Since being in southern Peru for the last two months, I'd heard about the Ballestas islands on several occasions, mostly as they are nicknamed the poor man's Galapagos, and Paracas, with its coastal national park, seemed a good place to visit them from. Plus the fact that we hadn't see the Pacific since being on Chiloé back in February, everything seemed to be set up to make a visit to this small town almost unavoidable.
But looking back on the experience, I wonder if it was really worth it. Did we just go because we'd been sucked into the must-see trap? Or, perhaps worse, were we just going because it was on our route and made for a convenient stop along the way towards Lima, giving our visit almost no clear purpose or aim?
Arriving at Paracas Backpacker's House, we received the spiel from owner, Alberto, about the two tours on offer: to the Ballestas islands themselves in the early morning, and to the national park, in the late morning, timed so that it was possible to do both on the same day.
We were in no such rush, so decided nothing on the spot. Over the next three days that we stayed there, I came to realised just how polished his speech was, hearing it performed multiple times for other travellers upon their arrival in both Spanish and English while sitting in the reception to use the wifi.
I ended up doing both tours, but the opposite way around from usual, and on my own as Zab was unfortunately bed stricken due to food poisoning.
The town of Paracas itself is unremarkable and has clearly grown to accommodate the tourists, including many daytripping Limeños. For visitors, It offers a disproportionately high number of tour agencies for the population, a few mediocre restaurants, a small beach and many, many large but non-threatening pelicans on the lookout for tidbits or leftovers.
Reserva Nacional de Paracas
What is usually the second tour leaves town around 11am to visit the national park that covers almost 120,000 hectares of the mainland to the south of Paracas. This is not a wildlife tour as very few animals actually live on the mainland, just some desert foxes and lizards and you have to venture far from the human activity surrounding the reserve to see even those.
Instead the focus is on the landscapes, the geology and the history of the area. The first stop is at the monument to General José San Martín on the outskirts of town, which stands to commemorate the landing of the general and his fleet in the Bay of Paracas on their way to liberate Lima from the Spanish in 1821. It sits on a hill overlooking the town and bay, and on a clear day, the views would be lovely. Unfortunately, it was completely grey and overcast on this day.
From there, we were then taken to the Visitors Center for the reserve, an excellent museum detailing the geological and human history of the area. It was here that I learned the origin of the name Paracas; it comes from two Quechua words para (“rain”) and acca (“sand”), thus meaning “rain of sand” or “sandstorm”, which given the weather, is certainly an apt name.
After that, we climbed back into the minivan and began to penetrate the peninsula proper, learning that the red colour making up much of desert is due to iron deposits, and that the accents of yellow is due to the presence of marine fossils, as the area was once at the bottom of the sea.
At Supay beach we stopped to see the famous Catedral, a rock formation that was connected to the mainland with an arch that was destroyed in the 2007 earthquake.
We were then deposited at a small fishing village on the south side of the peninsula where we were offered the chance to have lunch at one of the handful of restaurants that competed rather vigorously for our custom. I found the food average and somewhat overpriced (S/25 (£5.70) for a starter and main) and would instead recommend bringing snacks.
After lunch, we were herded back towards Paracas with a stop at a beach with deep red sand against yellow cliffs, which was pleasant enough.
The following day, again alone as Zab still wasn't feeling up to it, I went on the morning tour to the islands. This involved leaving the hostel at 8am and being shepherded onto an open top boat with seemingly every other tourist in Paracas.
The boat then speeds due west out to sea, passing the peninsula and stopping briefly to allow its passengers a view of the Candelabra, a large geoglyph on the side of a gentle hill on the north side of the peninsula.
It is believed to date from the time of the Paracas culture, meaning it would have been made around 200 BCE. Some people believe it has a connection to the Nazca lines, though there is no proof for this.
The fact that this 2000 year old geoglyph hasn't eroded despite being carved in sand may seem impossible at first, but when you learn that this region never gets rain and that given its position on a north facing side of a gentle slope that almost never receives direct hits from the wind, it starts to make sense.
The boat then continued 20 minutes or so on to the islands, which rose out of the sea like statues, at first appearing calm and still in the water, but as we drew closer, I noticed that they were in fact covered in a squawking mass of bird life.
The thing that struck me the most was how the islands were covered in bird shit, and the guide went on to tell us that this excrement is actually collected every ten years or so and sold as fertiliser, due to its high concentration of minerals.
We mostly saw gulls of various kinds, a few Humboldt penguins and several packs of sea lions. The boat cruised around the islands, slowing down several times as we came closer to various groups of wildlife, while maintaining a respectful distance.
I enjoyed the tour of the reserve much more than the island tour, mostly because I have discovered that I don't particularly care for watching wildlife. Also, the information we were given on the tour of the reserve, especially from the excellent museum, was much better presented and I thought gave a lot more context to what we were seeing than it did on the boat trip to the islands.
I imagine that had it been a bright, sunny morning, the trip to the islands could have been a lot more captivating, but as it was I went on a grey cloudy morning and was wishing I'd stayed in bed with Zab!
Overall, I enjoyed our time in Paracas well enough, though it certainly hasn't been the most spectacular place we've been in South America. Had it not been on our way though, I can now say that I would not have made a diversion to stop there.
I paid S/20 (£4.50) for the island tour plus S/7 (£1.60) in port fees before leaving Paracas and S/30 (£6.90) for the tour of the reserve plus a S/2 (£0.45) fee to enter the reserve itself.
For both tours, this included hotel transfer, transport and a decent English-speaking guide. The boats going out to the islands, while full, felt safe and there were enough life jackets for everyone.
You can book similar tours here, even as a day trip from Lima.
In Paracas, we stayed at the Paracas Backpackers' House, where a simple double room with a private bathroom cost us S/70 (£16) per night. There is wifi, but it didn't reach all the way to our room, and there is no breakfast but there is a kitchen.
The main thing that recommends this place are the owners: Alfredo and his wife are welcoming, helpful and accommodating, and will arrange the tours for you with no fuss or pressure.
Unfortunately, as we have found is common in Peru, neighbours can be very noisy, and two of the three nights we were there, there was extremely loud music playing from surrounding buildings until the small hours of the morning so sleep was difficult.