Reserva Nacional de Paracas

The Paracas Bay and Peninsula, along with the small Ballestas Islands, compose the Paracas National Reserve, a place of gorgeous unpopulated beaches, strange desert vistas, and spectacular wildlife. Established in 1975, Paracas is the primary marine conservation center in Peru. The 14,504-sq.-km (5,600-sq.-mile) reserve, which can be visited year-round, is about two-thirds ocean, so don't come expecting to see a zoolike array of plants and animals at every turn -- except on the Ballestas, where several thousand sea lions, in addition to many other species, lie about in plain view.

Exploring Paracas -- What is not water in the Paracas National Reserve is hot and dry land, with no transportation to speak of except for independently hired taxis. For this reason, most tourists tend to visit the reserve as part of an organized tour. However, adventurous travelers with plenty of water, sunscreen, and stamina can get to know the peninsula and its rich marine birdlife on their own, camping far from other humans. Safety has become a concern in recent years, though, so camping alone is not a good idea.

Dirt roads crisscross the Paracas Peninsula, and a paved road goes around it, out toward Punta Pejerrey, near the Candelabro. The dirt roads are the most interesting, reaching minuscule fishing villages such as attractive Lagunillas and a cliff-top lookout point, Mirador de los Lobos, with views of the ocean and lots of sea lions. Sadly, the August 2007 earthquake destroyed the famous Cathedral rock and cave formation, one of the National Reserve's great attractions.

To hike around the peninsula, it's about 21km (13 miles) round-trip to the lookout point (5km/3 miles from the Tello Museum to Lagunillas). Begin at a turnoff left of the paved road beyond the museum. There are few facilities of any kind on the peninsula. You are allowed to camp on the beautiful beaches (where you might see no other humans, just pelicans and other birds), and there are a couple of seafood restaurants in Lagunillas -- Tía Fela's is the best place around for fresh fish.

Islas Ballestas

The primary focus of a visit to the reserve is a boat tour of the Ballestas (pronounced "Bah-yes-tahs") Islands. Although the islands can't possibly live up to locals' touting of them as the "Peruvian Galápagos," the Ballestas do afford tantalizing close-up views (without allowing visitors on the islands) of the habitat's rich roster of protected species, including huge colonies of barking sea lions, endangered turtles and Humboldt penguins, red boobies, pelicans, turkey vultures, and red-footed cormorants. During the summer months (Jan-Mar), baby sea lions are born, and the community becomes even more populous and noisy. The wall-like, cantilevered islands are literally covered with birds; 110 migratory and resident seabirds have been documented, and the bay is a stopover point in the Alaska-Patagonia migration route. Packs of dolphins are occasionally seen slicing through the water; less frequently, humpback whales and soaring Andean condors can also be glimpsed.

The islands are often referred to by locals as las islas guaneras because they are covered in bird droppings. (Guano is the Quechua word for excrement.) The nitrogen-rich guano is harvested every 10 years and made into fertilizer. (A factory can be seen on the first island.) No humans other than the guano collectors -- no doubt a contender for worst job title in the world -- are allowed on the islands, and all the species in the reserve are protected by law. In practice, however, there are no specially assigned police officers or boats available to enforce protection.

En route to the islands, boats pass the famous Candelabro, a giant candelabra-like drawing etched into a cliff overlooking the bay. The huge etching, 126m long and 72m wide (413*236 ft.), looks as though it could be a cousin to the Nasca Lines, and it is similarly shrouded in mystery. Some believe that it's a ritualistic symbol of the Paracas or Nasca cultures, while others contend that it dates only to the 18th or 19th century, when it served as a protective symbol and navigational guide for fishermen and sailors.

Most organized tours take visitors from the San Andrés port to the El Balneario resort, a beach playground for upscale residents of Lima, and then on to Playa El Chaco, where boats leave for 1-hour tours of the Ballestas. You can also independently contract an island boat tour here from one of the 13 operators on the main street. Tours run about S/40 per person, and each boat has an English- or French-speaking guide on board. Most start early in the morning, between 7 and 8am. Visitors are not allowed to set foot on the islands, although boats get close enough for good viewing. Sweaters and windbreakers, hats, and sunscreen are essential.

A Bird-Watcher's Boon -- The Ballestas Islands are smack in the middle of the Humboldt Current, which flows 3,220km (2,000 miles) from Antarctica along the Pacific coastline. In the warm, shallow waters along the Peruvian coast, the current makes abundant growth of phytoplankton possible, which stimulates an ecological food chain that culminates in the largest concentration of birds on earth.

Tambo Colorado

An Inca fortress and probably the best-preserved ancient architectural complex on the central coast, this outpost is thought to have been an administration checkpoint for Andean coastal migration. It was probably also where the Inca chieftain and his minions stayed for periods as he traveled back and forth between the Inca capital, Cusco, and coastal settlements. Unlike other archaeological sites, where the characteristic vibrant colors have long faded, here at least some of the original red, white, and yellow walls are still preserved. (The name of the complex, Colorado, refers to the red color of the walls.) Also unique in the Inca canon, the structures here were constructed not of neatly cut stone, but of materials that could be used for long-term construction, given the lack of rain on the desert coast.

The complex contains a central plaza, storehouses, living quarters, and military installations. If you're headed to Cusco, you can be assured of seeing more impressive Inca sites, but Tambo Colorado is rewarding for archaeology fans and Inca completists.

The site is quite removed from Pisco -- about 45km (28 miles) northeast of town. It lies about 5km (3 miles) outside the town of Humay, to which you can take a bus, but service is erratic. If you are intent on seeing Tambo Colorado, it's advisable to either go with an organized guided tour or hire a taxi, which will take you out to the site, wait for you, and return you to Pisco for about S/105. The site is open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is S/5.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.