Touring Poor Man’s Galapagos and the Ancient Nazca Lines

If you’re planning a trip to Peru, there are a couple of sites that you should consider adding to your itinerary. Bird lovers will enjoy a boat ride to Islas Ballestras. Historians will be amazed at the sight of Nazca Lines from above.

Islas Ballestas

On the coast of Peru, a few hours south of Lima is a small marine reserve that is quickly growing in popularity. Dubbed ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos’, Islas Ballestas is a great spot for a marine safari. A 20-minute boat ride from the nearby town of Paracas is the only way to experience the wildlife on these rocky islands. It may be a stretch to compare it to Galapagos, but it does make for a fun day trip.

You can’t go on to the islands, but from a small tour boat you can see hundreds and possibly thousands of seabirds including cormorants and pelicans soaring in the sky, diving for fish and landing on the islands. Look closely and you can see small Humboldt penguins waddling along on the rocks. On the lower rocks we saw sea lions basking in the sun near natural caves and arches.

The reason there is so much wildlife is because of its location. The islands are located near the junction of two currents; the cold Humboldt current and El Nino Southern Oscillation. Depending on the year, these currents result in huge quantities of algae. The algae brings fish, which in turn brings seabirds, sea lions and penguins. Coming from western Canada, we are aware of the effects that La Niña and El Niño have on our weather. El Niño means we will have warmer winter with a lot of snow, great for skiers, but in this part of Peru it means the opposite, cold and dry.

The islands look like they are composed of white rock, but in reality, the white is from bird droppings. The only people allowed on the islands have an unusual job. They collect the guano (bird poop). It’s a major source of fertilizer in Peru.

On the boat ride to and from Islas Ballestas we passed the 150 m (490 ft) high Candelabra. It’s a geoglyph carved into the side of the cliff in the shape of a candelabra. The cliffs look sandy, but are actually composed of very hard soil. This area gets little wind or rain so the Candelabra has not eroded much. There are opposing theories on its history. Many believe it was created in 200 BC at the time of Nazca Lines, others believe it is more recent and was a signpost for sailors.

Near the islands is Paracas National Reserve. It is one of the most arid stretches of coast in the world. The Atacama Desert comes right up to the Pacific Ocean, stopping at the gorgeous Red Beach (Playa Roja).  An interesting feature is the natural rock formation of La Catedral. When we were there a stone bridge connected the rock to the mainland. Since we visited, an earthquake collapsed the bridge, making the rock an island.

Nazca Lines

Spread across the arid plain south of Isla Ballestas are the incredible geoglyphs called Naza Lines. There are a staggering 800 lines, 300 geometric shapes and 70 animals and plants. More designs are still being found today. They were made by the Nazca people thousands of years ago by removing small rust coloured stones from the surface and scraping further into the firm ground exposing lighter coloured earth below. The Nazca people worshiped the gods of the mountains and water. Archaeologists believe the geoglyphs were used in rituals to their gods. Although there has been some erosion, most of them are still in remarkable condition.

The best way to view the famous Nazca Lines is by flying over them for a bird’s eye view. The lines are barely noticeable at ground level but are remarkable from above. From the plane we could see the details of these massive etchings. The geoglyphs are huge. The condor image below has a wingspan of 130 m (427 ft). It’s amazing to imagine how the Nazca people could have created these massive designs, with such precision, without ever being able to view from above. Here are a few of the animal geoglyphs we saw.

To visit Nazca we stayed in Huacachina. It’s a tourist oasis town with bodegas and tall sand dunes for surfing. The town is centered around a picturesque lagoon. Its setting is in stark contrast to the flat dessert of the Nazca Lines.

Visiting Nazca

Flights usually take off in the morning, after the frequent fog and before the afternoon wind. Planes are small, seating 3 – 9 people. Most tours last 30 minutes and cost around $100 USD. Our pilot flew over each geoglyph from both sides so that people on either side of the plane had a good view. We purchased our tickets at the airport, but this may be a risk depending how busy it is. There are many tour agencies selling tickets in advance.

Chauchilla Cemetery

Not far from Nazca is a fascinating burial ground used by the Nazca people from as far back as 200 AD. Mummified corpses sit in small, mud-brick burials in an isolated desert. The burial rituals included dressing the bodies in embroidered cotton and then painting them with resin. It is the resin and the dry, desert conditions that allowed the mummies to be well preserved after thousands of years.

Today, the mummies are still clothed and are sitting with their heads placed at life-like angles. It feels as if some are looking up at you. Some had headdresses made with feathers from the far away rain forest. Most still have hair and some even still have skin.

The Nazca people were skilled in making pottery and textiles and many mummies were buried with clay bowls filled with food. Apparently, valuables were buried with the mummies as well, but these were taken by grave robbers. Along with the mummies, archaeologists found mummified heads with holes drilled into the skulls. Still not much is known about the purpose of these heads. It’s a creepy, yet fascinating site that shouldn’t be missed when you visit the Nazca Lines.

Getting to Chauchilla Cemetery

Chauchilla Cemetery is located 28.5 km (17.7 mi) south-east of the city of Nazca. We hired a taxi for a half day. Make sure the taxi will wait for you as it’s doubtful that there will be any at the site.

Coming Next: A Homestay on Lake Titicaca

For extra pictures from Peru click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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