The mystery of Peru spans across all the forms of nature. While Machu Picchu is hidden in the clouds up in the mountains surrounded by majestic peaks, you have the glorious golden sands in the deserts of Huacachina. No wonder in order to explore what lies in the ocean side you have to set sail off to the mighty Pacific, some 30 minutes by boat from the Peruvian town of Paracas to see the beautiful Ballestas islands. These are a group of small islands near the town of Paracas located within the Paracas District of the Pisco Province in the Ica Region, on the south coast of Peru. The main reason for visiting Paracas is its national park, a peninsula of maybe 20 square kilometers, some islands and the surrounding waters. These islands are eroded by water and wind. Imagine the reason! The wind and the sea has eroded the rocks into many arches and intriguing caves, these give the islands their name ballesta (Paracas means sand storm) which means bow, as in archery. Those surreal formations are covered by sea birds, if I understood correctly more species than in any other region of the world. Composed largely of rock formations, these islands are an important sanctuary for marine fauna like the guanay guano bird, the blue-footed booby and the tendril. Other notable species include Humboldt penguins and two varieties of seals (fur seals and sea lions), amongst other mammals.
This is a must visit in the southern part of Peru. You can infact club both trips on the same day like we did i.e. visit Las Islas Ballestas in the morning/afternoon and then head straight to Huacachina desert on way back to Lima. Early morning we left the harbor in a small boat with 20 other tourists and a guide to go to Islas Ballestas. The jetty from where the tourist boats set off usually is on a first come first basis. So during peak season, if the number of seats fills up, the boats leave and you have to wait some hours or more for the next one to be available, only after the previous group has returned. During off peak seasons, you may have to queue up even longer, if there is not enough passengers, they may cancel the trip. It’s recommended that you get the ticket the night before from one of the many ticket vendors in the town of Paracas. A vendor named Jos and Beatrice is recommended who has the first stand with a large sign as you drive into town from the north side. Be ready to bargain. This place, the people around, the agents, the shop keepers, the smell of the place, the sounds everything reminded me of the frequent ferry rides I had to make while travelling from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to other parts of the country. It required a long river journey in a ferry so the ambience in such a situation was very familiar as I could sense in Paracas. It certainly helped to know Spanish in order to communicate to the rings of operators who ran the boats. Carry cash, don’t flash too much cash and ask upfront before jumping into the boat how much it is going to cost you inclusive of any authority tax. Also make sure your names are written down in the list of names they carry, otherwise you may miss the next boat. Schedule the 10:00 AM boat cruise as opposed to a later one. We were told the birds are more active and plentiful on the islands in the morning hours. Also, since you’re on a boat with no shade, you’ll probably get baked less in the morning than when the sun is directly above you later on. Tanusree was comfortable in a short playsuit but I was wearing a light jumper at 10 AM, even in the wind when the boat was crossing to the islands at high-speed. Regardless of your trip time, lather up with sunscreen before you go.
We were given lifejackets upon taking our seats in the boat which also carried other tourists. Choose your spot well as you will have to stand up later to take photos in precarious conditions. I suggest you sit on the LEFT side of the boat somewhere in the middle. The boat travels counter-clockwise around the islands so you’ll have the best view from the left side. If you sit in the front your views may be obstructed somewhat by the spray shield on many of the boats. It’s also a bit harder to see ahead in front of the boat when the motor starts and the front raises.
When the speed boat started off towards the unknown Pacific the feeling was so exciting, you knew in the map of your mind that you are travelling away from the Peruvian coast towards an unknown island. The waves were spanking the bottom of the boat so hard that some ripples were even reaching our own bums. We had to make sure we hold our camera and the railings tightly. Neither we wanted the camera to take a dive in the Pacific nor we ourselves fancied a splash.
The Ballestas are sometimes known as the “Poor man’s Galapagos” and for 30 soles each (£8) we definitely got our full money’s worth and then some. Right upon leaving the dock, a school of dolphins greated us as they passed the side of the boat. The boat trip takes you around many of the islands allowing you to see the wildlife up close and if you’re lucky dolphins frolicking in the bay. We were told by our tour guide cum driver that many years ago, the main export of Peru was guano (poop) from the birds on islands such as the Ballestas. Workers lived on the islands and harvested guano for export abroad as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. The Ballestas Islands are now part of the protected Paracas National Reserve, but every four years workers still come to harvest all the guano produced by the many seabirds, there is a deserted factory visible on one of the islands.
The best part of the trip was as soon as the boat arrived at the Ballestas Islands. On the islands were thousands of sea lions, boobies, cormorants, penguins, pelicans, and countless other sea birds. At times the boat driver literally took us within 10 feet of the rocky shoreline. You could almost reach out and touch all the animals. The amazing thing was that none of the animals seemed to mind us. The boat drivers kept their careful distance, and there were so many birds, penguins, etc that I think the animals just didn’t feel intimidated or threatened by our presence.
After some 10-15 minutes the mysterious the 128 metre high El Candelabro that is etched into the land close to the cliffs came on sight. It is a large-scale geoglyph that may have served as a beacon to mariners. The mystery as to the origins of this particular geoglyph is ongoing with much speculation and there are many points of view as to its purpose, ranging from a signpost to the Nazca Lines, to a signal for pirates. Theories differ on when, who and how this carving was created, but netherless it is an impressive centuries-old carving etched into the hillside overlooking the ocean.
The driver turned the engine off, the boat slows down there for a few minutes gave us the opportunity to watch these beautiful creatures up and close, this also means that you would get some opportunity to take quality photos as you can see here. Remember you won’t be allowed to get off the boat at all anywhere, the tour is completely from the boat, no landing on shore.
Aside from the many birds, whole colonies of sea lions also make their home here. The boat took us counter-clockwise around the island, and we saw several beaches where hundreds of sea-lions dozed, ate, played, fought, you name-it. While the boat went on deeper into the sea you could see lines of sea-gulls and other birds you have never seen. Basically you will see so many birds flying above and around you that rest assured you will have never seen so many birds at once ever in your life. When the boat actually reached the group of rocky islands, we could see scores of penguins. Just innumerable penguins, you may wonder how they actually recognise each other – thousands and thousands of them. This was the first time we’d ever seen penguins outside of a zoo or on TV, so it was especially memorable being this close. At times the boat driver literally took us within 10 feet of the rocky shoreline. You could almost reach out and touch all the animals. The amazing thing was that none of the animals seemed to mind us. The boat drivers kept their careful distance, and there were so many birds, penguins, etc that I think the animals just didn’t feel intimidated or threatened by our presence. You could also see naturally the lazy sea-lions sunbathing on the rocks. They stink really bad, other than that they are very cute animals. I didn’t know that there were separate beaches where the single males hung out, but now I do.The little baby sea lions playing, crying, or waddling near their moms were especially cute. The animals, the birds, the penguins, the colors you will see in the rock formation while the ocean waves splash – you will realise that this is magic of nature at its best – away and untouched by mortal humans. Frankly everywhere you will go in Peru, you will feel as if Nature decided to spread its mystic and mystery a bit more around Peru than anywhere else in the world. We appreciated the fact why certain mismanagement is required to really put off scores of tourists flocking to see such amazing places at once – it will simply ruin the calm and may be the resting time of the sea-lions. Nature is best enjoyed may be when there are fewer humans – Islas Ballestas is one such place.