PARACAS, PERU — As anyone who has been to Ecuador's Galapagos knows, a trip to those islands is the journey of a lifetime. But with per-person prices that can start at $3,000, it might have to be a trip of the next lifetime.
Fortunately for Galapagos-aspirers like me, my wife and our twin 12-year-old daughters, there are the Ballestas Islands, which are known as the Poor Man's Galapagos. The Ballestas lie just 10 miles off the southern coast of Peru and are easily accessible by boat from Paracas, a small, sun-drenched working port and tourist center.
Moreover, they're just off the overland route between Lima and Machu Picchu, making them an easy detour. An excursion to the Ballestas also puts you close to the Paracas National Reserve, a spectacular confluence of sea and desert that's worth the trip by itself.
The Ballestas, a cluster of two dozen or so puny, sedimentary outcroppings carved by the Pacific into fantastic shapes, are not in the same league as the full-sized, volcanic Galapagos, which are 1,500 miles northwest. But because of their similar location in the cold waters of the Humboldt Current, they are equally rich in fish, especially anchovies, and thus in the bird and marine mammal species that feed on them, including boobies (though not the blue-footed variety) and penguins.
As such, the Ballestas were a natural detour for us in December on our way to Lima from Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. But our noontime arrival in Paracas meant that we would see the islands the next morning because the excursion boats avoid the choppy afternoon seas.
We had been in Peru nearly two weeks, so we were prepared to parry the 50 soles price (about $18) for a car tour offered by guides hanging around Paracas' central fountain. After about 15 minutes, I got the price down to 25 soles each (about $9), and we set off with our driver and tour guide, Nicholas, in his beat-up Toyota.
Our first stop was the stylized sail monument to Argentine Gen. Jose de San Martin, who landed here in September 1820 on the way to liberating Peru. It was the sight of large flocks of flamingos in the bay that inspired him to select white and red as the colors of the new nation's flag. Unfortunately, Nicholas explained, there were no flamingos to be seen at this time of year.
Once inside the Paracas National Reserve, just south of town , Nicholas pulled over to show us that the road was not asphalt but compressed salt, blackened by years of vehicular traffic. This explained the dearth of terrestrial life, even for a desert, that gave interior parts of the reserve a moon-like appearance.
Along the coast, however, it was a different story. We spent the next hour taking in the colorful sea and wind-sculpted ( paracas means "raining sand" in Quechua) landscape, beginning with the ocher "cathedral," whose majestic arch collapsed in the 2007 7.8-magnitude earthquake centered just offshore, and concluding with La Playa Roja and its mesmerizing red-brown sand.
For lunch we had a choice of five open-air restaurants in the picturesque fishing village of Lagunillas. It was touristy, and the prices reflect that (a plate of ceviche for 25 soles), but the view of the small but lively beach and desolate, distant headlands was mesmerizing, and the girls enjoyed watching pelicans jockeying for handouts just outside the kitchen door.
Nicholas informed us that the recently renovated and expanded Julio C. Tello museum and visitor center, about five miles inside the reserve, was temporarily closed, but the presence of a tour bus in the parking lot made us suspicious, and we insisted on seeing for ourselves. It was indeed open and well worth the 45 minutes we spent enjoying the creative and informative exhibits (including a wind chamber) that were described in English as well as they were in Spanish. Among the many things we learned is that, even though Peru has less than 1% of the world's coastline, it accounts for 10% of the world's marine harvest. And -- another surprise -- there were 27 flamingos to be seen, albeit at a distance, from the end of a path leading to the water.
Back in Paracas, we set about finding accommodations for the night, which proved to be surprisingly difficult because it was the week between Christmas and New Year's and we needed lodging for four. Thanks to the kindly clerk at the Hostal Refugio del Pirata, we secured two rooms in its new addition, which she let us have for $30 each because we paid cash.
At 8 the next morning, we joined the scrum of tourists at the municipal dock waiting to be herded onto one of 15 open-air speedboats for the trip to the Ballestas, just visible through the mist. We were disappointed to be in the second-to-last boat but were pleased that it held only 16 other passengers (thus allowing ample opportunity to move about for photos) and with our guide, Luis Francisco, who spoke English well and was entertaining.