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Sights, Sounds, and Smells in the Ballestas Islands

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ballestas islands

Of the many things I was hoping to see on my recent trip to Peru and Chile, I was most excited about the opportunity to dive into some natural wonders. In Chile this came in Patagonia where I explored Torres del Paine National Park, and in Peru I got my nature fix on a tiny speedboat circumnavigating the Ballestas Islands.

Las Islas Ballestas, as they’re known in Spanish, are a cluster of rocky islands off the coast of the Pisco Province in Peru. They may not seem like much from a distance, but up close the islands are a hotbed for ecological activity with myriad bird species an swarms of sea lions calling Ballestas home. This high level of biodiversity has even led some people to consider the Ballestas Islands a sort of “mini Galapagos” – although I didn’t see anything as cool as a giant tortoise or swimming iguana.

ballestas islands

Among the bird species that make the Ballestas Islands so special are boobies, tendrils and Humbolt Penguins, all of which I saw on my nearly 3 hour tour of the area. The most important bird on the islands, however, is called the guanay – which you can see in the photos below flanking a giant pelican and perched atop one of the few manmade structures built there:

ballestas islands

ballestas islands

Why are the guanay so important? It’s all in the name. See, “guanay” comes from guano, the Quechua word for bird, bat, or seal shit. As you can see by the large white splatters on the rocks in all of these pictures, the Ballestas Islands are literally drowning in the stuff. Not so great for the smell cloud surrounding the place (seriously, I almost passed out), but amazing for the local people who let the poo pile up for a while before scaling the cliffs and harvesting the very expensive fertilizer. So the Ballestas Islands are an ecological and agricultural treasure trove, it seems.

Sensory overloads abound on the islands beyond the intense smell of bird crap. As I mentioned, hoards of sea lions use the Ballestas Islands as a breeding ground, elementary school, and year-round beach resort – meaning at any given time there are a couple hundred blubbery mammals jostling each other for a space on the rocks. This overcrowding leads to very verbal altercations which echo off the walls of the caves and cliffs, making for a sort of sea lion symphony that drowns out all other noise.

Not all of the sea lions are screeching terrors, though, as you can tell by this little gal peacefully sunning herself on a rocky outcropping:

ballestas islands

ballestas islands

Overall, the sights on the Ballestas Islands make up for the smells and sounds, and if you think you can stomach being crapped on or driven to insanity by deafening sea lion honks, you should definitely include a trip to the “Little Galapagos” on your Peruvian itinerary.


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