Poor man’s Galapagos – Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas

Islas Ballestas in Peru.

Who wouldn’t like to see the unique Galapagos Islands? Beautiful, wild, with a plethora of endemic species of flora and fauna. We’d love to visit them! But when traveling through Peru we found a place called “Little Galapagos” or “Poor man’s Galapagos”. It’s Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas.

Paracas

About 250 km south of Lima, on the shores of Pacific Ocean lies Paracas. It is a small port town, one might even say – seaside resort. In 2007, it was largely destroyed in a strong earthquake. At first glance, it does not have much to offer. Quite a few hotels (some even with swimming pools), marina and promenade, little bars and stalls with food, and of course shops where you can buy (as always) everything.

But it’s not the city that lures buses full of tourists. It’s not the charming promenade (which – de facto – is not really that charming) that attracts crowds of people every morning and evening. The biggest advantage of Paracas is the port, from where motor boats set off for cruises to extraordinary Islas Ballestas.

Islas Ballestas

Islas Ballestas are a small fragment of Paracas National Reserve. These few rocky islets, with a total area of only 0.12 km 2, are an extremely important part of the whole ecosystem. It’s home to many different species, especially birds, that live in vast numbers only here. Flamingos, cormorants, gannets, Blue-Humboldt penguins are just a few of the 215 species of birds that live in the Reserve. And, of course, there are much more other animals that can be seen here during a trip to the Islas Ballestas. We had to see that for ourselves!

Paracas Bay
Paracas Bay

Early in the morning, at the appointed time, we came to the port – just like the dozens of other tourists. Everyone was waiting for their boat. Sea was peacefully rocking fishing boats in the bay. The refreshing morning breeze was a prelude to really hot day… When our guide bought the tickets for the Reserve, we headed toward the boat. Dressed in life vests, in the company of 40 other people, we leisurely sailed out of the bay on ‘our’ motor boat.

Paracas Candelabra
Paracas Candelabra

We passed rocky shores of the Paracas peninsula, where of cormorants and albatrosses were sitting in large groups and watching us. The boat accelerated sharply but a few moments later slowed to stop completely next to the chandelier. This is a huge geoglyph made on one of the slopes of the peninsula. It was probably created around 200 b.c. when Paracas Indians were living here. But it’s unclear to what purpose it was created, or what exactly it represents. But the fact is that this cactus-like candelabra or geoglyph has a height of about 190m and is visible from a distance of nearly 20 km, and viewed from the sea looks really impressive.

Islas Balleslas
Islas Balleslas

After taking a few photos we set off again. Motorboat gained speed and easily cut through the waves. We finally reached the famous Islas Ballestas. On steep slopes and summits of rocky islets, high and low shelves and small rocky beaches, on the water and in the air – everywhere were the birds! Countless birds – pelicans, terns, gulls, gannets, various species of cormorants, and even Humboldt penguins and vultures.

Islas Balleslas
Islas Balleslas

The morning sun exposed dark silhouettes of birds on bright rocks. But that wasn’t the natural color of the rocks. It was birds’ guano, which in this region “is produced” literally in tons. Interestingly, thanks to the avian residents of Islas Ballestas, Peru is the world leader of natural fertilizers, and this guano is one of the main export products of the country, bringing huge profits. Less pleasant, however, is being around the rocks on which nest ‘manufacture’ guano – the smell is in fact very unpleasant, intense and highly irritating.

Islas Ballestas
Islas Balleslas

As we were circling the islands, on one of the rocks we’ve noticed California sea lions lying in the sun. An adult with a cub were lazily stretched on the rocky shelves, paying no attention to the tourists trying to get a clean photo of them. Usually, there were two, sometimes four or five sea lions on the small rocks. However, on the pebble beach of one of the island, we saw several large groups of sea lions. And we could easily spot the males. Reaching a weight of over 300kg, they’re much larger than females and cubs.

That was the last island of the small archipelago and thus headed for the port of Paracas. After another 30 minutes, cutting the waves, we made it ashore (which Patrycja happily embraced). And although the smell wasn’t pleasant at all, there was a lot of tourists in the boat, and the rocky boat wasn’t playing well with Patrycja’s delicate stomach… we still consider this a very educating and fun trip!

Paracas National Reserve

After a busy morning on the boat, we decided to also explore the onshore part of the Paracas National Reserve. The entire sanctuary covers the area of more than 300 000 hectares, but much of it is not open to the public. Mainly for two reasons. First, the main purpose of the reserve is to protect the vast number of different birds and marine animals that inhabit or visit these areas. Secondly, in this very hot region, which is technically called the coastal desert, apart from the coastal line there’s not much more to see.

Paracas National Reserve
Paracas National Reserve

We started our tour from the Paracas peninsula and the Archaeological Museum of Julio C. Tello. The museum is dedicated primarily to the National Reserve and the culture of Paracas Indians, who inhabited the area from about 1000 B.C. till 200 B.C. There are more than 100 archaeological sites across the peninsula, containing the remains of the Paracas culture. Among the most significant – a huge graveyard, called today Paracas Necropolis, where 429 mummies were discovered, resembling wrapped “bundles”, some of which were more than one and a half meters long. Unfortunately, our tour didn’t include it in the program.

The Cathedral in Paracas National Reserve
The Cathedral in Paracas National Reserve

From the museum, we went to the waterfront to see the cliffs and the remains of the rock formation known as the Cathedral. The once-impressive arch collapsed after a strong earthquake in 2007. Today it’s not as impressive as it used to be, but there was an info board with the original photo, so we could see the destruction effect pretty clearly.

The Red Sand Beach
The Red Sand Beach

Another place we visited was the red beach – La Bahía de Lagunillas. It was our first red beach we saw in our lives. We have to admit that the color of the sand there is very impressive! We really thought about taking our shoes off and walking along the beach. If only the water was warm… 😉 But there’s a cold current flowing this part of the ocean, and it shapes the unique climate of the Paracas Reserve and provides its inhabitants with large amounts of food. For us the water was too cold even to even dip our toes, let alone swim in it – yet there were some tourists brave enough who did it.

Our tour ended in one of the oceanfront restaurants, serving fresh fish and seafood. After such finish of our stay in Paracas, we could with smiles on our faces pack our backpacks and set off for a bus to Lima. And from there to the next destination of our journey – the exotic Fiji!

 

Practical tips:

  • It’s the last time we mention it – traveling in Peru is very simple. There are good bus connections between all major cities. Several companies offer the purchase of tickets through the internet, including Excluciva or Cruz Del Sur, but when traveling on less popular routes just go to the bus station and buy a ticket at the box office before the departure. The cost of a ticket for a more comfortable bus is usually a much higher, but very often the price also includes a meal.
  • In Paracas, there’s not much of a problem to find accommodation without a prior reservation. Especially if you visit this place after the peak (or in between peaks) of the tourist season. Although every day you can see here quite a lot of tourists, most of them come here only during the day, to take a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas. Therefore, also in the evenings there are not too large crowds in restaurants or on the promenade.
  • In every or nearly every hotel and every travel agency, you can find a wide range of excursions. The most popular of these is, of course, a cruise to the Islas Ballestas and a round trip to the Paracas National Reserve. Other popular tours are also Pisco (especially the distillery in Pisco, including tasting ;)), Ica and Huacachina (read about our stay in Huacachina) or riding a quad or buggy in the desert (but it’s really cheaper to do in Huacachina!).
  • A trip to the Islas Ballestas costs an average of about 30-50 PEN (9-15USD) per person – depends on the agency and individual negotiating skills.
  • Round trip to the Paracas National Reserve also costs from 30 to 50 PEN (9-15USD).
  • Some agencies offer combined packages – eg. Islas Ballestas and Paracas National Reserve at a lower price. We used such an offer and paid 100 PEN (30USD) for 2 persons.
  • Usually, to the most of the offers you need to add the price of the admission tickets to the Reserve itself – it costs 15 PEN (4,50USD) per person.

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