Craning what could be their neck back to strike a pose seeming to say, “Throw me a ball and I’ll balance it on my nose!” you meet what you later realize is her. You may be thinking circus seal, but she is actually a sea lion— one of dozens who seem to be waiting there on the rocks of Islas Ballestas simply to delight you and fellow tourists from Paracas.
Actually, she is just living the good life, with abundant fish, seaweed and sea food in easy snout reach, rocks to recline on, and family members with whom to get a good snuggle. The birds and sea lions you meet at Islas Ballestas don’t migrate. This is home sweet home.
You knew this moment and meeting were coming, but it doesn’t diminish the sense of surprise.
This sea lion is supported by a cast of thousands in delivering this thrill. Without binoculars high up on the farther island outcropping there seems to be a black carpet. You too might imagine that to be a flock of the small black (with colorful beak/head accents) Inca tern. But, grab your binoculars or camera zoom and WOW! you are seeing a field of cormorants and more.
Islas Ballestas Birders’ Cornucopia
And there are more—Humboldt penguins, Peruvian boobys, Peruvian Pelicans. There may have been many birders on the boat from Paracas, but they didn’t stand out from the rest of us, as birders often do. If you sometimes cringe in a zoo or aquarium at how animals seem cruelly caged and taken out of habitat, know that the birds and critters here seem totally at peace with the tour boats’ arrivals.
How great that our boat captain brings us so close to the critters, despite the rocky coast! It’s not quite arms reach, but not much more. We are bathed in a smell that is pet store and garden store at once.
The latter is that familiar smell of fertilizer. If you are a gardener, it is highly likely that you’ve actually put your hands into Islas Ballestas before. This is the world’s top spot for guano. That isn’t snow on top of the island. It is bird poo that is allowed to pile on high for a decade before workers come to “harvest” it. With some good Islas Ballestas in your garden, you can, like Candide, just watch it grow.
In between the guano harvests, there are guards stationed on the island to protect its bounty. Regulations on the fisherman, e.g. banning fishing for too-small anchovies and at times altogether, also make sure the food supply for the guano-makers isn’t disturbed.
How telling of Peru’s amazing wonders that the first stop on the boat tour before arrival at Islas Ballestas to see the candelabra, an ancient etching in a nearby mountain of unknown origin or purpose, seemed somewhat everyday. Ho hum- just a variant of the Nazca lines...
Another fun part of this tour is that you are sharing your boat and time mainly with Peruvians, a healthy number of whom are from nearby Lima on a quick getaway. Islas Ballestos is aptly nicknamed “the poor man’s Galapagos” and can be toured with the Candelabra stop for about US$16+.
This writer and photographer team suggest that Islas Ballestas deserves a top spot on your Peru tour itinerary.
-Yes, you will be happy to bring a wide brim hat, just in case the birds want to give you a guano gift.
-You will want a jacket of sorts—it’s a speed boat ride to get to the island.
-For best photos- we were advised to sit in the back of the boat on the left side, as you face the front. Note: Everyone with a camera did get good photos.
-Like the condor flights in Colca Canyon, don’t expect a cellphone camera to capture it all. This is a place where you want to have a good camera.