The poor man’s Galapagos — that’s the enticing sales description I kept hearing for Peru’s Ballestas Islands, right off the coast of Paracas. While many tourists visit the islands on day trips from Lima or Huacachina, we decided to go straight to the source.
Paracas is a funny little resort town just four hours south of Lima, but worlds away. While most backpackers know it as the jump off point to Ballestas — and nothing else — for us four days here drifted away easily. It didn’t hurt that one of my partners-in-crime from Arequipa and The Colca Canyon was now working at a laid-back hostel, making it seem that we’d arrived at the home of a good friend.
Paracas town itself has little going on. There’s a small boardwalk crowded with touristy seafood restaurants, souvenir stands specializing in animals made from sea shells, and pelicans being fed by out-of-work fisherman hoping for photo tips. The beach isn’t much for swimming, as the entire sea front is lined with fishing boats — but damn, did it feel good to swing in a hammock and smell the ocean again.
One morning, we stumbled groggily out of bed at 8:00am for a trip to the Ballestas Islands. We paid 37 soles (about $13US), including harbor fees, which I calculated is about .05% of the cost of visiting the actual Galapagos. Then I crossed my fingers our morning would be at least .05% as cool as visiting the actual Galapagos. We were herded onto speedboats that veered off into the open sea with guides droning in incomprehensible Spanish into microphones. En route to the islands we stopped at the famed Candelabra Geoglyph, proudly displayed on tourist posters all across Peru. The figure, almost 500 feet high, is a bit of a mystery. Though theories abound about who created the figure and why, but personally I was satisfied by the most scientific sounding explanation — aliens.
After about half an hour, we arrived at the Ballestas Islands; craggy rock formations jutting out of the sea. At first, they appear to be vibrating slightly. Then, you get closer, and you realize that moving surface is actually a solid rock face covered completely in animal life.
Within minutes of arrival we spotted pelicans, bright red sea stars, boobies, sea lions, and penguins (my first time seeing them in the wild!).
The sea lions were my favorite. They weren’t just basking in the sun like sea lions I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. These guys were barking, bossing each other around, and swimming alongside our boat. My desire to scuba dive with these playful creatures increased tenfold on this day.
These islands are uninhabited and in fact can only be stepped onto with pretty extensive permits, typically reserved for researchers and scientists. Seeing the amount of guano (the fancy name for bird poop, in case you aren’t up on your fecal terminalogy) encrusting those isles, I was pretty content to stay on the boat.
I have truly never seen so many birds in my life. This is not the place for anyone traumatized by a certain Alfred Hitchcock movie, you know what I mean? Personally I was mostly afraid of becoming a victim of a guano-dropping, but it was all clear. From what I hear, not everyone is so lucky. You may wish to invest in a hat — or a poncho.
Peru surprised me as being a major wildlife-spotting destination, and this was a top location. While bluer skies would have made for nicer photos, I couldn’t have asked for more cooperative models on our morning at Ballestas.
Don’t you kind of want a pet sea lion now? Anders had a particularly difficult time restraining himself from leaping off the boat and making some new friends.
This was one of those days that I was so grateful that I brought my telephoto lens on this trip, which was a nice break from being resentful of its weight in my bag. In addition to shooting stills with my dSLR I also tried something new — shooting video with my iPhone.
The developers of the new smartphone video editing app Together asked me to test out their product, which I liken to iMovie for iPhones. It allows you to sort and organize video clips on your phone into folders and categories, as well as trim them — so helpful for getting out that last few seconds of a great clip when your hand twitches or someone starts yakking. Most importantly, it allows you to stitch your clips into a little movie set to songs from your music library with the touch of a few buttons. While there are still some bugs to be worked out, I absolutely loved how simple it was to put this together compared to shooting video with my camera, downloading to my computer, editing with video software, exporting, uploading, etc.
This trip — and Paracas as a whole — took me by pleasant surprise. My expectations were low, and they were well exceeded. The Poor Man’s Galapagos? As I don’t plan to get to the real thing on this particular trip, The Ballestas islands were this Poor Blogger’s Galapagos indeed. And I loved every second of them.
Where I stayed: Kokopelli Hostel
Where I ate: As a non-seafood eater I was seriously pressed to find a decent meal in Paracas. We ate almost exclusively at the Hideaway Grill, Kokopelli’s beach front restaurant.
How I got there: For the 1.5 hour ride from Ica (Huacachina) we took a local bus for 5 soles (about $1.80US) to Pisco. From Pisco we each paid 4 soles (16 soles in total) for a taxi to the hostel in Paracas.
Bonus Tip: Seats in the back left of the boat provide the best views for the Ballestas Islands tour.
This post was brought to you by the iPhone app Together.
I seriously need to stop reading your blog, it’s making me totally regret making spring travel plans for apparently the completely wrong side of the world. Like, who needs to go to the Caucasus and Africa when there are sea lions and PENGUINS to be seen in Peru?!
Also, we recently realized that our blog currently has the same theme as the famous Alex in Wanderland, eeek! Don’t hate us? x
Actually at the moment I am working with a designer on a complete rebrand! So soon it will be all yours 🙂
I don’t have such great memories of the Islas Ballestas, though that’s likely due to the fact that I visited on the first day that I started to get ill from food poisoning and it was really cold and foggy as we were going out to the islands. If you’re into birds, I can imagine it’s a great place to go, otherwise, I found it a little dull. It’s certainly a convenient place to see some wildlife from, but what I learnt about myself on the day is that I’m just not that into wildlife.
Well food poisoning can ruin any memory, really 🙂 Maybe it’s because my expectations were so low, but I just was amazed! I loved seeing penguins in the wild and seeing the sea lions so active. And it’s all so cheap! I am a wildlife lover though.
Wow, I never knew this place existed. I can’t believe all those birds! I have my eye on Galapagos for 2014, mostly to swim with the sea lions there! Is there any diving in the Islas Ballestas?
Sadly no diving or swimming is allowed here. You can swim with the sea lions in Lima, which I’ll be writing about soon…
I always enjoy seeing the sea-life and wildlife beyond our US coasts. In this case sea-lions and birds in Ballestas look much like they do in Southern California.
If you have a hankering to dive with sea-lions and live in the States Channel Island South California is the place to do it. Water is cold (45f-65F depending on season) so 7mm wetsuits or drysuits are required.
Forgot to say, the Penguins are a real treat! I have never seen wild Penguins… way interesting and fun!
I definitely am dying to dive with sea lions someday but….brrrr!
I didn’t know there was a poor man’s Galapagos in Peru. We went to Isla de la Plata, off the Ecuadorian coast at Puerto Lopez, which you can actually go on treks around as well as scuba or snorkel. No penguins or sea lions, but whales and turtles as well as lots of birds. Worth a trip if you’re in the area.
I was just in Montanita and was super tempted by the Isla de Plata tours! However our budgets were super stretched at the time and we couldn’t find the tour for less than $40. Not much in retrospect but at the time we decided to skip it. Now I’m regretting it!
Yep, those birds by the thousands are super creepy. Love the sea lions though!
Is it weird that they reminded me of dogs? Maybe that is why I loved them so much.
OMG, never seen so many birds at once. Hat and poncho a must or you were very lucky. The sea lions are marvelous and I can understand your desire to dive with them. Nice video. I could handle this “Poor mans Galapagos” at least until I can see the real thing.
I think we were lucky… at least two on our boat weren’t 🙂
Wow! What an inspiration! I’m going to have to put that on my list of places to go when I can. And I definitely hope I have a long range lens by then. Thanks for all the pictures! Enjoyed your post very much!
Thanks Elora! It was a cheapie lens and sometimes I really resent the weight of carrying it around but days like this make it all worthwhile.
Awesome photos!!! 🙂 Hammock envy ha can’t wait to string up my bad boy!
This was a two person version — the best kind!
Poor man’s version or not, this looks awesome! Penguins, pelicans, and SEA LIONS (Squeeee!)… for $13 (and no guana dropped on you!), you can’t really complain. Looks like an awesome way to spend the day!
Yup, the price really sealed the deal for me. After paying way more for a disappointing trip in Lima to see sea lions (post to come) I definitely see the bargain in this trip!
Super winning post! Great pics, great humour, great info 🙂
Thanks Sasha! You gave me a big smile this morning!
I love this post, and the photography is amazing!! I love your blog because you go to the most amazing, envy-inducing places, and (in my opinion) have the best adventures! Thanks for sharing The Poor Man’s Galapagos!
Wow, thanks Anna! That is an incredibly heartwarming comment. You made my morning 🙂
I wish I had encountered your blog a few years back when I was visiting Peru. Although that trip was amazing in itself, I had no idea that there was a poor man’s Galapagos in Peru.
Thanks for the awesome post and if I ever get a chance to visit Peru again, I’ll have this post to thank for being able to catch a glimpse of the aquatic wildlife in the area.
Paracas is awesome and has even more to offer than this — also check out my posts on the great hostel I stayed in, and the wonderful ATV tour I took! Well worth a stop.
How beautifull blog you have.
I discover the blog for the manatees video in vimeo
Thanks Gaston! I’m very proud of that manatee video, glad it brought you here. Welcome to Wanderland!
As you can see from my recent slew of comments – I just discovered your blog and I am loving it! I am going to Peru for 3.5 weeks starting June 10 and I think I might have to hit up the poor man’s galapagos! This looks so fun! Is it cool to go there as a solo female too? Is it sort of on the way to Arequipa from Lima?
It is between Arequipa and Lima indeed! Plenty of solo travelers were passing through the hostel I stayed at. I think you’d enjoy it — and thanks for the kudos on my blog!
I just got back from a trip to Peru and the Galapagos Islands and if you want to know the truth, I thought the Ballestas Islands were more amazing than the Galapagos. I was awed by the millions of birds and the other wildlife was pretty amazing too.
Wow, what an endorsement! I’ve never heard anyone say that before, but you do make me feel better about not having gotten to the Galapagos 🙂
I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog! I am going to Peru in September and, after reading your adventure and seeing your wonderful photos, I want to change my itinerary to add in Paracas. Did you look for a boat at the pier or did you have to book ahead? If I take the wee hour bus from Lima, I’ll arrive Paracas at 7:20 a.m., that should give me enough time to look for a boat tour in the morning, right?
I just booked at my hostel! I’m sure you’d have no problem arriving on the bus that morning. Good luck!
Planning a trip New Years 2017, how informative did you find your guide on this “tour”, or was it more just whomp, here it is? Party of 5, one 14 year old, and while this would be more than enough for us ( wife and teenager) trying to keep the other 2 involved. Enjoying your blog! Aus
Hey Aus, from what I recall I think our guide was fairly chatty however we were more interested in taking photos and would often lose focus when the Spanish part was being spoken (the tours are bilingual). I think kids would definitely enjoy it!
I am planning a trip for this September ’17. Traveling for 3 weeks w hubby around southern Peru. Own TONS of Canon camera gear but trying to travel as light as possible. When you say telephoto lens…..can you give me a specific focal length you used? I have a 70-300is and a 100-400 which is a monster to carry around.
Hey Rosalie! You can see a full rundown of my camera gear on my Obsessions Page. Hope that helps!
I am SO glad yours was the first to pop up on Google when I searched “Paracas Blog”!!!
I wasn’t sure if I should try to squeeze it in on my Peruvian adventure, especially considering I’ve just been to the Galapagos and everyone bills it as the “lesser-but-still-okay” budget option for seeing sea lions, penguins, and boobies…
But your photos are amazing and have totally reassured me in my decision to make a stopover! Though you have reaffirmed my food concerns, as a fellow non-seafood eater…
I really liked Paracas! Some of my favorite stops in Peru were these small little stops with just one or two attractions. So quirky and fun! Ah, this makes me nostalgic for Peru…
Really? I thought it was a pretty good bargain, for what it was!