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Pelican in flight over Pacific

Islas Ballestas: Pacific, Peru and Penguins

Or how Islas Ballestas confirmed our faith in unplanned travel!

Some like it planned to the minute, some leave it all to discovery. If you’ve read about our travels earlier, you’ll know we are big fans of serendipity and letting the road show us the way.

Our visit to Islas Ballestas in Peru was a perfect case of how you can be delightfully surprised in your travels when you leave your door open for the unknown.

There were certain experiences we were looking forward to in South America. The beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the stunning landscapes of Argentina and Bolivia, high altitude Andes, Machu Picchu (of course!) and the Amazon rainforest.

But we weren’t aware there was a group of islands off the Pacific coast of Peru called Islas Ballestas. By then, we had confirmed that islands were absolute favourite places to be! Not only were these islands a protected reserve but everyone we spoke to referred to it as “poor man’s Galapagos”. Well, by then we were poor enough to not afford a visit to the Galapagos. And what’s not enticing about Galapagos, right?

We decided to visit Islas Ballestas early in the morning.

How to get to Islas Ballestas?

These group of islands, the Islas Ballestas are off the coast of the beach town of Paracas. Paracas is a 4-hour journey to the south of Lima. Travelers usually halt at Paracas on their way down from Lima to Cusco or northwards from Cusco to Lima.

Road to Ica, a city in Peru surrounded by deserts

The PanAmerican Sur highway in Peru leading to the capital city Lima. We took this highway to travel from Ica to Paracas from where we took the boat to Islas Ballestas.

Map of Lima to Paracas to Ica/Huacachina

We, however, were staying at Huacachina (another surprise that sprung up in Peru!), an oasis town off the city of Ica. We booked a bus to take us from Huacachina to Paracas. The bus picked us up early morning from Huacachina to get us to Paracas in time for the boat ride to Islas Ballestas.

Flamingo at the Paracas beach. Boats for Islas Ballestas leave from Paracas.

Boats leave at 8 AM and if there are sufficient takers, another tour leaves for Islas Ballestas at 10 AM. But early morning is always a better time for bird watching. Besides, the sea is calmer in the mornings than later in the day. We were certain we wanted to catch the earliest possible tour to Islas Ballestas.

Unlike at Machu Picchu, where prices were predominantly quoted in USD and they were unsure about accepting the local currency, all transactions here are in the Peruvian soles.

The mystery at Islas Ballestas

A giant geoglyph known as the Candelabra on the face of the Paracas peninsula greets you at the start. Said to date back to 200 BC, it is roughly 600 feet tall. The guide in our boat was giving us all this information. Islas Ballestas is popular among the international tourists to Peru. The guide was well versed in Spanish and English to handle local as well as foreign tourists.

Geoglyph Candelabra near Islas Ballestas, Peru

How such a huge geoglyph was made is unknown, just like the Nazca lines. But theories about their purpose are plentiful. Various ancient civilisations are given credit for this. Some claim it was made by the Spanish and acted as a signal for the sailors since it was seen from afar due to its huge size. Obviously, theories involving aliens also feature in!

Welcome to the foul smell at Islas Ballestas

The arches of Islas Ballestas, Peru

The guide asked us to sit back in our seats because we were entering the Pacific ocean. As the boat sped into the Pacific and soon we could see the arches carved in stone. In Spanish, Ballestas means an arch. That’s where the name Islas Ballestas comes from.

The arch which gives the islands the name Islas Ballestas in Peru

A foul smell now filled the air overpowering all our senses. Our guide looked at our expressions and smiled. “Welcome to Islas Ballestas”, he said. This strong repelling smell is the confirmation that we had now reached the Islas Ballestas reserve.

Bird poo at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Our guide now explained to us the importance of this foul smell. The immense quantity of this bird poo is rich in a variety minerals. The Government of Peru spends considerable amounts in cleaning these rocks and collecting this nutrient-rich poo!

The main attraction of Islas Ballestas: Wildlife and birding

Colony of Peruvian Pelicans on Islas Ballestas, Peru

First stop was an island made of the characteristic pink coarse sand of Paracas, full of pelicans. So far, we had only seen them in photos. This was our chance to see these big birds up, close and personal! We could appreciate the yellow-billed males, white-billed females, and the babies with pink bills. We saw the pelicans in full action – from their formation while taking off to their flight close to the boat, we got to see it all.

Pelican in flight, Islas Ballestas, Peru

A flight of Peruvian pelicans at Islas Ballestas, Peru

For the conservation of this wildlife, you aren’t allowed to step on these islands. We had to observe all the wildlife from our boats.

Huge colony of Peruvian boobies at Islas Ballestas

One by one, our guide started pointing the birds to us. The most common were the Peruvian boobies. They had literally carpeted the rocks of Islas Ballestas. While the Peruvian boobies were at the top of the Islas Ballestas, the bright red starfish were trying to crawl out of the water.

Red startfish trying to climb up at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Then came the pink-footed cormorants. Even from the boat, their pink feet caught our attention. We were lucky to see the rare, near threatened Incan terns.

Pink footed cormorant at Islas Ballestas, Peru

The tern family is an attractive seabird with sharp features and a graceful flight. The Incan terns, with a red bill and red feet were a stand out in the sea of Peruvian boobies.

Incan Terns at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Sea lions at Islas Ballestas

Sea lions and other marine life at Islas Ballestas, Peru

There were plenty of sea lions as well, drying lazily in the sun. There were some newly borns as well, so we could see a few pairs of feeding mothers and their babies.

Sealion at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Those not plonked up on the rocks were playing among themselves, some making us hear their calls. But mostly they were all just being lazy, which was the complete opposite of the eager-to-play sea lions we had seen while snorkeling with them in Puerto Madryn.

A colony of sea lions at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Sea lions drying in the sun at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Our most special moment on Islas Ballestas

And then, at the top of one arch, we saw them – the penguins. Our first ever sighting of these elusive birds! What a place to see them! Not in a show or enclosed in artificial settings in a zoo – but in the wild, in their natural habitat at Islas Ballestas! This – we realised was how nature should be observed. We have to be bystanders, as nature goes about doing its thing.

Humboldt penguins and Peruvian boobies at Islas Ballestas, Peru

Like getting these Humboldt penguins to Peru. We knew we would be seeing a great variety of wildlife once we stepped into the Amazon during our travels in South America. But penguins – apart from the slight chance of seeing them in Patagonia – we hadn’t expected to see them at all. Least of all in Peru!

Sea lions, Humboldt penguins and other marine life at Islas Ballestas, Peru

These Humboldt penguins are among the smallest species of penguins. Even from afar, we could clearly see their black and white suits. And tiny or not, these Humboldt penguins too did their trademark “old man’s walk”.

The return journey from Islas Ballestas to Paracas was spent in the “post-penguin-high”. Back in Paracas, we saw some more Peruvian gulls and juvenile flamingoes.

One of the primary joys of long-term travel is the endless possibilities of discovery. When each day has the potential for “the first time ever”. There is always a counter argument that you can do your research and find out about all the fascinating possibilities before embarking on the journey. But for now, we arent’ prepared to give up the child-like wonder of finding something new all the time!

Our visit to Islas Ballestas was to us a validation of leaving things to serendipity while we travel.

Tips for traveling to Islas Ballestas

  • To visit the Islas Ballestas, you can stay either at Paracas, Ica or like we did – at Huacachina. (We stayed at the Hosteling International hostel Desert Night). It is possible to catch the 8 AM boat ride if you leave from either of these places.
  • Boats leave from the Paracas pier. You can buy your tickets on the spot. However, if you’re going on a holiday, it is better to book beforehand. You can either book online or with a local operator. We had gone with the company Paracas Overland.
  • Life Jackets are available onboard and everyone has to wear them. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, take a pill beforehand. The ocean does get rough!
  • We preferred sitting on the left side of the boat while going towards Islas Ballestas. Once you reach the islands, the captain takes the boat around in both directions so everyone gets a chance to view the birds and other wildlife. However, from the left side, you get the first view.
  • Protect your scarf, caps or hats. It gets windy once you’re out in the Pacific ocean and these things tend to fly off.
  • This is really important: As tempted as you are, don’t try to get those sea lions or penguins back home.

  • Planning to travel to Peru? Have we convinced you to include Islas Ballestas in your travel plans? And do you let serendipity guide you while traveling? Let us know in the Comments

    Other travel stories from our travels in South America

    Machu Picchu, Peru

    Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia in South America

    Tour to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, South America

    How crazy is a visit to Patagonia in winter?

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17 thoughts on “Islas Ballestas: Pacific, Peru and Penguins”

    1. Hey Rashmi, yeah. The flock was full early in the morning – and we got to see them at really close range. It’s the biggest brd we have seen so close so far 🙂 Isla Ballestas was an amazing experience, we had no idea Peru had something like this to offer!

    1. Yeah! We were all looking up the rocks of Islas Ballestas at the birds and the seals when suddenly, our guide pointed to the water. The bright red colour instantly caught our attention! Good thing, we had an attentive and enthusiastic guide!

  1. Nicely written and photographed. It seems the islands are actually rich in their natural beauty and the marine life.

    1. Yes, Islas Ballestas is loaded with marine life. We were glad to see that access was restricted to boats only. The boat ride to Islas Ballestas was a wonderful experience.

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