Voyage to the Islas Ballestas, Peru

Two weeks ago, I was in Lima working with a team of British and Peruvian environmental scientists and tourism specialists.  We are working on sustainability, green growth and green economy transitions in ground transport, tourism and coastal industries in Peru.  Following an intense but very productive week, I had two free days before my flight home; just enough time for two small adventures; the first involves heading out to sea.  The next two posts are excerpts from my diary:


After a really comfortable overnight bus journey south of Lima, I arrive early morning at the Port of Paracas in order to take a boat ride to the Islas Ballestas, 20 kilometres from the Parascas coastline and on the edge of a marine protected area. This is meant to be one of Peru’s premier ecotourism destinations and is known as ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ or ‘little Galapagos’.

As I get off of the bus I am immediately disappointed by the amount of activity I see. It is 7.30am and it is teaming with people. I was, until now, hoping for a unique and personal marine wildlife experience; me and just a few others in a boat.  But of course where there is wildlife, there is a high tourist demand to see it.  This is a well-oiled tourist machine run with military precision. Seven boats contain 45 people each and seven queues, one of which I am assigned to.  I can see that it will be up to my imagination to create the personal, magical experience I am hoping for.

The coastal town of Paracas is right on the border of the Paracas National Reserve;  a coastal, rather than a marine protected area, it is famous for its birds which line the waters edge. Sadly I do not have time to explore the birdlife beyond the few interesting species that are feeding in the harbour.   Feeling disappointed, I eventually board a powerful 45 seater powerboat and it is only my good fortune that I sit on a seaward seat with an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean.  All seven tourist boats leave the harbour in a high-speed procession stopping only briefly to see the intriguing enormous cactus (or candelabra) symbol etched on the cliffs of the Peruvian desert.

The exact age of this enormous geoglpyh is unknown but apparently archaeologists have found pottery belonging to the Paracas people dating circa 200 BC.  The symbol is cut two feet into the sand with stones placed all around it. It is 595 feet tall and large enough to be seen 12 miles out at sea. Its purpose or symbolism remains a mystery.

From here the boat continues outwards and I can see the Isles de Ballesteros sitting proud on the horizon, the gleaming white of the guano reflecting the bright morning light.  As the boat approaches, more and more birds can be seen in an aerial dance of Peruvian booby birds, Guanay guano birds, Neotropic cormorants and Inca terns .  Peruvian Pelicans and vultures perch on the rocky cliffs adding to the drama.  The boats slow and one by one take their place around the islands to provide views of hundreds and hundreds of fur seals and sea lions hauled out on the rocky shores.  There are adult bays and nursery bays; the latter a noisy, chaotic scene of hundreds of shiny black seal pups all mewing for attention.  Amongst this noisy chaos there are enormous male sealions exerting their huge presence with booming wolf-like roars that echo and bounce off the cliffs to merge with the cries of all the nesting pelagic birds and baby fur seals.  These islands on the remote edge of land and ocean are bursting with drama and life; there must be millions of birds present.

And then…. I see them; what I was hoping for….. marching over the top of the cliffs, deep in conversation and with only one mission and that is to get to the waters edge.  Beautiful and charismatic, these are the first wild penguins I have ever seen.  I feel myself grinning, you can’t help but smile when you see penguins; just their walk and their communitas.  They are comical and utterly endearing but appear small and fragile on the horizon.  It is still too north (warm) for penguins, however the  Humboldt current with its cold nutrient-rich water sweeps up from the Southern Pacific and is largely responsible for the coastal deserts of Chile, Ecuador and Peru. These penguins here are named after the current and are therefore Humboldt penguins.

As the boat makes its way around the final seascapes, the gannets begin to head out from the islands for the day’s foraging. Flock after flock leave in long lines and triangular shapes until there is a long black river of them all the way to the blue horizon sky.  Of all the beauty that I have seen here; it is this, the penguins, the black shiny sea-lion pups and the smell of guano that I will relish the most. Despite the number of boats and people; I am glad I have come.


The half-hour, 24 kilometre zoom back to the pontoon goes very quickly.  I watch the rising sun’s light on the water creating a sea of diamonds and think how very lucky I am.