Islas Ballestas

The Islas Ballestas are a group of three rocky islands 18km off the coast near Ica, in Southern Peru. They are part of a protected reserve and are sometimes called the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’. Boat trips take you around the islands, but you can’t step foot on them unless you’re collecting guano, which happens every seven years (did you know there is even a bird called the ‘guano bird’?). I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with so many birds. Or anywhere that smells so much of bird.

On the way to the islands, you pass a giant geoglyph known as The Candelabra (or The Cactus, or The Trident). It’s age and purpose is unknown, but one theory sees it as a giant signal for fishing boats.

Humboldt Penguins and Boobies

The guide on the boat said these were called ‘moustache birds’.

Birds aren’t the only wildlife here.

On the way back, we saw a gazillion birds flying back to the islands. Their flight formations rippled like a ribbon.

A half-day tour costs 60 Soles, with an early pickup in Huacachina. The actual boat ride is only two hours, but that’s pretty standard. Most hostels in Huacachina offer the same tour, with a small difference in price.

A surprise in Valdivia

We arrived after dark in Valdivia, a medium sized coastal town in southern Chile, and made straight for the first Hospedaje we saw (handily just across from the bus station). The floor boards were wonky and the shower was super hot, but we got a room for 16,000 pesos which included cable tv and a very friendly cat. We might have called it a night then and there, but we were hungry. So we ventured out along the river front in search of dinner.

The weather was damp, chilly and a mist hung over the wide surface of the water. For some reason there were no lights on the riverside path, only across the road, so it was hard to make out the shapes ahead of us as we walked briskly. Couples sat on benches, arms and tongues entwined. Exercisers worked on outdoor gym equipment and joggers and dog walkers shared the path with us.

As we neared the bridge that signaled we were approaching downtown, I saw three teenagers sitting on the river bank, their faces lit up in the orange glow of their cigarettes. Further ahead I saw more people lounging on a small pier, their dark shapes grouped together so I couldn’t see exactly how many there were.

And then I heard it. A loud, deep growling.

“Did you hear that? It’s like a…a wolf or something,” I asked my boyfriend as we kept walking. Up ahead there was movement on the pier and more growling, then a huge splash as a shape fell into the water.

“That dog just jumped into the water! It must have been growling.” But even as I was saying this, there was more growling and then a snorting, coughing roar. As we got a couple of steps closer we realized. They weren’t people on the pier. They were sea lions!

Lobos Marinos. I thought of the Spanish name as we watched the big creatures shift about on the pier and growl at each other. Marine Wolves.

There was a small car park next to the path, just before the bridge, and we found here too was a group of ten or more sea lions, spread out on the tarmac. Some Russian tourists moved their car so the headlights lit up the blubbery bodies and the woman posed for pictures in front of them. A family out for a stroll stopped to film the painfully ungraceful movements as the animals shifted their weight when a small dog ran close.

The dog kept circling them and I was surprised it wasn’t scared. Coming towards us was a man, carrying a long stick and hitting at the railings and trashcans. I thought perhaps he was after the dog, since it ran back to him, but together they advanced on the sea lions.

And the sea lions retreated!

They lumbered up and rolled their heavy bodies down the slope and into the water. Just one man, a small dog and a stick was enough to scare them away. After making sure the path was clear, the man and dog continued along the river bank and disappeared into the darkness. We walked on and wondered what we’d find for dinner.