Are you considering taking an Islas Ballestas tour? Then this post is for you!
Known as the Galapagos of Peru, or the Poor Man’s Galapagos, the Islas Ballestas (Ballestas Islands in English) are actually much less financially intimidating compared to the islands in Ecuador – though granted, the experience you get is not really the same. Yet, they are a fantastic wildlife destination: you probably would not expect to see penguins in Peru – yet they are there, sitting along sea lions and cormorants; swimming with dolphins and (depending on the season) even whales.
An Islas Ballestas tour of just about two hours is all it takes to experience this unique destination. In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about the Ballestas Islands and share plenty of information to help you plan your visit.
Where Are The Islas Ballestas And What Are They?
You’ll find this archipelago on Peru’s south coast. It’s mainly made up of rocky islets and formations, and is a sanctuary for wildlife. In fact, it makes for one of the top wildlife spotting destinations in the entire country.
Specifically, it’s 24 kilometers off the coast of Paracas – which in turn is around 260 km (161 miles) and 3.5 hours drive from Lima. They’re not part of the Paracas National Reserve, but they are often visited in conjunction with the marine reserve itself.
The Islas Ballestas are home to a colony of lazy sea lions, cormorants and thousands of birds. Even penguins, which you may not associate with Peru, can be found here.
You’ll also find a lot of guano (that’s seabird poop, by the way!). The Islas Ballestas are protected due to the presence of guano which was historically mined in this area. As such, they make up part of the Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes National Reserve System.
The main islands are Ballesta Norte, Ballesta Central, and Ballesta Sur. They’re normally visited on boat tours that depart from Paracas.
Note that due to their protected status, and the absence of any official harbors, tourists are not allowed to get off and walk around on the Ballestas Islands.
Weather In Islas Ballestas
If you’re thinking about visiting the natural wonderland that is the Islas Ballestas, then you’ll be happy to know that most likely the weather will be great. The temperatures are warm all year round, with minimal rainfall, too – no wonder it’s a popular destination for residents of Lima looking to unwind for the weekend.
The average temperature across the year runs between lows of 18°C (64°F) to 27°C (80°F), making it generally quite pleasant no matter when you choose to visit.
One thing that you should know is that different times of year will bring different wildlife to the islands. Peak season for tourism in this region of the country is during Peru’s summer, which runs from December through March; Easter Week (aka Semana Santa) is also a very popular time to visit Islas Ballestas, as is Peru’s Independence Day (July 28-29).
What You Get To See On An Islas Ballestas Tour
It’s not only about nature when it comes to a trip to the Islas Ballestas. It’s also about ancient history, too. Carved into the sloping hills of Pisco Bay you’ll find the Candelabro – a glyph that dates back to approximately 200 BC.
Named for its shape, the Candelabro can be seen for miles out at sea. No wonder: it’s 595 feet long, making it quite the spectacle. Interestingly, it is situated 130 miles from the Nazca Lines, but it is apparently not the work of the Nazca civilization.
Many, if not all of the boat tours of Islas Ballestas include a glimpse of the Candelabro on the same trip, so there is no need to make a special visit to see this glyph.
The reason that many people come to explore this specific slice of Peru is because of its wildlife. The Ballestas Islands do not disappoint in this regard. The islands are totally in the control of nature, and with that comes the totally overwhelming smell of guano that these islands are famous for. Trust me: you will know it when you smell it!
But aside from the smells, the sights are incredible.
Sea lions and seals can be found basking on the rocks in the warm sun, or swimming in the seas around the islands looking for dinner. Usually on a boat tour of the Islas Ballestas, you will be able to spot the brown South American sea lions. They’re huge: males have manes, and can weigh in at up to 770 pounds (350 kg), but females are half the size.
You can also see South American fur seals living in and around the islands. These guys are a little more lazy, and prefer to spend their days relaxing in the shade around cliffs and arches. They’re smaller than sea lions – males can weigh up to 440 pounds (200 kg), with females weighing up to 130 pounds (60 kg).
Naturally, with all that guano, you’d expect there to be some birds. And there really is a long list of bird species that call the Islas Ballestas home. Humboldt penguins waddle around, diving into the water. Guanays, a type of cormorant, are also quite a cool sight: they have red circles around their eyes and red tummies. They produce a lot of the guano here, which impacted the historic trade of guano.
If you’re lucky, during your tour of the Ballestas Islands you may even catch sight of dolphins playing in the water. I remember when I visited they actually followed the boat I was traveling on, and it was quite fun to see them play!
Practical Information For Visiting The Islas Ballestas
Taking an Islas Ballestas tour
The only way to experience the Islas Ballestas is to take a boat tour. You won’t be able to get out and explore the islands, but you wouldn’t want to either.
If you’re in Paracas town and you’re looking for a boat tour to the islands, you’re in luck. It’s not too difficult to find a good Islas Ballestas tour, and in fact you’ll probably have people coming up to you offering you tours.
However, it’s a good idea to arrange the tours in advance – particularly if you are going to be taking one early in the morning (this is what most people do).
I would always advise to read reviews of tours before you hand over your cash; make sure you go with only the most reputable companies.
When you book the tour, you will be given a time of departure. Usually, the first tours to Islas Ballestas start at around 8:00 am, with boats setting off around 20 minutes after that time once everyone has arrived.
The boat tour typically takes around one hour (any more and the guano smell might send you mad). It makes for a fun morning excursion, although with some tours there is the option to combine a trip to Islas Ballestas with a trip to Paracas National Reserve, too.
Lifejackets are provided on each boat, and must be worn. Seating isn’t numbered, so I recommend that you get to the boat early if you want to have a better choice of where you want to sit.
The tours start by leaving from Paracas town, and then stop by the Candelabro, before journeying on for another 20 minutes to spot the wildlife on the Ballestas Islands. Once you’re close to the islands you’ll definitely be able to smell that particular odor of guano! In total, tours usually last for around two hours.
If you suffer from sea-sickness you might want to bring along some pills, but the sea likely won’t be too rough.
Cost of Islas Ballestas Tours
There is a standard Ballestas Islands Entry Fee, which goes towards the protection of the islands, and which everyone going on a boat tour must pay. This costs 11 soles (around $2.70 USD) per adult. However, this can sometimes be included in the cost of your tour.
You will also need to pay a port tax of 5 soles (around $1.50 USD), which you pay at the pier when you depart.
An Islas Ballestas boat tour usually is usually in the range of $25 USD – less if bought locally and last minute; but the price can vary depending on if your tour makes a combined trip to the Paracas National Reserve, too.
Visiting Islas Ballestas on day trips from Lima
Because the boat tour to the Islas Ballestas usually only takes around two hours, it is actually possible to visit on a day trip from Lima. It is a full day trip though, with the trip from Lima to Paracas town alone taking around four hours by bus. To make the 8:00 am boat tour you’d have to leave no later than 4:00 am, but there are no buses to Paracas before 7:15 am, and the first bus to Ica, from where you can connect to Paracas, is at 6:00 am anyways.
With this in mind, it’s definitely better to actually join a guided tour, so that you don’t have to worry so much about transportation.
Make sure to read my post The Best Day Trips From Lima.
How long is an Islas Ballestas tour?
As I just mentioned, it is possible to visit the Islas Ballestas on a day trip, but you would need to get up super early, and the enjoyment levels would just be pretty low as a result of the long journey. All in all, I would recommend staying at least one night to make the most of the Paracas area.
I think the ideal time to spend in the coastal town of Paracas is two nights, although there is enough in the area to fill your itinerary for a little longer if you wanted to stick around for a few more days.
Where to stay near Islas Ballestas
You can’t actually stay on the Islas Ballestas – and to be honest, with all that guano and birds, I don’t think anyone would want to either! Instead, the place to stay here is Paracas.
The town is popular for both international travelers and Peruvians from Lima looking for a getaway, so the town is well equipped with hotels of all types – from budget hostels all the way to some seriously fancy hotels. Here is a selection of the best accommodation options:
Situated just a few meters from the coast, Atenas Backpacker Hospedaje is the perfect budget accommodation in Paracas. Here you’ll find a friendly place to stay, with clean and tidy rooms, and welcoming, helpful staff.
Amenities here include a cozy patio area on the roof for evening drinks and socializing after a day exploring the Islas Ballestas. There’s also free bicycle rental, so you can discover more about the surrounding area.
This modern, stylish hotel is an ideal base for staying in Paracas. Offering up three-star accommodation, rooms here are fresh and bright, with large windows that look out over the ocean. Rooms also come with balconies.
Elsewhere, communal spaces provide ample room to socialize and kick back with other travelers; there’s also a large outdoor terrace, a bar, and a large continental breakfast is served up each morning. The location of this hotel will put you mere steps from the boardwalk and the beach.
Looking for luxury accommodation in Paracas where you can unwind before and after your Islas Ballestas boat tour? Look no further than Hotel Paracas: a luxury five-star hotel that comes packed with a list of luxury features to match.
For one thing, the hotel boasts its own private dock, where guests can opt to take a yacht tour of the Ballestas Islands in style. Elsewhere there are two swimming pools, a kids club, a restaurant, bar-lounge, and a luxury spa. This luxury accommodation option also boasts its own beach, as well as guest rooms that are spacious and beautifully appointed.
Final tips for visiting the Islas Ballestas
Finally, here are some useful tips for visiting the Ballestas Islands.
Bring your (good) camera
A phone camera might not be enough to capture the incredible nature on the Islas Ballestas. Keen photographers should make sure to bring their zoom lens. Binoculars will also bring an added wow-factor to the trip, as you’ll get to see the wildlife unfold seemingly before your very eyes – even though you won’t be that close to the islands.
Keep an eye on the weather (and be flexible)
Another good reason not to take a day trip to Isla Ballestas is the weather. Boats won’t depart if the sea is too rough, or the weather is bad; this occurs more frequently during the winter time. So book a couple of nights at a hotel, and have other things planned in case the tour gets cancelled.
The tour may leave early in the morning, but trust me – you’ll still need to wear sunscreen. With no shade in sight and nothing but a giant mirror (i.e. the sea) glaring at you the whole time, it’s easy to get burnt.
Bring a dry bag
You won’t get soaked, but it’s possible that you’ll get splashed by water and a dry bag is a good way to keep those precious things from getting damaged.
If you are planning a trip to Peru, these posts will come in handy:
- The Best Things To Know Before Visiting Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Lima
- Where To Stay In Lima
- The Best Things To Do In Nazca
- A Short Guide To Paracas