Ballestas Islands – the “poor man’s Galapagos”
The ancient civilisation of Peru is an extraordinary blend of bone-dry desert along the coastline, surrounded by wild Amazonian rainforests and beyond, the high peaks of the Andes. This is the land of the Incas.
One of the finest trips of a lifetime is the journey to witness Macchu Picchu, the lost 15th century mountain city of the Incas. Around 28 guests departed on a 3 night Silversea land programme in Callau, Peru to visit Cusco and then travel by the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train (named after the American historian who discovered the archaeological ruins), to see this one of the “new” wonders of the world.
Pisco may appear at first glance to be s small sleepy resort and fishing port, but all around is a panorama of natural beauty and rich heritage. Amongst several shore excursions were two special half day trips. First a flight over the desert to see the Nazca lines, a series of mysterious, historic drawings of birds, animals and geometric shapes carved into the sand. These date from the Paracas culture of the region, (900 BC – AD200) and only visible from the air.
Ken and I selected to take a fast speed boat trip to the Ballestas islands, nick named the “poor man’s Galapagos”. Fifteen guests were allocated in each sleek motor launch with an expert driver and a local guide, who gave an excellent commentary all the way. About half an hour from the pier we approached a rocky shore, and beyond carved in the sandy hillside was the design of a giant three prong candelabra. Historians and archaeologists have long debated the origin and meaning of this magnificent art work, presumably Paracan period – which can only be seen from the sea.
Throttle at full speed, we zoom out to the distant mini archipelago of islands, about an hour off shore from Pisco. As part of the Paracas National Park, this is a rich and eclectic nature reserve. Slowly meandering up to a curving bay at the first islet, we see a colony of sea-lions. It is mating season and a few dozen giant silky grey males are barking and roaring at each other like African lions.
A few are in angry combat, virtually boxing each other as they compete for the attention of the tranquil females sunbathing nonchalantly on the sand. We are told that they become pregnant twice a year. After giving birth to one pup, they are expecting again within 15 days. It is estimated that these islands are home to 5,000 sea-lions.
The Ballestas are also an ornithologist’s dream destination. 250 different species of birds will nest here over the course of the year: Guanay black cormorants, Peruvian Boobies, which hover over the water and suddenly dive like a jet fighter when they spot a shoal of anchovies below the surface. The habitat is also shared by Pelicans with their long pointed beaks, and flocks of tiny Incan terns, skimming over the sea.
As the song goes, “There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”. Here, change the title to “There’s a heck of a lot of guana in Peru.” The natural deposits of the pelicans, cormorants and boobies provides excellent fertiliser and 7 000 tons of guana is painstakingly scraped off the rocks each year and transported ashore.
We experience a leisurely cruise around the beautiful tiny islands, with stunning their round rock shapes and arches as if sculpted by Rodin or Moore. Cameras were clicking every five seconds as we turned a corner and see a cliff face where a colony of Humboldt penguins live side by side with Pelicans and Boobies.
Sailing on around the islets, with hidden coves and caves, we observe ancient whiskery granddad sea-lions slumbering on a rock, and young year old pups trying to clamber up on their ungainly flippers for a siesta after a cooling swim.
Around the Paracas Reserve you may also be fortunate to see whales, dolphins, flamingos and turtles.
This was an exhilarating marine wildlife experience. We felt as if David Attenborough was suddenly going to appear from behind a group of penguins to describe the mating behaviour of the noisy – and presumably randy – sea-lions parading on the beach. A BBC documentary at its best in real life in front of our eyes. Magical.