Good news for the backpackers who can’t afford the real Galapagos: on a backpacker budget, you can afford BOTH the “Poor Man’s Galapagos'” (yes, there are two): Isla de la Plata or “Silver Island” in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador and the Ballestas Islands in the Paracas National Reserve, just a few hours south of Lima in Peru.
As I mentioned in the Huacachina post, we are still in that 1,550 mile stretch of desert running along the coast of Peru. It is also a heavy seismic zone, which is responsible for the stunning landscape of Paracas Reserve, where this immense desert meets the Pacific Ocean.
How would a beach in the desert on volcanic territory look? A bit like this:
There are two things to do in Paracas: a tour of the Ballestas Islands (or Poor Man’s Galapagos #2) and a tour of the National Park and it’s stunning desert beaches, like the Red Beach (Playa Roja) above or Playa La Mina (below), one of the most beautiful beaches in Peru for swimming:
You could do all of this in one day, even as a day trip from Lima if you wanted to (with Huacachina included, too) but I would highly recommend doing what I did and staying a night, so you can rent a bike and ride 13 kilometers from the town of Paracas into the national park and visit all the beaches by bike. It’s flat enough, and due to the cold front (Humboldt Current) in the Pacific, it doesn’t get that hot here. Strange for a desert, I know. Paracas is a strange place.
The 13 km ride through the red desert was just as breathtaking as any of the beaches. I never thought the desert could be so beautiful. I could see the pink glow of huge flocks of flamingos along the shoreline from half a mile away, and when I was laying on Playa La Mina a big pod of dolphins came rushing through to feed, so close to me that I could see the fish in their mouths. And all of this BEFORE I even got to the Poor Man’s Galapagos!
Tours from Paracas to the Ballestas Islands leave early in the morning and don’t last more than two hours. The islands are about 20 minutes away by boat. On the way you will stop and have a look at this fascinating mystery in the hills from the boat:
What is it? The Candelabra geoglyph: A 177 meter long design that has preserved itself naturally from erosion due to it’s position on the hill hidden from the wind and the marine salt in the breeze which has hardened it naturally. Who left it there? Nobody is exactly sure, though there are various theories, including one that points to a civilization older than the Incas, drawing their holy plant the San Pedro Cactus to communicate with the gods. It’s age is unknown and archaeologists continue to investigate it.
Having been to both Poor Man’s Galapagos now, here is my analysis and comparison of the two places:
First of all, you don’t see anything like that Cactus drawing in Ecuador. Peru is full of these kinds of crazy relics of ancient civilizations like I haven’t seen elsewhere. On the Ballestas Islands tour you do not exit the boat, no one is allowed to go onto the island except the park rangers who live their and monitor it. In Poor Man’s Galapagos #1- Isla de la Plata, Ecuador- we got to hike around the island. We also got to snorkel around it with turtles, tropical fish and manta rays which we could not do in the waters surrounding the Ballestas Islands because they are too rough. I don’t even think there is a reef in the Paracas reserve. The water is too cold. On the Ballestas tour we got to see tons of sea lions, including a beach full of mothers and pups were the mother’s go to give birth. Price-wise, the Ballestas were half the price of the Isla de la Plata tour but also a lot shorter. That shouldn’t factor into your decision though: even on a backpacker budget, you can afford both places.
To think that all of this insane natural, desert beauty is just a few hours from the capital is incredible. Peru is a stunner, that’s for sure, and will surely take the prize for craziest, most impressive things to see. After all, we haven’t even gotten to Macchu Picchu and the south yet!