Less than two hours north of Ica on the well-established Gringo Trail are the Ballestas Islands: home to large families of sea lions, Humbolt Penguins and a variety of birds. A nearby desert peninsula juts out into the Pacific ocean. Both make up the Paracas National Reserve. Its easy to visit both in one day from El Chaco, the small town by which everyone bases their excursions. We arrived from Ica on a late afternoon bus, spending two nights and one full day, which was plenty of time. You could stay just one night and take a bus to Lima or Ica easily in the late afternoon.
We didn’t stay in the centre of El Chaco but in a small village nearby called Poblado Las Antillas, at Paracas Camp Backpackers. Only a 10 minute drive from El Chaco, the lovely owners provided free transfers into town whenever we wanted. For only 50 S. we had a private room and a tranquil outdoor area with a pool, a bar, hammocks and a well equipped kitchen. Staying in El Chaco is comparatively much pricier.
The beach in El Chaco is quite dirty and unappealing, as it’s the hub for all the fishing boats and tours to Ballestas Islands. Still there was a lively atmosphere in the evening and we enjoyed wandering the promenade. The prices the of meals was quite a shock after budget friendly Ica, for cheap eats avoid the restaurants on the waterfront and choose something on the streets further back or one of the local BBQ restaurants with plastic chairs and tables. Being now on the coast, we had entered prime ceviche territory and Pukasoncco Arte y Restaurante is the place to go. Chef and owner Sanson greeted us at the door and showed us just how fresh our flounder was before preparing a delicious ceviche with it (we even got to pick how spicy we wanted the ceviche). This eclectic little restaurant is also an art gallery.
The only way to see the Ballestas Islands is with a tour, which costs 35S. plus the dock fee. It’s a surprisingly short, leaving the docks at 8am and returning at 10am. However the modern speed boat takes less than 30 minutes to reach the Islands and includes an informative guide who speaks Spanish and English. On the way to the islands the boat stops to view the Paracas Candelabra, a prehistoric geoglyph dating back to 200 BC from the Paracas civilization. The Ballestas Islands reminded very much of our trip to Isla Damas in Chile, with similar wildlife. However the Islands themselves are more beautiful with their many arches and caves and it hosts a much larger population of sea lions.
Sea Lions only breed once per year and have their babies in the summer, so February is a good time to spot the sea lion pups learning to swim. They are very loud and smelly when there is such a large number of them! The islands in general are very smelly, and guano (bird poo!) is a lucrative industry for the Peruvians, regularly harvested and sold as fertiliser.
The cheapest and easiest way to visit the peninsula is with a basic bus tour (25 S.). Our tour left at around 11am and returned at 3pm, giving us time for an early lunch after the Ballestas tour. It’s best to do this if you’re on a budget as our lunch stop was at Lagunilla, a small fishing village where the guides tried to lure us into an expensive seafood restaurant (the food did look good though). This was also the swimming stop.
Other stops included Playa Roja (Red Beach), Cathedral Rock (a natural arch that collapsed in an earthquake in 2007) and Julio tello site museum. Like many tours in Peru, it was rushed and a little disappointing, however you get what you pay for. You can also do tours driving your own sand buggy. Of course having your own car to fully explore the peninsula and spend some time on the nicer beaches would ultimately be the best way to see it if you have the money.
El Chaco is not on the Panamerica sur and so direct buses to/from Lima are less frequent and more expensive (45 – 65 S.) than from nearby Pisco. If you take a collectivo (4-5 S.) to Pisco just north of El Chaco you can find buses to Lima for less than 20S. As we were staying halfway between El Chaco and Santa Cruz, our hostel offered to drive us to Santa Cruz where we simply hailed down one of the buses that comes past every 15 – 30 minutes, yet another great reason to stay there. I think we paid 17 S. each. The journey to Lima is about 3 hours, depending on traffic.