The Poor Man´s Gallapagos

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Since Rachel and I are not planning to visit Equador nor unfortunately the Gallapagos islands, we have come up with a cheap and dirty alternative: the Ballestas Islands in Peru. These Islands are just off the coast from Peru´s only coastal National Park, Paracas. Are the islands worth visiting? Find out more...

The journey to Pisco, the nearest town to the Islas, starts in Nazca on a crowded local bus going as far as Ica (7 Soles or GBP1.15). We bounce along, not used to the heat, but enjoying the oxygen enriched atmosphere (remember we´ve been over 2000m in altitude for over 3 weeks). The combination of air and heat makes me feel very sleepy.

We change buses in the dusty town of Ica and continue for another hour or so until we arrive in Pisco at sunset. First impressions are that the town looks a bit like Ica - dirty and unattractive.

A couple of female touts meet us off the bus in Pisco and try to sell us accomodation and tours. But we have fixed plans of where we want to go: Hotel Posada Hispaña, which unfortunately for the touts is not a place they will receive commission from.

With our little posse of touts following enthusiastically, we ring the bell at the hotel and it seems to take an age before the staff can unlock the thick iron gates that secure the entrance. It makes me think that Pisco is probably quite a dangerous town if such security is needed at the hotel. Inside it looks homely and clean, and fortunately for us, with a little persuasion, the price of the room rapidly tumbles from USD$35 to USD$20.

We have one last conversation with the touts. Unusually, one of the hotel staff intervenes and helps us get rid of them.

After a shower, a powerknap, and 15 minutes unsuccessfully flicking through 100 channels on the TV to find an English one, we head out for a bite to eat.

Today is May 1st and its a National Holiday called Labour day in Peru. It also seems to be the day when numerous statues of the Virgin Mary are hoisted aloft all around town. We see numerous floodlit processions of the faithful wending their way through through the streets accompanied by the mournful sound of brass bands. Motorists beep their horns in frustration at the slow pace.

All the recommended restaurants are empty, except Don Manuel, where there is one lonely Dutch couple. They tell us the food is good. We order cerbiche corbena: uncooked sea bass marinaded in lemon juice with onions, a touch of chile, and with sweet potatoes and corn as an accompaniment. This could become addictive I think as I greedily eat more than my share of the dish. We also order some steak, rice, and chips as a ´safe but boring´ second course. As this is Pisco, we are given free Pisco Sours by the staff. The total bill is 36 Soles (GBP6.00).

After dinner we find a tour agency, Ballestas Paradise (aka Ballestas Travel Service), on 249 San Francisco who offer to take us on a daytrip to the Islas Ballestas and Paracas for 35 Soles (GBP6.00) per person. Certainly much cheaper than a trip to the Gallapagos I think to myself. I wonder if it will be interesting.

In the morning we have an unremarkable breakfast at the hotel and get picked up by the tour agency at 7.15am. Along with about 20 others we drive down to the town of Paracas where we jump on a fibreglass powerboat equiped with twin 140bhp outboards that will speed us to the islands.

Our guide Juan gives us a good overview of the islands and the reason for the profusion of wildlife there. Apparently there is a phenomenon called ´upwelling´ going on all along the coast, whereby deep, nutrient-rich water, is drawn into the coastal areas and surface water is circulated out into the Pacific by the prevailing south-easterlies. The nutrients support plankton, which in turn support krill, and in turn the extensive fish population. And of course where there´s plenty of fish, there´s plenty of birds.

As we speed out in the boat, we are overtaken easily by low flying Peruvian boobies who seem to skim the surface of the waves at an unbelievable pace. Some of them are hunting for fish, and from a height of about 20 metres, fold their wings to their side, crashing like fighter planes into the water. Sometimes two are three dive together as though its a synchronised diving contest.

We pass by Paracas peninsula where there is an enormous candelabra cactus etched into the dry hillside. Our guide gives us several alternate theories for its presence including the predictable ´signpost for alien spacecraft´. A more likely one is it was a symbol placed by the early European immigrants to indicate to passing ships the location of a settlement. Our guide tells us it has lasted so long because there is no rain in the area: less than 1.9mm per year. Nonetheless life was possible in the area because the water table was originally just 30cm under the ground. Nowadays, with over-exploitation of water resources, its some 30 metres down.

Within half an hour we arrive at the first of the islands which has large dark sections thick with black cormorants on the otherwise white surface formed from their guano or bird poo. There are so many birds in such a small area it feels like a city for cormorants. In amongst them we see an occasional little group of Humbolt penguins. They seem to be in a foul mood and peck and squwak at each other.

The islands are rough and worn, with sea arches, caves, and stacks everywhere we look. Even without the abundant wildlife they are quite a sight in themnselves.

As the boat cruises along we see more species of birds including Inca terns with their distinctive red, yellow, and white stripes over the eyes. There are curious red-footed cormorants, huge pelicans, and we see an area where the Peruvian boobies are roosting precariously on the cliffs. We spot a few South American sea lions basking on the rocks. There seems to be more babies than adults: they must have had a succesful breeding season.

Rounding one corner we come across a small shingle beach where absolutely every square inch is covered in sea lions. They bray and fight with each other using tones that vary from friendly-sheep to angry-cow. Combined with the crash of the waves on the shingle beach the cacophony is deafening. A truly memorable experience as we bob around in the boat a few metres off-shore.

Juan explains that the islands are not part of the National Park, and guano - a rich organic fertiliser - is still harvested every 5 to 10 years. Harvest involves labourers from high in the Andes descending on the islands for a few weeks to scrape the valuable poo from the rocky surface. Two lonely men live on the islands all year round to keep an eye on the wildlife, and more importantly, the valuable shit thats slowly accumulating around them.

All too soon we are heading back to the mainland. As we cruise along a neverending stream of cormorants is passing above our heads heading out to the water for a morning bath. The birds do this every day to help keep themselves clear of parasitic tics that inhabit the islands. Juan tells me, depending on the influence of El Niño, there can be anything between 2 million and 20 million of these cormorants living in the area. The splashing of a million birds in the water is like a rain storm in the distance.

Soon we have docked, and we have a cup of coffee in one of the waterfront cafes. Rachel and I agree the trip has definitely been worthwhile.

At 11am we head off in the bus into the National Park. We pay 5 Soles (GBP0.85) entry fee and take a look around a fairly boring little museum. There is another one next-door sporting pottery and mummies from the ancient Paracas people which, given our recent overdose, we decide to skip.

We drive further down the Peninsula and enjoy the views of the sea arches and pounding pacific waves from the cliff-top. Rachel is lucky and the guide points out a sea otter to her.

We drive further to a little beach and harbour where there are some restaurants. Our guide advises us not to eat in one of them as their has been some unspecified ´trouble´ there. Touts from the aforementioned restaurant try desperately to tempt us in, but of course, no one from our group will enter, much to the staff´s annoyance. I suspect the restaurant decided unwisely not to give our guide a free meal anymore and he blacklisted them.

Anyhow the food is good in the other ´approved´ restaurant. We choose another dish of cerviche and grilled fish. Sitting by the sea eating this food is perfect. I feel better too when I see that other tour groups are using the ´blacklisted´ place.

The tour of Paracas is over and we take a ride back to Pisco on the bus. On the way home we pass many fishmeal factories which explains the rather unpleasant odour in Pisco.

We relax one more night in Pisco. The next day we will be heading to Huaraz in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca region north of Lima. Over dinner that evening (we have cerviche for a third time in a row) we agree that Islas Ballestas was a great idea. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
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