Over the course of a year, more than 250 different species of birds land on the guano-covered rocks of Peru's Ballestas Islands. Located six miles off the coast, near the beach town of Paracas (150 miles south of Lima), the Ballestas Island's abundant wildlife and pristine water has earned them the nickname of the Peruvian Galapagos, and are a must-see stop during any trip to Peru.
With no natural predators, the islands teem with wildlife above and below the sea. Humboldt Penguins, Guanay Black Cormorants, and Peruvian Boobies roost on the islands, while the sky is thick with Brown Pelicans and Incan Terns. More than just a birder's paradise, over 5,000 sea lions and a variety of dolphins, flamingos, turtles, and whales also call the rocks, beaches, and water surrounding the Ballestas, collectively referred to as the Paracas National Reserve, home.
The best way to explore the islands is by private boat, which can be chartered easily in nearby Paracas Harbor. If you're feeling adventurous and find a friendly captain, jump into the refreshing 65-degree water and swim with thousands of sea lions swimming around you – it's an experience we found both exhilarating and terrifying. Also not to be missed is a chartered plane ride over the mysterious Nazca Lines, a series of huge etchings in the desert that were carved around 300 B.C and are best seen from the air. Another signature experience is 4x4ing in the nearby California Desert, where a professional driver will launch you over the edge of 400-foot sand dunes and drop you off at an oasis-style tent at sunset for champagne and a gourmet dinner under the desert night sky.
The easiest way to line all of these activities up is through the Hotel Paracas, a five-star Luxury Collection resort and spa; it has been one of Peru's most famous hotels since 1944 and was totally rebuilt after the earthquake in 2007 leveled the old one. [from $220; starwoodhotels.com]