Hop on a boat and sail out to sea! Off the coast of Paracas, Peru you can take a boat tour of the Ballestas Islands. There you’ll find a whole sanctuary of endangered animals, such as penguins, South American sea lions, marine otters, and a crap ton of birds. Emphasis on the word “crap”.
Boats leave from the mainland a few times each day to navigate around the islands, so take your pick from the different time slots! You’ll wait in a line briefly and then be sorted into groups of twenty-five or so to pile into a few speedboats. It takes about twenty minutes to cruise off to the rocky islands. You will be in the boat the whole time, as the islands are a protected marine reserve. The tour guide chatters away and gives you all the history and details about the islands in both Spanish and English. All the boats sail pretty close to the islands so you can get some sweet photo opportunities.
We reserved our spot beforehand and our tour guide found us, gave us our ticket, and took us to the docks. After waiting around a bit, we were put into a boat and given bright orange life vests. The boats were surprisingly spacey, yet nearly every seat was filled. I did a lot of research before our trip, and some articles advised to sit on the left-hand side of the boat, because that would get you the best and closest views. They were right! So make sure to make a beeline for the left side of the boat if you can.
As we waited for our guide to board the boat and get situated, we swayed with the sea and felt the spray of the morning mist on our sleep-deprived faces. It was early, chilly, and I could feel motion sickness setting in. I had only started experiencing motion sickness a few months prior to our time in Peru, but this was just a short boat trip. I’d be fine.
The motor revved and before we knew it we were speeding off into the wild blue. Twenty minutes felt like an eternity because I was feeling progressively more sick. Pro tip: read the instructions on your tube of Dramamine and take it half an hour to an hour before doing something that could cause motion sickness. Don’t be like me and take it while waiting in line to get on the boat. In the wise words of Scar, “Be prepared…”
The Paracas Candelabra
Our group neared a hilly little island with a cryptic geoglyph carved into the rock face. If you are familiar with Peru’s Nazca lines, you know that these are also geoglyphs shrouded in complete mystery. This one is called the Paracas Candelabra and sits on the hill at 595 feet tall, cut two inches deep. It’s so large that it can be seen twelve miles out! It could have been created by the early people of Paracas in 200 BC, but no one knows why or what it really stands for. The same is said for the Nazca lines. What are they for and why are they here? The world may never know…
As we zoomed over the water, I could see a few rock formations in the distance. They really stood out in front of the grayish sky that frequents the western coast of Peru. Once we got close enough, the engine cut and we rocked more than I was comfortable with. Thousands of birds swarmed over our heads! It reminded me of that classic Hitchcock film I was terrified of as a kid… And there used to be way more birds than there are now!
If you know what’s good for you, you’ll wear a hat on this tour, or regret it. I wore a wide-brimmed hat because honestly with the massive number of birds flying about, the odds are kind of high that you’ll get messed on at some point. I did. Twice. Once on my hat and once on the front of my pants as I was idly sitting in the boat. Gross.
History of the Islands
I won’t spoil the tour for you, but it was actually really interesting to learn about all the animals, the purpose of the islands, and to find out some interesting facts about it’s history. You can see some old, rusty equipment that was once used to harvest guano (bird poo) in the 19th century to be used as fertilizer and shipped all over the world. Since there are much less seabirds than there used to be at the Ballestas Islands, guano isn’t found in such large quantities anymore. Guano harvesting isn’t the booming venture it once was, and those harvests only happen every few years now.
Caution: the islands give off an awful stench. I eventually got used to it, so it must not have been as bad as it once was. Workers and slaves who were forced to mine the guano back in the 19th century often killed themselves to avoid the smell. (Yikes!) But it wasn’t just the smell, guano is toxic and corrosive. So being in the speedboat the whole time keeps you safe from any of that!
Spotting Marine Wildlife
But the best part of the tour was the marine wildlife! Besides the army of seabirds that swarmed overhead, we were able to spot a ton of other little guys like pelicans, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, and even Humboldt penguins!
The Ballestas Islands are dubbed the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” due to the amount of wildlife that can be seen there. It did not disappoint! The penguins and pelicans were all sat on the islands mingling and waddling around one another. Seals were being especially cute by either sleeping or making silly little seal faces. I was euphoric.
I Don’t Feel So Good…
As we made our way around the islands, we spotted a few fishing boats making their way near the islands to gather various seafood attached to the islands. They had wet suits on and began diving next to us to get the perfect underwater morsels. I’m sure they appreciated when I puked over the side of the boat into their workspace.
When a smaller boat goes at such a slow speed, it rocks much more intensely. The boat ebbed and flowed with the waves that were splashing onto the shores of the rocky islands we were floating so close to. Luckily, hardly anyone saw me spill my guts because they were so engrossed in taking pictures of all the wildlife. That’s how you know it’s a good tour!
I felt a little better after that and was able to take more pictures without feeling queasy, but on the way back I just decided to close my eyes until we reached solid ground.
Tips for Your Tour of the Ballestas Islands
The Ballestas Islands tour is definitely one worth doing. It is a completely unique experience rich in history and a seriously epic amount of animal sightings. Make sure you come prepared with these tips in mind:
- Wear a hat to shield you from the falling guano
- Sit on the left side of the boat
- It will be chilly, so dress accordingly
- If you get motion sick, take your pills well in advance
- Bring a telephoto lens if you have one (I just brought a zoom lens and still got decent shots)
Have you ever taken this tour of the Ballestas Islands? How did it go? Weren’t the sea lions CUTE?? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂