Swimming with Wild Sea Lions: Adventure at Palomino Islands (2024 Guide)

Written by Kali Todd

Budget Travel Guides & Tips

February 28, 2024

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my link, at no extra cost to you.

Perched on the picturesque Pacific Ocean coastline, Peru presents a special chance to swim among a colony of more than 8,000 lively Patagonian Sea Lions. Embark on a unique boat excursion from Callao, a city within the Lima metropolitan area, to reach the enchanting Palomino Islands. En route, spot marine animals such as the red-legged cormorant and even Humboldt penguins!

Rainbow MountainPalomino Islands

When researching things to do on my Peruvian adventure, I came across Mar Adentro Excursiones, an experienced tour group offering a speedboat excursion to the mystical Palomino Islands. I couldn’t pass up this experience!

How my day went

On the day of the excursion, I took an Uber from my hotel in the Miraflores district (Atrium Miraflores Hotel) to Callao, a 35-minute drive. The meeting point for the tour was El Nakary Restaurant, located next to Real Felipe Fortress, where we had the opportunity to purchase a hot breakfast before the tour started.

View from Rainbow MountainPatagonian Sea Lions at Palomino Islands

Tip #1

Sunscreen is a must for this excursion. I recommend Thrive Natural Mineral Sunscreen, an environmentally friendly, reef safe alternative to chemical sunscreens. 

When everyone arrived, we were off. A short stroll from the restaurant led us to the dock, where we eagerly boarded a speedboat. The weather was on our side at the beginning, with clear skies setting the stage for our adventure. As we sped near Isla San Lorenzo, the morning fog was rolling over the island, creating an eerie scene as we headed into it. 

Isla San Lorenzo

Guided by our knowledgeable captain, we delved into the island’s rich history. Isla San Lorenzo holds centuries-old tales, serving as the resting place for renowned English and Dutch pirates of the past and playing a pivotal role in the Battle of Callao in 1866. 

Today, the island is under the watchful eye of the Peruvian Navy, with no visitors allowed. Naval recruits face a rigorous swim test, braving a challenging 3-mile journey from the island to the mainland, testing their abilities over a grueling two-plus hour swim.

Opposite Isla San Lorenzo stands El Frontón, a historic maximum-security prison reminiscent of California’s Alcatraz. Once a haven for pirates in the 16th-19th centuries, the island was ominously dubbed Dead Man’s Island. By 1917, it became a desolate outpost for exiled and political prisoners, including future Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry. 

El Frontón

In a harrowing turn of events in 1986, a Communist Party rebellion swept through three Peruvian prisons, including El Frontón. The government responded with lethal force, treating the facilities as war zones, resulting in the tragic loss of many prisoners. This violent outcome sparked international outrage among human rights activists. After the uprising, the prison closed its doors, allowing nature to reclaim the island, where sea life now thrives.

Our journey continued,  leading us by Cavinzas Island, a haven for wildlife where we were greeted by Inca terns and Humboldt penguins! This was the first time I had seen penguins in the wild and I was undoubtedly excited. 

Humboldt Penguins and Inca Terns

Humboldt penguins, exclusive to South America and predominantly found along Peru’s coastal regions, are of medium size, with males weighing under 10 pounds. They are named after the Humboldt Current, a frigid stream that runs from the Antarctic to the equator along South America’s western coastline.

The rocky terrain of the island, blanketed with birds and guano – the Quechuan term for bird droppings, attested to Peru’s historical significance in guano production. Once a prized commodity serving as a potent fertilizer, Peruvian guano was a sought-after export during the 19th century until the advent of artificial fertilizers.

Fisherman at Cavinzas Island

As our boat journey continued, we reached the captivating Palomino Islands, where a lively welcome party of sea lions awaited us. Their playful barks echoed excitement as they swam alongside our boat, eager to greet us. The two islands comprising Palomino were covered with sunbathing sea lions, claiming every available spot on the rocky terrain.

Palomino Islands

We anchored and the guide instructed us that once in the water, lay back with our feet out in front of us – the sea lions have quite a foot fetish and are more likely to swim by to take a look. How odd!  

Tip #2

Immerse yourself in the adventure with a GoPro! Capture stunning high-definition videos and photos both above and below the waterline – thanks to its waterproof design, the GoPro is your perfect for documenting every moment.

We were provided with wetsuits and a life jacket and one by one, jumped into the water! The two major rules were not to touch the sea lions and not to get too close to their island or else they could become territorial. These sea lions are curious creatures and get pretty close, brushing past us as they swim by. 

Patagonian Sea Lions at Palomino Islands

Despite initial apprehension, the chill of the ocean water was quickly met with adrenalin as the sea lions played around us. I was amazed! The sea lions were leaping out of the water and darting through the small waves, giving our group quite the show.

Swimming with the Patagonian Sea Lions

Surprisingly, the anticipated pungent odor typically associated with sea lion colonies was completely absent during my visit. I had read previous comments so this was a big relief, especially considering the amount of guano on the island.

I savored every moment in the water, loving the extraordinary experience and the sheer uniqueness of swimming with the sea lions. Everyone in the group had the biggest smile, making it clear that this once-in-a-lifetime encounter would be one to remember! 

Sea lions on the rock edge

Eventually, we clambered back aboard the boat, where we were treated to snacks and refreshing drinks. As we cruised back to the dock, basking in the warm sun, we reflected on the incredible adventure while taking in the beautiful coastline view.

Tip #3

Keep your phone safe from the salt water with a waterproof pouch. I used this to capture video and pictures from the water and it worked great!

What are the Palomino Islands?

The Palomino Islands are a group of small islands off the coast of Lima. Often referred to as the Little Galapagos of Lima, the islands house a large population of sea lions and marine birds.

Where are the Palomino Islands? How do I get there from Lima?

The Palomina Islands lie 6 miles off the coast of Callao, a port city near Lima. To reach the islands, a boat ride departing from Callao is necessary. 

I took a 35-minute Lyft ride from the Miraflores district, where I was staying, to Callao, which cost $5.90 (PEN 22.40).

What animals will I see on this excursion?

In addition to swimming with the 8,000+ Patagonia Sea Lions, I encountered Humboldt Penguins, large crabs, starfish, and various seabirds like the Guano during my excursion.

Humboldt Penguins and Patagonian Sea Lion on the rocks

    Tip #4

    The water can be choppy on the ride out to the islands so I highly recommend Dramamine or the extremely stylish motion sickness glasses if you have any issues with motion sickness.

    How long is the excursion?

    The excursion is approximately 3 hours long, with a 1-hour boat ride to Palomino, 1-hour with the sea lions, and the return to Callao.

    Thousands of birds at Cavinzas Island

    Is it safe to swim with the sea lions?

    There’s always some risk when it comes to wild animals, however, the Patagonia Sea Lions on the Palomino Islands have no natural predators. They are accustomed to humans and, as long as visitors keep their distance from the island shores, guests should have an enjoyable experience with friendly sea lions. The guide throughout the experience ensures all visitors are at a safe distance from the island. 

    There have been no shark attacks in Peru in 175 years and the guides have never seen sharks near the islands.

    How cold is the water? Are wetsuits available?

    The water was cold when I visited in March, but bearable with the spring suit (wetsuit with shorter legs and arms). Once I jumped in the water, it took only a minute or two before I was content with the water temperature.

    View of National Reserve System Islands on the way to Palomino Islands

    Do I have to swim or can I watch from the boat?

    No, you do not have to swim. You’ll still get an up-close experience with Palomino’s Patagonian sea lions from the comfort of the boat! Several people on my tour decided not to jump in and had a great time.

    What tour guide did I use? How much is the tour?

    I toured with Mar Adentro Excursiones who were fantastic! They pointed out wildlife and explained the history behind places we passed by on the boat while on the way to the Palomino Islands. They kept a great eye on everyone in the water and I felt safe the entire time.

    Tickets are priced at $72 per person through TripAdvisor. At the start of the tour, the guide will collect an additional 11 Soles (about $3) per person for the protection and conservation fee. The excursion includes bottled water, snacks, and a wetsuit.

    Tip #5

    After your excursion, be sure to stop by Real Felipe Fort, an 18th-century fort build to defend against pirates! The fort is located next to the start/end point of the sea lion tour.

    Where did I stay in Lima?

    I stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast called Atrium Miraflores Hotel, located in the highly-rated Miraflores district. The address is Pasaje Tello, 132 Miraflores, Miraflores, Lima, Peru. My stay included breakfast for two and a private bathroom (with plenty of hot water) for only $37/night! (Please note that prices do fluctuate and the price I paid may not be the price available during your stay.)

    Parque 7 de Junio in the Miraflores District

    Find your next stay Booking.com or Vrbo.com


    1. Marady

      This is so cool! Thanks for sharing 😊

    2. Desiree Meeler

      What a dream! You’ve definitely added this trip to my bucket list. Thanks for sharing!

    3. nicole

      This is so cool!


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