Chapter 4 – The Ballestas Islands

A knock at the door. I mumbled something, vaguely aware that something was supposed to happen. Seconds later it dawned on me that on hearing that knock I was supposed to wake up.


Plaza San Martin, Pisco

My eyes still asleep, I fumbled in the subdued light of daybreak and found the bathroom, it was exactly where I had left it. A short time later I emerged refreshed and in search of breakfast. The “posada” wasn’t yet equipped with dining facilities, although Juan had assured us they were under construction. So it was that I found myself at a wobbly wrought iron table in front of a cafe in the plaza. I gazed at the surroundings. Old men sat on park benches chatting, street sweepers swept, kids scrambled around a statue of  of San Martin, one of Peru’s national heroes, their school bags bobbing on their backs and boys with their shoeshine paraphernalia lay in wait to ambush anybody with the slightest scuff on their shoes. The scene was much like any town or city in Peru, as I was to discover.

My continental breakfast was placed haphazardly in front of me, sure enough, it was strawberry jam, bread rolls and “cafe con leche.” With the resignation that no other breakfast existed in Peru, I split my rolls, filled them with jam and studied the comings and goings in the plaza as I ate unenthusiastically.

It was during breakfast that I met the young lad who was with Lucho the previous evening. Surprisingly, he spoke good English, it was refreshing. The micro was due to leave in ten minutes. I finished my crumbling rolls and licked the excess jam off my fingers, paid the bill and followed him.

I climbed aboard the micro. Greeted those I recognised and remembered from the night before and being greeted by those I didn’t.

Heads were counted, the door creaked shut and we began our game of hopscotch anew as we battled with Pisco’s potholes. Out of town, past the sentinel B-25 Mitchell, past San Andreas wharf. Fishing boats already returning with the day’s catch waiting to dock and unload. The graceful, ever hopeful pelican, wheeled overhead awaiting their breakfast. The stallholders assembling their shelters and tents ready for the day’s commerce. On we pushed, that horribly  unique smell of the fortress-like fish-meal factories, their towers providing real or imagined protection. We arrived at Playa El Chaco.

The floating dock at Playa El Chaco serves both tourists and fishermen - Image: AV

The floating dock at Playa El Chaco serves both tourists and fishermen – Image: AV

Our micro waddled off the tar-seal like a drunken duck and stopped by the wharf, dwarfed by the big trucks waiting to load with crates of fish. There he was, large as life, grinning as he opened the door of the bus. Lucho shook all our hands strongly as we alighted and led us safely through a throng of children proffering various souvenirs made of sea shells and their plaintiff “compra mi’s.”

Along the jetty, wending our way and dodging fast-track barrow loads of fish to a small floating dock and more pelicans. The ebb and flow of the sea made the floating dock seem a precarious place to be. Big heavy-duty plastic boxes of various species of fish were being hefted by gum booted on one side from a brightly coloured barnacle encrusted boat; on the other side our sleek motorboat in stark contrast.

We stepped down and stumbled our way aboard, some with more grace than others. Ladies were given a helping hand by the gallant Lucho, men were left to fend for themselves. Instructions from our guide and we donned the day-glo orange life-jackets and jockeyed in the boat for what we considered the best vantage point clumsily in our newly encumbered states.

The 'Candalabra' perched on the peninsula - Image: AV

The ‘Candalabra’ perched on the peninsula – Image: AV

Judy, our guide, introduced herself in good English, then in Spanish; there were speakers of both languages aboard. The motor roared, momentarily drowning her words and we carved a great wake away from the wharf.

Bucketing our way over the wave tops, it appeared that even the sea here had potholes, Judy delivered her preliminary speech, quite an informative routine.

We listened as she pointed out the port of San Martin on the opposite side of the bay and then with a dramatic sweep of her arm, our gaze turned to the high dune rising from the bay as the engine was cut and the boat slowed so we wallowed in the troughs and peaks.the huge “candalabra” carved into the peninsula hillside.


Etched into the hillside was a magnificent triple “candalabra.” By whom it was built and when, nobody really knows; apart from the fact that a line through the middle points directly to the famed Nazca Lines 260kms distant. All this information added to the mystery and camera shutters clicked noisily.

On we surged, now out of the protection of the inner bay the boat seemed smaller now as we bucked and sped along at the mercy of the sea.

Our destination, the Ballestas Is - Image: AV

Our destination, the Ballestas Is – Image: AV

Suddenly, the boat reared up on its haunches like a stallion and we were under way again in an arc that took us further from land. The boat began to heave with the swell of the sea as we passed the end of the protective Paracas Peninsula and Judy stood in front, perfectly poised despite the undulating boat, fielding question after question.

Our boat sped on and a great shape made its presence felt on the starboard side. Gliding across wave tops and disappearing below the crests into troughs majestically rising again to soar on, a Royal Albatross graced us with his company; not a wing flap, as he showed us just who was the master of its environment on huge motionless outstretched wings. Again cameras went crazy as the great bird wheeled away and we all stood in silently awe at its magnificence.

The Ballestas Islands were pointed out in the distance, still just grey lumps low on the horizon as we followed the peninsula to open water.

Then panic! In the middle of nowhere, the motor idled, the boat slowed and wallowed dramatically to a halt for no apparent reason. We looked around momentarily bewildered. The islands, our destination, still a long way off, the safety of land was a long way behind us.

Judy drew our attention with the now familiar sweep of her arm to the starboard side once again. The surface of the sea broke and the sleek grey forms of a school of dolphins arched their backs, dorsal fins slicing the water, swam effortlessly along side the boat. Again, we were stunned into silence as Mother Nature showed us once more the beauty of her world. The boat rose and fell with the rhythm of the sea, audibly slapping the swells. It was several moments before cameras started their mechanical clicking hopeful of capturing and recording the seemingly choreographed serenity of the silent grey shapes as the rose again and again to the surface, for our benfit, I think not. Our shutters often fell on empty sea, as we sighed and focused our cameras. From six photos, I managed only one decent shot.

We could have stayed mesmerised for much longer, but the islands beckoned.

Again we surged forward, bow aimed at the dark rocks that now stood awesomely from the water with their creamy coffee-coloured topping.

Their true majesty becoming further apparent as we got nearer and nearer. What were just dark smudges on the horizon now stood breathtakingly far above our heads. Great jagged cliffs rose out of the sea. Caverns carved by millions of years by the raw force of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean; shingle beaches still being pounded by those same waves.

A little brown face - Image - AV

A little brown face – Image: AV

Suddenly we were confronted with a small brown face peering down at us from a small rocky outcrop. The nose wrinkled, its whiskers twitched, our scent and the petrol fumes of the boat, had to have been a strange mixture. The big dark eyes blinked lazily.

Our first encounter with a sea-lion, a season-old female pup.

Looking down at us with bored interest, she followed our course as we circled her roost. Cameras clicked, the women clucked about how cute she was.

The sea raged against the pup’s rocky haven, dashing its fury almost up to where the brown-coated pup was perched. The orphan-like baby seemed to be cowering in safety as though the waves would dash its fragile body. Disturbed now, it humped along the promontory, one last disdainful look back  and she plopped into the churning waters, timed perfectly with the ebb and flow; nature takes care of its own.

Our attention became focused again on the main island. Thousands of sea birds roosting on the ledges. Blue-footed Boobies we were assured by our guide, then closer to the rocks and a large orange crab clung to the barnacle covered surface of the tidal fringe, wearing the same day-glo orange suit that we had on.

Yes, he took the boat through it - Image: AV

Yes, he took the boat through it – Image: AV

A cave loomed ahead, opening its great maw as if to swallow us like some beast about to enjoy a sweet morsel. We passed another shingle beach as we entered the cave, necks arched as the roof closed ominously over our heads, the swell making us rise and fall. The roar of the sea increased so that it echoed and thundered, amplified by the confines of this void. We sat in this deafening world, cameras clicking silently.

I was pleased that our skipper seemed to know what he was about, he maneuvered the boat skillfully as each new swell threatened us with rocks. The light at the end of the tunnel, what a pleasant sight, nearer, then out again into daylight, a collective sigh.

More birds, perched on the rocks around us. All were named, their names quickly forgotten, lost in the magic.

A great roar shook us from our reverie. The huge maned head of a bull sea-lion glared at us. He reared up defiantly as he roared again, then he sneezed, the passengers on the port side got covered in great gobs of sea-lion snot. I was assured, amid squeals, a less than pleasant experience. He settled, our level of threat had diminished, we lacked the ability to return his challenging roar. He shook his great head, his multiple chins waggling as he did so. He propped is head on the rock to observe our slow progress away from his territory.

The colourful Zarcillo - Image: viru2012

The colourful Zarcillo – Image: viru2012

More Boobies and other assorted seabirds whose less than comic names forgotten. Inching our way along, a small colony of penguins, the colourful Zarcillo with its yellow moustache. They all blinked nonchalantly as we stared through our viewfinders. They continued to blink as we passed.

Image - AV

The gantries for loading guano – Image: AV

Around to the back of the island, and we were surprised to see old derelict buildings nested high on the rocks, suspended gantries and loading docks jutted from the cliffs. Guano, bird poop, was a major income source for Peru. The nitrogen rich fertiliser being highly sought around the world. These islands are now a wildlife reserve, and the haven of two old brothers who act as caretakers. The knee-deep guano is harvested every five years.

Circling the island we see more birds, sea-lions and penguins then into a small bay.

Sea-lion colony - Image: AV

Sea-lion colony – Image: AV

Here to our surprise, a whole colony of sea-lions along a stony beach. Few of the big males were to be seen, holding their heads regally aloft surveying their harems, mostly groups of females with their pups. The sea was full of sleek brown bodies of assorted sizes heading for the beach or leaving for the open sea to do whatever sea-lions do at sea. Swarms of pups played in the tumbling surf close to the beach. More film was exposed as we marveled at nature in the raw.

The dreaded announcement form our guide, it was time to return to the mainland. The boat wheeled away and we glanced back sadly as the islands shrank in the distance to meld with the horizon again. We motored on in silence, each of us shrouded in thought, some of us even eager to return to the safety of land as the mixture of petrol fumes and rolling sea threatened to embarrass us.

The shore came closer, the driver jockeyed for position amongst the other tour boats at the floating dock. The ever-present Lucho was on hand to welcome us and help the ladies to disembark on to the undulating jetty. Our Ballestas Islands tour was over.

We had our memories in our hearts and cameras as we sat at a cafe by the beach. We watched the local kids feed and tease the pelicans flapping at the water’s edge with fish that they had scrounged from the morning’s catches.

My stomach was still queasy from the motion of the boat, I am not a sailor, so I struggled with my orange juice as I evaded the “compra mi’s” of the local kids selling beautiful souvenir sea-lions and other assorted items. No time nor the inclination now for Pisco Sours, besides it was only a little after 10am.


The kids feeding the pelicans – Image: AV

It was fun sitting there watching the kids as they would throw a fish into the water and race the pelicans to retrieve it. The ever-hopeful pelicans flapping and jostling for the pole position as another fish was cast into the water. The children squealed with delight at the confusion they had caused.

Then Lucho’s huge frame towered over the table threatening to block out the light of day, he was summoning us to our next destination.