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Visiting penguins in the Islas Ballestas, Peru

In addition to the pink river dolphins in the Amazon and the massive condors in the Andes, Peru has another treat for wildlife lovers. Penguins in Paracas.

Paracas is a tiny seaside town several hours south of Lima. This sliver of sand along the Pacific Ocean attracts travelers looking for ocean-view luxury and a chance to see Peru’s main bird sanctuary. Home to 160 species of marine birds, the Islas Ballestas are a series of rocky isles located just offshore and are the highlight of a visit to Peru’s southern coast.

The best time to visit the islands is in the morning when the seas are relatively calm and the sun not too strong. As I boarded an excursion boat in a bright orange life vest, a multi-lingual guide welcomed me aboard. Because the islands are located within a protected reserve, the only way to visit is via boat tours led by professional guides partnered with the national park.

Islas Ballestas - Patrick Nouhailler

During the ride to the islands, we pass a massive mountainside carving. Called the Candelabra, the ancient geoglyph is nearly 500 feet long and resembles the shapes you’d see flying over the Nazca Lines. And like the Nazca Lines, the origin and purpose of the Candelabra is unknown, adding a bit of mystery to my wildlife tour.

I know we’re close when the sky turns dark with circling birds. Massive flocks fly between the islands and the mainland and their numbers are both impressive and slightly overwhelming. As we near our destination, I see the islands are really a collection of red rocky arches, pillars, and piles. Nature’s own playground.

Although we’re not allowed to disembark, nimble maneuvering brings us within feet of sunbathing sea lions, the islands’ main mammal.  The sea lions and marine birds fare well here thanks to Peru’s abundant fish population. The rich aquatic life is fueled by the Humboldt Current, which pulls cold and nutrient rich waters from the ocean floor toward the surface, creating a high feeding zone for fish that makes them easier to catch.

Paracas Seals - Bruno Girin

In addition to being well fed, the sea lions also enjoy the security of living in a protected area. So rather than hiding when our boat gets close, they instead splash and roll around. After each display they peer in our direction as if to gage our reaction to their performance.

Guanay Cormorant - Richard

Sharing the shore with the playful sea lions are hundreds of birds. My guide identifies cormorants, pelicans, and boobies. And finally, the penguins. Not as populous as some of the other local birds, the tuxedoed Humboldt penguins are cute wobbly creatures found only along the Pacific coastline of Peru and Chile. They’re considered a vulnerable species due to threats from human encroachment and climate change, both of which negatively impact their limited habitat. Luckily, Peru’s only marine reserve is well regulated, and I’m happy to visit without leaving any footprints behind.

Keen to see the Islas Ballestas for yourself? Check out our Machu Picchu & Peru tours here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.       

Thanks to Pierre Andre LeClercq for the title image of this blog.            

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