Locals and tourists love Paracas, Peru for the great weather, dramatic Reserva Nacional de Paracas, and as the jumping-off point for a boat tour of Islas Ballestas where the wildlife and scenery have inspired some to call this cluster of protected islands “the poor man’s Galapagos.”
Touring Islas Ballestas
We’ve spent many weeks in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador during multiple trips to the archipelago and we can tell you that there’s no place like it on earth. On the other hand, many travelers don’t have the time or the money required to visit the Galapagos.
A tour of Islas Ballestas requires just a few hours and around US$10 for an exciting boat excursion during which you are virtually guaranteed to see a variety of sea birds, fish, and marine mammals. That’s because, as in the Galapagos, the frigid Humboldt current passes Islas Ballestas bringing cold water from the deep up to the surface. This water is full of micro-nutrients that attract hungry critters of all sorts.
Admittedly, Islas Ballestas, located 15 miles (24 km) off the Peruvian coast, does not host the mind-blowing array of wildlife found in the Galapagos (few places do). However, we saw some species around Islas Ballestas that we’d never seen before and many that we were pleased to see again. Bonus: this day trip also includes an unusual coastal geoglyph similar in some ways to Peru’s more famous Nazca Lines. No wonder more than 150,000 people visited Islas Ballestas in 2018 according to Peruvian government statistics.
The first stop on your tour of Islas Ballestas will be a pause in Pisco Bay, not far from the port in Paracas, to see the Candelabro de Paracas (Paracas Candelabra in English aka El Candelabro or the Candelabra of the Andes). This 595 foot (180 meter) tall prehistoric geoglyph was dug 2 feet (0.60 meters) into the earth at the head of this bay around 200 BC. Stones were then placed to outline the formation, much like how the Nazca geoglyphs were made.
The Candelabro de Paracas geoglyph is still being researched but it is commonly believed it was created by the Paracas people since remnants of their pottery have been found in the area. One theory is that this geoglyph is a representation of the trident held by the Incan god Viracocha. Another theory is that the geoglyph was merely a massive sign, visible 12 miles (19 km) offshore, that let sailors know they’d arrived. Others believe the petroglyph may have pointed the way to the location of popular and important ancient festivals. One thing is for sure, despite its name this is not a depiction of a candelabra.
Your tour boat will then continue on to nearby Islas Ballestas (Crossbow Islands in English) inside the massive Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes National Reserve System which is currently on the UNESCO World Heritage site tentative list.
Islas Ballestas encompasses the islands of Ballesta Norte, Ballesta Central, and Ballesta Sur which were once rich sources of bird guano–a necessary and valuable ingredient in fertilizers, gunpowder, and other explosives–until chemical substitutes came along.
In the 1800s, guano was one of the most sought-after and valuable resources in the world. Today, guano is harvested here just a few times a year and only from the top of the islands.
The remainder of your tour will be spent slowly circling the islands of Islas Ballestas to admire massive colonies of Inca terns, Peruvian boobies (cousins to blue-footed boobies, one of the star species of the Galapagos Islands), and lots of guano cormorants.
We also saw a few red-legged cormorants (a first) and some Humboldt penguins (not a first, but always a delight) plus small clusters of female South American sea lions with young ones.
On a red sand beach, which our guide called “maternity beach” (pictured above), we saw a group of about 100 South American sea lions.
These were mostly females and pups but there were also a few enormous males jostling for position (literally and figuratively) as well. South American fur seals are also sometimes spotted around these islands and stay on the lookout for dolphins and whales as well.
Islas Ballestas travel tips
Islas Ballestas tour boats (there are dozens of them) go from the Embarcadero Islas Ballestas on the north end of the seafront promenade in Paracas year-round unless sea or weather conditions are unsafe (it’s around 40 soles or about US$10 per person for a 2-hour roundtrip tour). All of these boats are open so be prepared for the sun, the possibility of bird droppings, and the possibility of you and your belongings getting wet.
If sea lions are your thing, know that South American sea lions congregate around Paracas in large numbers between January and March when they give birth and breed.
Tour boats leave all day, but the infamous Paracas winds pick up in the afternoon which means travelers on morning tours are most likely to benefit from calmer seas.
Your base camp for a tour of the Islas Ballestas is the town of Paracas. Use our Paracas Beach Town Travel Guide to plan your time there. And for more natural beauty near Paracas, check out our post about exploring the Paracas National Reserve.
Here’s more about travel in Peru