestas is 24 kilometers and it took us about 30 minutes to get there. Along the way we went past the Paracas Candelabra, a geoglyph that sits on a hill overlooking the water.

The Paracas Candelabra is 180 meters tall and it can be seen from a distance of up to 12 miles out at sea. The design is carved 2 feet into the ground, and it has been around for over 2000 years. Our guide explained that because of where the candelabra is positioned – on the north shore of the peninsula – the mysterious symbol is shielded from most of the wind. This combined with the arid climate and lack of rain means the Candelabra has been able to withstand the test of time.

Like most geoglyphs around the world, no one quite knows what purpose it served. Our guide shared a number of options including: a marker to guide ships towards the harbour, a symbol dedicated to the Argentine liberator José de San Martín, a representation of a hallucinogenic plant called Jimson weed, and of course, there was even mention of extraterrestrials. The truth is no one really knows.

But now on to the wildlife!

We got to see a lot of really cool animals on our tour of the Ballestas Islands. I was mistakenly under the impression that we would set foot on the islands, but the tour boats don’t actually disembark there. It makes sense considering the thousands of animals that make this place their home (I’m sure the sea lions wouldn’t appreciate 30 camera-totting tourists trying to snap their picture several times every hour), however, this also means that you have to appreciate them from a distance.

So what did we see?

Humboldt penguins in Islas Ballestas

Humboldt penguins looking rather dashing in their suits!

Starfish and sunfish in the Islas Ballestas

Sunfish, which are similar to starfish except with way more tentacles. I had never heard of these prior to visiting Islas Ballestas.

Sea lions lounging in the sun in Islas Ballestas

Sea lions lounging in the sun. It’s always nap time when you’re a sea lion.

Newborn sea lion pups in Islas Ballestas

It was birthing season so there were hundreds of sea lion pups. They are the ones that look a bit darker in colour.

There were also pelicans, cormorants, and Inca terns which have red beaks and red feet. I couldn’t get any close up shots of the terns, but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you they are pretty cool looking birds.

That wooden bridge on Islas Ballestas

We also learned about the importance of the guano (bird droppings) found on the islands. If this wooden bridge looks a little odd it’s because it’s only intended for use by the guano collectors who scour the islands every 11 years. Due to its richness in minerals like nitrate, phosphorous and carbon, guano makes a great fertilizer and its often used in agriculture. Our guide was explaining that the bird droppings on this islands have actually been used to pay off Peru’s international debt – you’ve got to appreciate the humour in that!

Hidden coves in Islas Ballestas

Tips for visiting Islas Ballestas:

  • If you get seasick, consider taking some motion sickness pills. Even though the sea wasn’t particularly choppy on the day I visited, the starting-stopping motion made me a little queasy, as did the exhaust fumes coming from the boat every time we started up the engine again.
  • Bring a hat and wear sunblock. There won’t be much in terms of shade on the way to the island, or even once you reach the island.
  • Choose any seat near the back. Don’t worry about being on the right-hand side or the left-hand side of the boat to get the best shot. Our captain was quite diplomatic and made sure to approach the island from both sides so that everyone could get a good view regardless of where they were seated. There are slightly raised windows to shield you from the wind towards the front of the boat (these don’t necessarily impede your view), but the back is better for photography.
  • Bring your telephoto lens! If you want to get some good shots of the animals, it’s worth hauling this lens along. I brought a small point-and-shoot and while I walked away with some cool shots, I couldn’t really capture any of the birds. If you really want to capture the wildlife, you’re going to need something a bit more powerful than what I had.
  • Bring a set of binoculars. Lastly, if you’re really into wildlife spotting, it might even be worth brining a set of binoculars to really admire the finer details…otherwise you’ll just be looking at a cliff dotted with hundreds of birds.

Cost

There are 2 different costs associated with visiting Islas Ballestas; the first is the transportation fee and the second is the fee you pay for entering the national conservation area. The 2 hour tour I took cost 40 soles per person ($13 USD) and the national conservation fee was an additional 10 soles ($3 USD). Not a bad deal if you ask me.

Getting there

Islas Ballestas can either be done as a day trip or a weekend trip from Lima. I did the latter and spent the weekend visiting Paracas, Ica and Huacachina. I drove down with my relatives along the South Pan American Highway and it took us about 3 hours to get there. If you’re taking a bus from Lima to Paracas it can take anywhere between 3.5 to 4 hours and buses leave throughout the day.

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