Is there such a thing as too many penguins? I was a little worried that cruising past penguins and sea lions twice in 72 hours was going to be a bit much, but since I couldn’t decide between Peru’s Ballestas Islands or Islas Palomino, I went to both anyway.
Both islands are eco-havens, home to sea birds galore and protected areas where you can’t go ashore. But even still, both have sightDOING twists in addition the wildlife watching and rugged landscapes you might imagine in the Pacific Ocean.
Islas Palomino Peru
Out of the three days I spent in Lima, my excursion out to Islas Palomino was the best part of my visit. Boats leave from the port of Callao, just 20 minutes from Lima’s airport or 45 minutes from city center.
Half-day trips take you to see the 8,000 sea lions that live near Islas Palomino and to cruise past other islands home to thousands of sea birds. I was most interested in the Humboldt penguins, although there are also gulls, zarcillos, boobies, pelicans, cormorants, and other birds.
The ride to Islas Palomino takes about 90 minutes, including a few sightseeing pauses. Once once you are in open water, the journey can be rough, so I only advise visiting under ideal weather conditions. Despite taking two bonine on a nice day, I was a little queasy (and I have a strong stomach).
But eventually we made it to the main site, where lots of sea lions were waiting for us. Trust me, you’ll hear and smell them before you can make out their individual bodies.
I’ve seen sea lions in a number of other places, but Islas Palomino is special because of the opportunity to swim with them. Don a full-body wetsuit (you’ll want it: the Humboldt current keeps the water chilly) and jump in.
These massive animals are super playful, so any nervousness you have will evaporate after a minute or two. Then, just sit back and relax. Like most wildlife encounters, the main rule is do not touch, although you might notice a few sea lions accidentally graze past you.
The trip ends with a sail back toward Callao, including the chance to view penguins from a distance.
We booked our trip with EcoCruceros, who provides wetsuits, light snacks, soda, and the boat trip for about US $50. If you prefer to keep things simple, you can also book a trip with Viator so that round-trip transportation to/from your hotel is included.
Either way, pack motion sickness medications (or my favorite: ginger chews), a swimsuit, towel, and biodegradable sunscreen. I also brought along a snorkel and mask — not included in your tour — but the water was so cold on my face that I didn’t end up using them for more than a minute or so. Save the space in your suitcase and enjoy the view above water!
I also brought my trusty binoculars, but I’d suggest leaving those at home too. Our boat was rocking and rolling so much that it was more comfortable to keep a wider view at the horizon rather than zooming into the sea birds.
Advantages of Islas Palomino: Close to Lima, chance to get up close to sea lions.
Disadvantages of Islas Palomino: Seasickness is a real possibility.
I actually really liked Callao. If you’ve got extra time to spare, you can visit the Fortaleza Real Felipe, eat an ice cream in Plaza Miguel Grau, or grab a seafood lunch at Cabos (they close super early). I felt safe in that tiny little section of Callao during daytime hours, but it gets shady if you head deeper into the city.
Ballestas Islands Peru
After swimming with sea lions and the chance to see penguins, I thought there was a good chance that Ballestas Islands would feel repetitive. We’d have to bus south to Paracas (a 3.5-4 hour journey from Lima), head out on the water with hundreds of tourists, and no swimming is allowed. Half of me thought it would be pointless.
Luckily, the scenery on the boat ride out to the Ballestas Islands is pretty.
To be honest, I don’t think it’s necessary to do both since the star attractions — sea lions and penguins — are at both Islas Palomino and Ballestas Islands. As a sightDOING fan, I give a big vote to Islas Palomino instead since you never get off the boat on the Ballestas Islands trip…it’s such a tease!
But my sister and I didn’t head to Paracas only for the Ballestas Islands, so it was worth taking the time for the boat trip since we were in town anyway.
The other draw to town is Paracas National Reserve, a gorgeous coastal desert park.
Combined tours to the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve depart daily, usually running from 8am-3pm. Like a lot of Peru, nothing moves quickly and we spent at least 45 minutes waiting for a boat to the Ballestas Islands and then had an hour to kill at subpar restaurants during a lunch break.
In retrospect, I wish we would’ve visited the Paracas Reserve independently. Taxi rates seemed affordable and would give you the freedom to stop on the crowded beach if you want — or at least work on your own schedule.
The real draw to this desert town, though, was the adrenaline-filled dunebuggy ride.
I’ll admit my grip was pretty tight for a few parts of the ride, but overall it was exactly the right amount of wild. Our trip even included a stop to try sandboarding…and unlike Nicaragua’s volcano boarding, the dune was small enough that you could actually climb back up and try again a few times.
Advantages of Ballestas Islands: Several other activities to enjoy, calm waters.
Disadvantages of Ballestas Islands: It’s so far you really should spend the night, can be crowded.
We took the Cruz del Sur bus between Lima and Paracas. A few tips: the VIP seats are worth the upcharge but regular seats will be fine if that’s all there is. And the included snacks are disgusting, so pack your own.
Which Wins? Islas Palomino vs Ballestas Island
If your only goal is wildlife, my vote goes to Islas Palomino. You’ll get closer to the sea lions (even if you choose not to swim) and you’ll save a lot of time in transit compared to the long bus ride to Ballestas Island. But if you’re looking for a well-rounded experience, head to Paracas and Ballestas Island.
Either way, I strongly recommend visiting at least one of these spots. So many people visit Peru and never take advantage of the coastal regions which is a huge part of its diversity. It was a great contrast to the Sacred Valley region and I’m glad I didn’t short change it.
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Which would you choose? Islas Palomino or Ballestas Island? Tell me in the comments!
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