Mini Galapagos in Peru

Ballestas Islands, housing one of the world's largest seabird sanctuaries, are also known for penguins, sea lions and guano, or bird excrement

The birds keep up a squawking cacophony. Red-legged cormorants fly overhead, bombarding our boat fleetingly with white bird droppings.

We yelp and dodge while trying to maintain our balance in choppy waters. The woman in front of me fails to duck in time. Her floral blouse suffers a sizeable splatter.

"Buena suerte!" Our guide says with an exuberant beam, using the Spanish phrase for good luck. "In our culture, getting hit like that is a blessing." It is a belief shared by some cultures, I realise, including the Chinese.

We are on a three-hour boat tour of the Ballestas Islands, off the coast of Peru. Hundreds of thousands of birds from more than 200 species roost on the 700m-long islands, crowning the area as one of the world's largest seabird sanctuaries.

For its abundant wildlife, the Ballestas Islands are lovingly nicknamed Poor Man's Galapagos by the locals. The boat trip to and around the Ballestas Islands costs as little as 40 soles (S$17), compared with the thousands of dollars needed for a typical cruise around the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.


Hundreds of thousands of birds, including penguins, roosting on the Ballestas Islands. PHOTOS: DENISE LIM

Since we are nowhere near Ecuador, paying 40 soles to play Darwinian naturalists for a morning in Peru cannot go too wrong.

So my husband and I embark on a four-hour drive from the capital, Lima, towards the arid Paracas reserve, from which we board an expedition vessel to cruise the frigid, anchovy-rich waters lining coastal Peru.

WILDLIFE SPECTACLE

The journey begins on an enigmatic note. Near the coast, we pass a geoglyph, a large and mysterious carving etched into the sandy hillside. Shaped like a three-pronged cactus or candlestick, it is the cryptic Paracas Candelabra, measuring 150m high and 50m wide.

No one can really confirm its source and meaning. But theories on its origins abound, ranging from its relation to the Nazca lines or geoglyphs in the desert nearby, to its existence as a Masonic symbol and a navigational guide for sailors.

"Or, as a popular theory goes - aliens," our guide says as he smiles conspiratorially.

Within 30 minutes, wave-lashed, sun-baked cliffs and arches seemingly emerge out of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean.

The Ballestas islands have a desolate, rugged charm, with caves and crevices tucked beneath archways.

A powerful, acrid odour hits our senses. "Guano," our guide says.

The islands are sheathed with a thick layer of guano, or bird excrement, which Peru harvests every seven years as lucrative fertiliser. It is highly effective due to its rich nitrogen content, 20 times more than in cow manure.


The Paracas Candelabra, on the coast of Paracas, is a mysterious geoglyph shaped like a three-pronged cactus or candlestick. PHOTOS: DENISE LIM

"The islands were 30m taller before," the guide adds, telling us that a whopping 10 million tonnes of guano had been dug off in the last 30 years.

Guano, taken so seriously in Peru, is one major reason travellers are not allowed to disembark. Indeed, a pair of security guards live there in isolation for months on end to dissuade visitors.

As we approach other islands, the sand-coloured cliffs seem to pulsate. I realise it is the movement of birds - hundreds of thousands of them - perched on the rock surfaces, their caws and yawps competing with the sound of crashing waves.

Black-and-white pelicans soar, the streaks of lemon distinctive on their necks. The wingspan of the largest must measure more than 2m.

I watch a pelican swoop from the sky and scoop out fish from the ocean with precision, swallowing them whole, before gliding gracefully above the water.

We see colonies of Peruvian boobies, duck-sized birds that are grey. I crane my neck to spot the exotic blue-footed booby that is famous in the Galapagos, but am told that we are, in December, a month too early for that breed, given its migration patterns.

The cormorants, with their sleek black-and-white bodies and distinctive red feet, are probably most abundant here.

Our guide points out some oyster catchers - both the white-chested American and blackish varieties - as well as Inca terns, differentiated by their red bills and feet and intriguing white feathers that coil from their eyes.

  • Getting there

  • We fly to Lima, capital of Peru, from New York City. From Lima, we embark on a four-hour car transfer along the Pan-American Highway (South) to Paracas, where we board a boat to the Ballestas Islands.

    Our domestic trips are customised with tour operator Intense Peru (www.intenseperu.com). 

    Tips
    • Go early in the morning to  avoid crowds.

    • Given the massive number  of seabirds in the area, wear  a hat to protect your head  from bird droppings.

    • Slather on sunscreen as the  boats are unsheltered.

    • The waters can get choppy,  so keep breakfast light and  consider taking motion  sickness pills.

PLAYFUL PENGUINS

But the stars of the show, to me, are the ones clothed in tuxedos.

I am thrilled to see a huge rookery of Humboldt penguins waddling among the cliffs, with tiny wings flanking their dot-speckled chests.

It is my first time seeing penguins in the wild and I am delighted to see them tobogganing into the waters with dexterity.

Birds are not the only players of the wildlife spectacle. Our boat chugs and drifts near crevices of the jagged coastlines and we spot vermillion sea stars and shuffling Sally Lightfoot crabs on the outcrops.

An unusual chorus of wolf-barking and honking joins the oceanic ensemble. It is the sound of sea lion herds along a tawny, rocky beach and in a neighbouring cave.

One large sea lion shimmies up the tip of a rock, twitches its whiskers and turns in our direction, pausing for dramatic effect. Flexing the muscles under its blubber, it torpedoes into the water, displaying its endearing personality and showmanship to our applause.

The trip is an enlightening primer on the Who's Who of the Ballestas sanctuary and, soon, the time comes for our motorboat to make its way back to shore.

As we pull into the sheltered waters of Paracas Bay, someone gasps excitedly. A grey bottlenose dolphin is trailing our boat, weaving in and leaping out of the water alongside us.

To compare the Ballestas Islands to Galapagos is probably hyperbole, given that our trip is short and travellers do not disembark on the islands.

But they are a captivating wildlife attraction that is still somewhat off the beaten track and one that is easily visited on a day trip from Lima.

We walk up the berth. "Fascinating," says the woman with the stained floral blouse. She smiles, evidently in a better mood.

• Denise Lim, formerly a communications manager with a financial institution, is a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Mini Galapagos in Peru'. Print Edition | Subscribe