Paracas, Peru: The perfect escape for nature lovers

The Islas Ballestas. (Photo: Luis Bustamante)
Sea lions at the Islas. (Photo: Luis Bustamante)

Each day, tourists line up to take an 8 a.m. boat ride to the Islas Ballestas. Aside from the two guards that live here year round and the workmen that periodically come to collect guano, no humans are allowed to step foot on the islands.

From the water, tourists catch glimpses of dolphins doing their flips and spins, sea lions sleeping or yawning, mussels grabbing hold of the lower layer of rocks, two-feet-tall penguins flopping about, and hundreds and hundreds of birds – thus the guano collectors. In fact, this area is home to the second highest number of bird species in the world. If you visit any time of the year, shoot for December to March which is baby birthing season for thousands of sea lions. The sea lions’ gestational period lasts 11 months, and the mothers-to-be head here for delivery day. The mother sea lions feed on sardines and anchovies to produce about three liters of milk a day.

As your boat leaves the shoreline, you will get an up-close look at the Candelabro, a 2,300-year-old figure shaped like a candle holder engraved in the sandy mountain 400 feet high and 260 feet wide. Unlike the famed Nazca lines, the Candelabro can be seen from all directions and is etched rather than painted.  Despite the 40 mph winds, nothing erases the drawing. No one can explain how it surfaced, or what it represents.

One of several beaches in the Paracas natural reserve. (Photo: Elizabeth Levy Paluck)
Yes, it is a desert (Photo: Deborah Charnes)

A tour of the Paracas National Reserve gives you an idea as to how this region has changed dramatically, albeit over 50 million years. This paleontological center was established by the government in 1975 to protect animals facing extinction. Tour guides will show you 45 million-year-old fossils as testament to the area’s historic relevance. The roadway through the reserve is “mapped” by strings of small stones. The road itself may look like asphalt, but it’s actually created from salt, sand and clay, and its dark color is from the tires that roll over it repeatedly in the sub-tropical sun. Asphalt is prohibited though, due to the numerous chemicals that could be harmful to the ecosystem. 

If you were dropped here in a parachute, you might think you were in the Sahara. Nothing but sand dunes in all directions, and then out pops a patch of dark blue. It’s hard to imagine that this region ships 20 tons of seafood to Lima every two days, for national consumption alone. And, a few miles away, there are more than a dozen factories where they grind fish parts into flour, and sea shells are ground into calcium supplements.

At first glance, the Pacific Ocean blends right in with the blue sky and it’s difficult to decipher where the coastline ends and the sky begins. As a result of the Nazca tectonic plates, a long stretch of the South American Pacific coast was pushed up over the years, resulting in a receding ocean line, and miles and miles of sand dunes from southern Ecuador to Atacama, Chile. If the sky is hazy it’s not smog or clouds but sand storms.

While it is relatively close to the Equator, don’t expect hellish heat. The Paracas National Reserve has cool air and heavy winds thanks to the Humboldt Current. During summertime for North Americans, Paracas is about 60-65 degrees, but in the Peruvian summer months of December to March, it can reach the high 90s. 

There are several beaches with different color sand, but the water is much cooler than in the Caribbean. The area is well controlled by the authorities to maintain its natural environment. While there may be more than 100 archaeological sites here, most are not accessible to tourists. Fishermen are allowed in this area, but fish nets are restricted. The peninsula itself is about 17 kilometers wide and 15 long, and the highest pink volcanic peak is about 500 meters high.

To eat, there are a handful of restaurants, some just ten feet away from the sea where you’ll will see flocks of pelicans and oyster catcher birds spotting the waters and rocks. Every now and then the waves may give you a scare as they inch up to your table. What looks like snow capped peaks is guano painting the rocks. In the Peruvian summers, the condor birds fly in from Ayacucho and feed on sea lion placentas.

For those seeking more adventure, dune buggy and sand surfing tours are available just an hour away in Ica, or head south to Nazca where you can catch aerial views from prop planes to see the Nazca line drawings that cannot be explained.