The coast of Peru is one long desert from north to south. Drive along the Panamerican route and you’ll never suspect that only thirty minutes offshore there’s a group of islands teeming with life.
From Lima, Peru, take the highway southward and you’ll soon leave the bustling seaside city and instead see small, scattered towns in between kilometers of sand dunes. Because there are no mountains or any other geographical obstacles, the road in unbelievably straight. You can drive twenty minutes without steering the wheel once. To your right, you’ll almost never lose sight of the ocean and to your left, the desert goes as far as the eye can see. For me, it was a completely new landscape. Everything seemed unbelievably big, and the contrast between the yellow sand and the deep-blue ocean was stunning.
The beautiful colors of Peru’s desertic coast resemble a scene from Mars
After about a three-hour drive (this, of course, depends on your means of transportation; we drove a private car but buses can take a bit longer) you’ll have arrived at the town of Paracas. It’s a small town with a couple streets with hostels, bars and LOTS of tour agencies, and a 5-minute drive will take you to beautiful Paracas National Park (but for more on that you’ll have to stay tuned for another blog post).
There are only two boat tours to Ballestas Islands, one at 8 and another one at 10 in the morning as this is the best time to see the wildlife because they’ll leave the islands at around 11 to hunt. I must say I was a bit discouraged when I saw block-long lines of tourists waiting for their boats to take them to the islands, but when I got there I could only think of the thousands and thousands of birds that swarmed the sky and didn’t leave a single spot of bare rock on the islands they rested on. You’ll be glad you were part of the tour.
Hundreds of thousands of birds call Ballestas Islands home
The boats leave from the main dock, and you’ll be able to see the ticket booths if you follow where the crowds are going. The boats fit approximately 20-30 people, so it’s a good idea to get there early to land a side-seat.
Before getting to the islands themselves you’ll go pass the famous Candelabra of the Andes, a prehistoric geoglyph, similar to the famous Nazca lines, in the form of a chandelier that is half a meter deep into the soil and 181 meters long, making it visible up to 20 km at sea. Its exact date is unknown, but pottery around the site dates back to 200BC.
The Paracas Candelabra seen from the sea
Another boat ride of about ten minutes will get you to the marine fauna sanctuary that is Ballestas Islands. You’ll quickly realize that what look like rocks from afar are actually thousands of resting birds. These birds include Pelicans, tendrils, blue-footed boobies, and the Guanay Guano bird. The amount of guano (bird excrement) piled over the years, made these islands an important source of this nitrogen-rich fertilizer that was so craved by Europeans during the 19th century. The islands were cleared of guano and populations were collapsing, but when they became protected as Natural Parks the health of the ecosystem recovered. Today, only one guano harvest is allowed per year.
A waddle of Humboldt Penguins walk about on of the islands
The Humboldt penguin, only found in the coastal region of Chile and Peru, adds to the beauty and biodiversity of the islands. Fur seals and sea lions are also important actors in this spectacle; you can see females fighting for their spot in a male’s harem, alpha males kissing their females, newborns yawning and soaking in the sun, and you can often hear their wolf-pack cries that intensify as they echo around the islands.
A male Sea lion will usually sit on the highest point of a rock to overlook its harem, sunbathing in the same rock
Although you wouldn’t imagine it from the shore, this Darwinian paradise is teeming with life. For me, it was amazing to see so many different species coexisting together in this small group of islands. Truly a sight to experience.