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Boat trip to the Ballestas Islands: the poor man’s Galapagos

Humboldt Penguins and Inca Terns on the Ballestas Islands © Craig FastWhilst thousands of tourists pay thousands of dollars to visit Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, fewer know about the Ballestas Islands, located off the south coast of Pisco, Peru. Not only does a visit to the Ballestas Islands cost a tiny fraction of the price a Galapagos cruise demands, the Ballestas are more accessible and, because boats are not allowed to land on the islands, the cost to the environment is lower too.

As well as teeming with wildlife, the Ballestas Islands have a rugged beauty of their own. Sea-battered cliffs soar out of the ocean and waves have eroded arches straight through some islands. Intriguing caves peer out from overhangs draped in guano.

Ballestas Islands arch © Craig FastNatural beauty aside, the Ballestas Islands are a guaranteed wildlife bonanza. Birds are the main attraction: Humboldt Penguins, Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, Neotropic Cormorants, Red-legged Cormorants, Guanay Cormorants, Turkey Vultures, Gray Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, Band-tailed Gulls, Elegant Terns and bizarrely moustachioed Inca Terns cover every inch of jutting rock. Bring a hat – there are so many birds flying overhead that a direct hit is unavoidable!

The islands are famous for guano (bird droppings), a nitrogen-rich fertiliser that was Peru’s prime export in the nineteenth century. In places the guano is 4m deep, although rumours of 50m-deep deposits are rife. Over-harvesting means the guano is now only mined for three months of the year, meaning the birds remain undisturbed for most of the time.

Sea lion © Craig FastInhabiting the narrow beaches at the bottom of the islands, as well as improbably precipitous tiny rocky islands, are hundreds of South American Sea Lions. The roar of the adult males, who can reach up to 350kg in weight, can be heard reverberating above the waves and the constant cries of the birds.

As an added bonus, a pod of almost 40 Bottlenose Dolphins lives in Paracas Bay. Sightings are common. Tours also pass the Candelabra, a pre-Incan geoglyph of a three-pronged figure (it could be a cactus, could be trident – theories abound) engraved into the desert mountainside.

How to get there: Small motor boats leave from Paracas at 8am. The two-hour trip costs around US$10. It’s easy to simply show up in the port and pay. Alternatively, Tikariy runs two tours per day, at 8am and 10.30am (US$25). They take smaller groups and have knowledgeable English-speaking guides.


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