The desolate desert south of Lima may seem void of large wildlife, until you take to the seas. Coastal reserves and tiny islands support interesting wildlife—everything from sea lions to penguins.
The Pacific waters along Chile, Peru, and Ecuador house some of the best fishing grounds in the world, thanks to the frigid Humboldt Current, which, interestingly enough, is also to thank for the arid conditions of Peru’s central coast and the mist over Lima.
The Humboldt Current is a cold water ocean current that pulls up waters from the ocean floor, bringing both lower temperatures and nutrients to the ocean’s surface. This creates a great feeding zone for fish, consequently drawing larger predators, like sea lions and numerous types of sea birds.
For travelers on a Peru vacation interested in taking a day trip from Lima, a jaunt to the Islas Ballestas is a great way to appreciate this unique ecosystem first hand.
The Islas Ballestas are a collection of several small rocky islands off the coast of Paracas (an area also know for the famous Paracas National Reserve). The islands are home to colonies of up to 600,000 birds depending on the season – a truly remarkable sight. The most populous bird type is the Guanay cormorant, which are the main producers of commercial guano. Other interesting avian species are the large and goofy-looking Peruvian pelican and the adorable Humboldt penguin. These islands are also home to one of the largest colonies of sea lions in South America.
A 4-hour bus ride from Lima brings you to this wildlife haven. Most buses arrive in town of Pisco, about 15 minutes from the Paracas pier, and travelers can hop in a taxi to complete their journey. Alternatively, you can make this journey even quicker by hopping on one of the new flights to Pisco offered by Peruvian airlines, and then continue on to Cusco after a tour of both Paracas and Nazca.
The only way to reach these islands is on a 2-hour guided boat tour from the pier. Expert bilingual guides are on board to tell you about the animal species, as well as the mysterious 420-foot-high shape etched into the side of a cliff along the coast, known as the Candelabra (many believe this figure is related to the Nazca lines, though its origin and purpose are still unknown).
The best time to visit the islands is in the morning, when seas tend to be the calmest. Environmental laws prevent visitors from landing on the islands, so instead boats cruise the islands’ perimeters. This offers great views of the noisy sea lions (males can grow up to 8 feet long!) and waddling groups of Humboldt penguins. The later can be more difficult to spot, so packing a pair of binoculars is recommended. All the boats are open-air, so even on a warm day be sure to bring a sweater and sunscreen.