A small town on the Pacific coast, Paracas, Peru, is often overlooked by travelers who, after leaving Lima, head straight to Huacachina to go sandboarding on the dunes and then continue on to Nazca to fly over the Nazca Lines.
However, it’d be a pity to miss Paracas. First of all, there are many more things to do in Paracas than you’d expect. Secondly, this is actually an excellent base to explore the surrounding areas – including the famous sand dunes, and beyond.
Curious to discover more about Paracas, Peru? You are in good hands! I have (obviously) been there, and I am about to tell you everything there is to see and do in the area, and share some useful information that will help you plan your visit.
What You Need To Know About Paracas, Peru
Where is Paracas, Peru?
Paracas is a small desert peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. It’s located near the town of Pisco, and is around 240 kilometers (around 150 miles) from Lima. Its boundaries are situated within the Paracas National Reserve, an enormous marine reserve that spreads southwards along the Peruvian coastline.
Not only is there a marine reserve (Peru’s only one) situated in Paracas, but it is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which aims to protect the relics and ruins left by the ancient Paracas culture.
Paracas village itself is the jumping off point for exploring the nature, history and landscape of this far-flung region. Here you’ll find a range of hotels – from luxury to budget – as well as tourist services and other amenities such as restaurants and bars.
Brief History of Paracas, Peru
The peninsula is named after the Paracas culture, a pre-Colombian culture that is estimated to have existed around here three thousand years ago, between 800 and 100 BC.
Evidence shows that the Paracas culture didn’t just exist – it thrived. It was located around what is now known as the Ica region of Peru.
The Paracas culture had deep knowledge of irrigation and water management – which very much helped in the desert landscape. Not only that, but they have also left behind a rich array of textile arts, including some unbelievably well preserved depictions of a “flying man” among other designs.
Some of these are pristine, even though they’re thousands of years old; that’s due to the dark, dry conditions in the Paracas burial tombs. Also discovered are other exquisitely crafted items, like obsidian knives and fine pottery.
There are numerous archaeological sites dotted around the peninsula, with glyphs carved into the landscape – the Paracas Candelabra, for example – and other ruins to see.
The region is also a rich marine habitat, which is the reason why it was designated as a National Reserve (and a RAMSAR wetland, too). A lot of wildlife lives within the boundaries of the reserve, drawing visitors to come and see it; this includes dolphins, sea lions, and even sperm whales, as well as birdlife such as condors and penguins.
Finally, Jose de San Martin landed at Paracas Bay in 1820, with the Freedom Expedition. Along with 4,000 soldiers, he marched towards Lima to liberate Peru from colonial rule. It is said that it was during his time at the Paracas Peninsula that San Martin came up with the design for the Peruvian flag.
Weather in Paracas – Best Time to Visit
The weather in Paracas is often pleasant and warm – it is basically a desert by the sea, after all! In fact, Paracas comes from a Quechua word meaning “rain of sand”, but this refers more to the wind than the rain (there’s hardly any rain here).
The summer months run between September and March, with daily average temperatures hovering around 27°C (80°F). This marks the best time of year to visit Paracas. You’ll have clear skies and warm days to accompany your trip.
But because of the good weather, this is also the busier time of year to visit, with many Peruvian locals enjoying the beauty of the area.
The winter months at Paracas run between June and September, and daily average temperatures sit at around 18°C (60°F). Although this isn’t the best time of year to visit Paracas for the weather, the best time to visit Paracas for the wildlife can vary – depending on what you want to see. For example, penguins can be spotted between April and November, but sea lions can be glimpsed year round.
What To See And Do In Paracas, Peru
Though it’s a fairly small area, the mix of culture and nature in Paracas opens it up to different types of travelers with varied interests. Some people like to rent quad bikes and drive in the sand dunes, others head out on boats to try to catch sight of migrating whales.
There’s something for everyone here, but here are some of the best things to do in Paracas that you shouldn’t miss out on.
One of the best ways to explore the Paracas National Reserve is by taking a trip to the Ballestas Islands, also known as the Galapagos of Peru. These uninhabited islands may not have a human population, but there is a range of wildlife that can be witnessed here.
The Ballestas Islands are a small group of islands just offshore. They are operated as a sanctuary for birds such as the blue-footed booby, tendrils, Humboldt penguins and seals.
Easily accessed from Paracas town, you’ll get to see lazy sea lions barking from the shoreline as the waves break during your approach to the islands. Sometimes the sea lions will even swim alongside the boat.
Tours of Ballestas Islands
Tours of the Ballestas Islands typically leave from Paracas Bay around 8:00 am and take in highlights of the area.
First up you’ll usually pass by El Candelabro (more about it below), then it will be onwards to the rocky Ballestas Islands themselves. Here you may be able to spot sea lions, dolphins, whales and penguins as well as other incredible creatures.
Note that you don’t get out of the boat at the islands – that’s not just because they’re protected, but also because they’re teeming with wildlife, and they’re wet and rocky, too. Not to mention, they are covered in guano and the smell is overpowering, so you can only really stay close to the islands for about 30 minutes before the smell gets to your head. The boats themselves aren’t covered, so it can get quite windy and chilly at times (and depending on the season, the weather can be changeable), so make sure you come prepared.
Once it’s time to return, the trip back to dry land will take around two hours.
Paracas National Reserve
The Ballestas Islands are just one small part of the Paracas National Reserve, with a lot more to this protected area to explore. In an area of more than 335,000 hectares, that’s a given.
It’s not just about the immediate marine environment, as a large portion of the reserve is actually made up of an interesting subtropical coastal desert – a unique landscape where towering sandy cliffs meet the endless Pacific Ocean.
In Paracas National Reserve you will also be able to find attractions such as the Museo de Paracas Julio C Tello, and Paracas Necropolis on Cerro Colorado. This part of the reserve is more about the human side of the region, with artefacts on display that are thousands of years old, and tells the story of the Paracas people.
For a guided tour of Paracas National Reserve that includes a boat trip to the Ballestas Island, click here.
Situated in the middle of the desert, just outside Pisco and close to the village of Bernales, you’ll find Laguna Moron. This lake is the place where adrenaline junkies hire dune buggies or try out sandboarding on the dunes; it’s also a good spot for kayaking or even swimming.
It really looks like a veritable oasis, and the cooling waters are especially refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
For information on guided tours of Laguna Moron, click here.
If you’re looking for ruins, head to Tambo Colorado. These well preserved Inca ruins are situated slightly inland from the coastal marine park, but can be easily reached from the town of Pisco.
Dating back to the 15the century, the name of Tambo Colorado as it is known in Quechua – Pukatampu – means “Red Place” and is thought to refer to the red color of the walls. And thanks to the dry desert environment, many of the structures here are still adorned with that same red colored paint, even though it has been hundreds of years.
When visiting here, make sure to stop by the small museum onsite to learn more. You can actually walk around the ruins, too, and imagine what life would have been like all those years ago.
For a guided tour of Tambo Colorado that also goes to the Islas Ballestas, click here.
Otherwise known as the Paracas Candelabra, this glyph is located on the north side of the Paracas peninsula at Pisco Bay. You may have guessed it already from the name, but it’s shaped like a candelabra – though it isn’t actually depicting one.
It’s enormous in size, 180 meters tall, and was thought to have been etched into the sand and rock here over 2,000 years ago in 200 BC. Though the exact age of the glyph is unknown, the pottery found here has been dated to around 200 BC.
The glyph is thought to be an illustration of a trident, which was wielded by the Paracas culture’s creator deity, Viracocha.
Ica Wine Tours
If you’re a keen wine lover, then you’ll definitely want to make some time in your Paracas itinerary to visit Ica.
Ica is situated to the southeast of Lima, and is a miraculously irrigated river valley in an otherwise arid desert area. Tucked away in the expanse below the Andean foothills, the original town was moved to its present location after an earthquake in 1569. This city and the surrounding valleys have long been known for their production of grapes – and cotton too.
Today wine is the lifeblood of Ica, and produces some of the best wine in Peru. As such, it draws visitors from across the world to sample its wine. As there are many vineyards – some of which date back to the mid-1500s – the best way to get a taste (literally!) is to head on a tour.
Not only does Ica claim to be the best winemaking region in Peru, but it is also home to the country’s premiere pisco-producing haciendas. Pisco is considered the country’s national drink (though Chileans also claim to it) – a type of brandy made from a variety of white grapes.
You can sample this local tipple on a guided tour from Paracas, and see the process of production from grape-growing to distilling and – of course – sampling.
One notable example is Hacienda Tacama. This place holds the accolade of being the oldest winery in South America; alongside its wines, it also produces pisco. Nearby there’s Hacienda Caravedo, a small-batch operation which has made pisco into an artform. Each of its bottles is made from eight pounds of the estate-grown grapes.
Four kilometers (2.5 miles) to the west of Ica is the tiny town of Huacachina. This village oasis is centered around the green and glassy waters of Huacachina Lagoon. Awash with green palm trees and surrounded by rolling sand dunes, this desert outpost has become well known for sandboarding. In fact, it is considered one of the top spots for hitting the dunes in the world.
Many backpackers and adventure sports enthusiasts make their way to Huacachina to try out sandboarding for the first time. It’s easy to visit the inland village on a day trip from Paracas, taking just over an hour from the coastal city.
As well as sandboarding, another popular activity is tearing up these mountains of sand in a dune buggy. Seeing the sunset over the dunes is also a must.
For a tour to Huacachina departing from Paracas click here.
Make sure to read my post A Complete Guide To Sandboarding In Huacachina.
Practical Information To Visit Paracas, Peru
How to Get to Paracas
There are a number of different ways to get to Paracas, but usually most travelers will be reaching this coastal destination from the capital, Lima (though that’s not necessarily always the case).
If you were looking to take a trip to this amazing part of the country, you’re in luck. Some of the best ways of getting to Paracas are listed below.
Getting to Paracas by Bus from Lima
There are a few different options to get to Paracas, but the best overall I would say is to take the bus from Lima. Paracas is located around a four-hour drive away from the Peruvian capital city, and there are a wide array of bus companies plying the route between the two destinations.
In fact, there are so many different companies in operation that it can be quite tricky to work out which company is the best one. And because there is no central bus terminal, working out where the bus actually leaves from can be a bit of a headache-inducing experience, too.
Luxury operator Cruz del Sur operates 3 direct buses throughout the day, from the early morning to the afternoon, costing around $18.50 USD. Departures will leave from the Javier Prado Terminal. Alternatively, you can also take one of the more frequent buses that leave for either Ica or Nasca, and then continue to Paracas on a local bus.
These buses usually come with personal screens in the headrests, as well as other added extras. So this is definitely the bus company to take if you want to treat yourself.
But since it’s only a four-hour trip you don’t necessarily need luxury. Another more affordable bus service is the well trusted Peru Hop. This company provides free pick-up directly from your accommodation, and will also leave you in the center of Paracas, rather than at its bus terminal – much more convenient.
Getting to Paracas by Private Transfer
As the route between Paracas and Lima is only four hours by car, there is also the possibility of taking your own private transport. The benefit of a private transfer means that you get to travel at your own pace without having to wait for the bus to arrive, or the danger of missing a bus. It can also mean a more comfortable ride, too.
Obviously, taking private transfers is a more expensive option. However, if there’s a group of you traveling from Lima to Paracas, you could always split the cost of transport, making it a fairly cost effective way to make the trip.
Once you’re done exploring the Paracas peninsula, and you want to explore further afield, then that’s definitely an option. You don’t necessarily have to go back to Lima in order to do that.
There are various departures from the town’s Cruz del Sur Terminal – leaving for Nasca and Ica, for example – or the departure spot on Avenida Paracas. There are also daily departures for Lima, in case you do need or want to go back to the capital.
Where to stay in Paracas
Paracas has become more and more popular in recent years, with an increasing amount of backpackers and other travelers basing themselves here in order to explore the region. Accommodation options in the town run from budget-friendly hostels and local guesthouses, to luxury resorts.
Most of the hotels in Paracas can be found centered around Malecon el Chaco, with numerous modern resorts popping up to the north of the pier, and to the south – near to the Paracas National Reserve.
Even though the town is fairly small, there’s actually quite a variety of accommodation to choose from here. It’s not just a popular place to stay for international travelers, but also for Peruvians on weekend vacations.
This much loved Paracas hostel comes highly recommended from a long list of happy travelers, who have left glowing reviews. Situated close to El Chaco Beach, the area around Paracas Backpackers House is home to a number of other hostels situated on the main street. This makes it something of a traveling community.
Room options at this hostel run from shared dorms to private rooms that have ensuite bathrooms – all clean and well maintained. Facilities include a fully-equipped kitchen, strong Wi-Fi, a large communal lounge complete with hammocks and views of the ocean.
This locally run guesthouse is ideal for those traveling on a budget, but who don’t want to stay in hostel accommodation. Rooms here are basic, but they’re clean and comfortable; they feature small private bathrooms, while some of them even come with their own balconies.
The location is ideal. You’ll find El Capricho Paracas in easy walking distance of El Chapo Boardwalk as well as the beach. It’s easy to reach many of the top sights and eateries around town. Staff on hand at the hotel can help to arrange tours to explore local sights, such as the Islas Ballestas.
This modern three-star hotel is located overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is situated close to the Paracas National Reserve, as well as being easy walking distance to the center of town. Boasting top amenities, staying here means you’ll be able to spend a relaxing time during your adventures.
There’s a swimming pool, hotel bar and restaurant, as well as a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy breakfast with a view. Staff at Hotel Gran Palma are very friendly and will help to make your stay run smoothly. All in all, it offers great value for money.
Another accommodation option situated right in front of Paracas National Reserve, Hotel Paracas Resort and Spa is a five-star property with luxury credentials to match. The hotel boasts its own private dock, from which guests can take their own private yacht tours of the Islas Ballestas.
Facilities here include two swimming pools, a luxury spa, and a lounge bar. The hotel restaurant serves up a full buffet breakfast each morning, as well as dinner and drinks in the evening. It’s a good option for families as there is also a kids club available.
Paracas Packing List
When you’re in Paracas, you’re not likely to find everything you might need – it’s a pretty small place, especially compared with the buzzing city of Lima. With that in mind, here are a few things to make sure you don’t forget:
- Sunscreen, sunhat, sunglasses – Sun protection should be top priority!
- Poncho/rain jacket – For boat trips, this is a good option to stay dry.
- Light-colored clothing – Desert climates and constant reflection of the sun on water can make you pretty hot, so light-colored clothing is best.
- Day pack – Something comfy with enough room to keep your stuff.
- Refillable water bottle – A must! Staying hydrated is key, especially when it’s hot.
- Sturdy shoes – Walking around the desert sand can be hard work on footwear, so make sure you have something more than flip flops to get around.
If you need help planning your trip to Peru, make sure to read these posts:
- The Best Things To Know Before Visiting Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Lima
- Where To Stay In Lima
- The Best Things To Do In Nazca
- The Best Hikes In Peru
- Everything You Must Know To Hike Marcahuasi
- The Ultimate Guide To The Inca Trail
- The Best Inca Trail Packing List
- How To Get To Machu Picchu