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.