Savannah Grace

Poor Man’s Galapagos

Part 1: Ica Day Trip Adventures

From Lima we took our very first bus ride in Peru to Ica with Cruz del Sur bus company.
We were headed to Ica because it seemed a very sensible place to base ourselves for day trips to Huacachina and Paracas. Ica is the very dry capital city of the Ica Region in southern Peru with a population of 220,000. We started our day with a two hour morning tour of Islas Ballestas then went to the Huacachina sand dunes on a sand boarding buggy tour for sunset! A perfect day.

Ica Peru Ica Peru

A painless one hour trip from Ica on a smooth tarmac road through the desert took us to the beach town of Paracas where we instantly boarded a two hour boat tour to Islas Ballestas. Everything was so straight forward and easy. I had initially planned to stay longer and even spend a few days in Paracas for Kees to kite surf, but because of our abrupt change in plans, we would only be there for the short tour.

Paracas, Peru Paracas, Peru

Islas Ballestas are a collection of rocky islands twenty minutes by boat off the coast of Paracas. Because of the affordable price of the tour and the similar wildlife you will find, Isla Ballestas is often referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos but we promptly called it Ammon’s Galapagos. If you have read my travel memoir series, “I Grew My Boobs in China”  you will understand why.

Paracas Harbour, Peru Paracas Harbour, Peru

Paracas Harbour, Peru Paracas Harbour, Peru Paracas Harbour, Peru - Savannah Grace

It didn’t take long to realize why they compare Islas Ballistas with Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Leaving the harbour we already saw large pelicans flying overhead, their wings audibly beating with each thrust. The regular “plop” of seabirds, plunging into the water after fish, caught our attention and we’d see them reemerge seconds later with a fish sparkling in their beak’s grasp.

Islas Ballistas, Peru 12001950_518606204968504_371191163_o

Thanks to Alex in Wonderland’s tip, we took the back left seat in the boat. The tour takes you around the islands counter clockwise, and though they still turn for both sides to see, our spot gave the best views and chances for photos. Also great for taking selfies with no one behind you. The only downside to the backseat was not being able to hear the guide. Luckily he was great and took time to take pictures for everyone and sat with them to answer any questions. After 15 years working as a guide, he had a lot of great information to share.

 Islas Ballistas, Peru 11953375_518607544968370_7303998763544005416_o

After just ten minutes we could see the 595 foot candelabra carved two feet deep into the side of the cliff. The Paracas Candelabra is another one of those mysteries no one can really explain. Since it can be seen 12 miles from sea, they think it may have been used as a landmark for boats passing by. The exact age is unknown, but they apparently found pottery around it that dates back to 200 B.C.

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru

Once we reached the islands, the captain showed off his skills, weaving between the rocks and under natural rock arches. The waves that crash against the rocks and swell up and down a couple meters every few seconds didn’t deter him from practically touching the rocks.

 Islas Ballistas, Peru 11951719_518607464968378_6370765858508225647_o

For such a hostile environment, surprisingly there is no shortage of life on those rocks. The formations themselves are beautiful enough for a visit, the wildlife is an added bonus.

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru

These rocks pose refuge to the guanay guana birds, blue-footed booby, the fur seals, sea lions and the humboldt penguins. Though we could only see the penguins from a distance up on the highest point of the rocks, the little wobble walk could still be seen and appreciated. It feels wonderful to have seen penguins in both South Africa and now Peru, two places I never even realized they lived.

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru 

Because there are no natural predators, like killer whales or great whites, the sea lions are thriving. They can be seen happily swimming in Paracas’ harbour but also lounging out on these rocks, growling and lazing about with their pups. Sea lions seize to amaze me by their ability to climb so high up on those sharp, steep rocks with their awkward bodies.

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru

My mind was blown when it dawned on me that there was an entire cliff covered with birds like a black carpet! They coated the entire island so thickly they appeared to be quivering rocks.

Despite being quite touristy, there were only a couple other boats to be seen, giving you the feeling you have the ocean all to yourself. Kees and I both started our travels years and years ago, always braving the most uncomfortable conditions and avoiding “touristy” destinations at all costs. We started talking about how different this style of travel was and admitting that we really enjoyed the comfort and ease of such a tour.


Having said this, I always worry that people read travel stories with pure envy and get a skewed idea of what it’s all about. I want to bring some reality to this “perfect” picture. Before taking this tour I read some other travel blogs that said crossing the sea could be a bit rough, especially by the rocks. Whooshing up and down, luckily, I don’t get seasickness but I can see why this would trigger it. If you know you have serious seasickness, I don’t think I’d recommend this trip.

With thousands of birds perched and living on these rocks for who-knows-how-long, there is a layer of white bird droppings so thickly caked on there, it’s no surprise that you can smell it from the boat. Also, the birds aren’t afraid to catapult some surprises on the heads of their visitors, so bring a hat.

Islas Ballistas, Peru Islas Ballistas, Peru

Kees and I continued discussing previous trips. I was once again belly laughing at his story of Indonesia, his first trip abroad, and how he’d torn a poor local’s house apart, leaping and shouting around the room, “There’s a lizard!!!!” Now, giggling at himself, he explained, “I’d never seen anything like it before. Anywhere. Not on TV, not in the pet store, it was like a miniature crocodile.” Oh, the amazing joys of travel!

Continuing down memory lane and the boundless discomforts we’d experienced on the road, Kees couldn’t help but appreciate the power of the ocean as we went up and down with the waves at Islas Ballestas. “What a hostile environment. Great for the sea lions. Great for the birds. Terrible for me. That was really a hostile environment for us!” Kees reflected and promptly classified our tour as, “Wow, wow and no ow.”

Islas Ballistas, Peru

I would categorize our Peru vacation as comfort backpacking/travel. Not quite luxury, you still have some great sites and adventures but very monitored, safe and comfortable, suitable for both rolling suitcases and backpacks.

I would’ve missed out on this tour if it weren’t for word of mouth suggestions from my amazing fellow travellers and bloggers. Depending on your itinerary and how much time you have in Peru, I highly recommend this tour.

Savannah Grace


  • If you suffer from seasickness, this may have to opt out.
  • If you’re scared of ocean, it’s survivable. The islands are close enough that land is always in view.
  • Wear a hat or you might have bird poop in your hair.

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