Paracas is a whole lot of desert and I hate the desert. Luckily, it’s also a whole lot of ocean, with an abundance of wildlife, adrenaline-packed paddle boarding (because jellyfish), great restaurants and terrible beer.
Deserts suck the energy right out of me. I just don’t like them and they don’t like me. But wait, plot twist—the desert in Paracas was spectacular! Paracas is definitely in the top 4 or 5 places to see in Peru. (Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain were our top picks, in case you were wondering)
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Paracas is a marine reserve on and around a peninsula about 250 km (150 miles) south of Lima in the Ica region. It includes the dreaded but lovely desert on land as well as the marine ecosystem offshore. There are also archaeological remains of the Paracas culture within in the reserve. The reserve is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Seated Paracas mummy
The Paracas culture was a society that lived in the Ica region in 800–100 BCE. Living in the desert, it was a good thing they were masters of water management. Their ingenious irrigation channels funneled water down to the desert from the mountains. To this day, you can still see 3000-year-old channels in some places. Bravo!
Another area where the Paracas excelled were textiles. They would weave, plait and knot complex structures and patterns. Their embroidery was the finest out of all the Andean societies, a real stunner! In Paracas culture, they’d bury their dead as mummy bundles—with the bodies wrapped in layers and layers of this beautiful fabric, bound with a cord into seated position.
Cranial deformation, not alien invasion, is why the human skulls of some cultures appear elongated. Various peoples across the planet, from some areas in Africa and America to Oceania, use or have used this practice, usually out of spiritual belief.
The Paracas culture liked cone heads, too. It signified one’s identity, status, as well as beauty, and to protect from evil spirits. You weren’t in with the “it” crowd unless you had a tall, long head. Parents would bind babies’ heads with cloth, forcing it to develop in a different shape than it would naturally. Wait a few months and voila, cone head.
You can see mummies and long skulls at the Museum Julio Tello at the National Reserve, see down below for details.
This road cannot be boring no matter how hard it tries
From Lima, Paracas is about a 3-hour drive (250 km (150 miles)) on the Pan-American Highway. The road is good. For those us from landlocked countries, even almost 3 hours-worth of dramatic coastline and endless dunes wasn’t boring. The sand isn’t the usual yellow color; it is in shades of pinks and reds.
The closest town to the natural reserve is Paracas, where we recommend basing yourself. And this is where I have to plug one massive hotel recommendation: the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel. It was epic. Our room was beautiful, the breakfast was marvelous, and the resort grounds were gorgeous with multiple pools right on the ocean. You can just picture yourself lounging by the ocean, drink in hand… or here, picture Karin:
Cheers from Karin! She’s enjoying her drink at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel
You can see hundreds of flamingos right next to the hotel grounds, not a sight I’m used to, so that was pretty special. Plus, all the water activities were already included in the room rate. Read about all of our kayaking and paddle boarding adventures below.
You can also use booking.com to browse the other hotels in Paracas and choose the one best fit for you and your budget.
A lot of people come to the Paracas area mainly to visit the Islas Ballestas, which are fine, and we will give you info on them below, and even have a separate post about them. But we are here to tell you that the actual Paracas National Reserve is the top highlight here.
And that’s not all! Here are all 8 things we think are worth seeing in Paracas:
Moron is an oasis, like a Huacachina before it got turned into a sandboarding mecca. It’s just a laguna, minding its own business in the middle of the desert, untouched, with no amenities.
Great for a little nature trip if you haven’t seen enough desert yet. It’s a 1-hour drive from Paracas or 40 minutes from Pisco. You can drive almost right up to it, park your car, walk 5 minutes and there you are—Laguna de Moron.
People come here to admire the nature, climb the dunes and even swim in the lagoon. Sometimes you can see local kids here playing and jumping into the water. A few tourist offices take groups here on trips, so you may not be completely alone.
One thing to look out for are the motorcycles that race up and down the dunes. If you’re hiking up the dunes, keep your eyes peeled so you don’t get in an accident.
There isn’t much to do at Moron, so if you don’t plan on walking up the dunes or (sun)bathing, you could be done within five minutes.
Our top tips for visiting Paracas:
Tambo Colorado ruins
The Tambo Colorado ruins are the best preserved Inca ruins in Peru, yet they are so unknown that few people visit them. They are located about an hour out of Paracas to the east.
Tambo Colorado is a large and impressive archaeological site. One part that is nice and different to some other more well-known ruins of the world is that you can roam freely and enter any space you decide to explore. There are no roped-off areas. Allow an hour to see everything.
There isn’t much information at the ruins, so read up beforehand or consider hiring a guide. Just not in a group with 20 other people. Always opt for a smaller group if you can. The hallways are narrow and having someone breathing down your neck could make the ruins lose their appeal quite fast.
The Tambo ruins are well preserved, and you can see places with the original paint still on the adobe walls, or even bits of straw used in the plaster. Cool!
Tip: Interested in ancient civilizations? Read up on the Top Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Karin and me exploring safely on our kayak (after repeatedly almost falling into the huge jellyfish from my paddle board)
Paracas National Reserve is not only the desert—it’s also a pretty vast marine area. So don’t miss the chance to explore the Reserve on the water!
We tried paddle boarding, kayaking and rented a catamaran—all fantastic options! I’m serious, it wasn’t enough choosing just one of these things, and we ended up going multiple times on each.
Like I mentioned above, every water-based activity at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel we stayed at was included in the price! No wonder we kayaked over and over again! Just a word of advice: this is no still lake. Be prepared for an adventure, especially if you are paddle boarding and you have the stability of a, well, me.
If you actually manage to get on the thing, you’ll be reminded not to fall into the water by the myriads of huge jellyfish everywhere. Or you’ll be given a glimpse into nature when a big cloud of black birds decides to dive at full speed into the water close to you, looking for their sardine lunch. They made waves!
After this experience we opted for the comfy kayaks and couldn’t be happier. The catamaran trip is something you should also try if you can.
Kayaking, paddleboarding, renting a catamaran—we tried them all!
I think it’s a bird
I’m sure you’ve all seen photos of them —the Nazca Lines are huge geoglyphs “drawn“ on the ground on the plateau to the south of Paracas. They are either long, incredibly straight lines or in shapes such as animals or human figures. Some are simpler designs and some are more complex. They were made by the Paracas culture in 200 to 400 BCE and by the Nazca people in 200 BCE to 500 CE.
The Nazca Lines are located in a roughly 10x4 km (6x2 mile) rectangle between the towns of Nazca and Pulpa. The is not exactly close to Paracas, it’s at least a 3-hour drive one way, to perhaps plan on booking a hotel in Nazca and stay the night.
The lines in this part of Peru were made by removing the top layer of the reddish-brown pebbles on the ground, which then revealed the greyish soil underneath. Since the area is arid, the lines have been preserved naturally and are only occasionally damaged by weather or earthquakes.
As far as measurements, the lines are commonly about 15 cm (6 inches) deep and 33 cm (13 inches) wide, and the individual figures can measure anywhere between 400 and 1,100 meters (1,300 to 3,200 feet).
The Nazca Lines Viewing Tower, one of the best (and only) spots to see the designs
Nobody can know for sure what their purpose was, but most scientists agree that they had some sort of religious significance.
Since the designs are so big, it isn’t easy to take a good look at them from the ground, and if you can find the time and money, always get a plane trip so you can fully appreciate the shapes.
There are a few places that you can try on the ground though:
For the best views of the full figures and not at skewed angles, you’ll need to board a little single-engine plane at Nazca’s Maria Reiche Airport. Flights depart throughout the day, though the morning trips promise smoother sailing since you don’t get the afternoon winds that are a common occurrence. You can also start your trip from Paracas as well, but the flight will be longer thanks to the extra distance the plane has to travel before getting to the Nazca Lines, which also means a higher price.
Prices start at around USD 85 for a half-hour flight and include pickup at your Nazca hotel. Longer trips of an hour go for USD 200. If you want to fly directly from Paracas, USD 200 is also the minimum you will pay.
To choose your tour, I always recommend checking the reviews on Tripadvisor.
The desert oasis of Huacachina—sandboarding heaven
One of the top things to do in Peru is certainly sandboarding on the mighty dunes, and the best spot for that is close to Paracas in a literal desert oasis—Huacachina.
We’ve mentioned another sandboarding area in our article about Lima’s best places, and that works fine if you are coming further down south. But I expect that you aren't, and, in that case, Huacachina is the way to go.
The oasis is located right next to Ica, about an hour away from Paracas. If you’re up for a little sandy adventure, you could combine a sandboarding morning with a grape brandy-filled afternoon, since the vineyards of Ica are right there (see the next tip). Or, take the evening tour to the dunes and experience a sunset like no other. I’d rather see it with a pisco in hand, but your experience may differ.
Try sandboarding with a great view
Sitting on top of the dunes with the oasis town down below is pretty special.
Besides sandboarding, you can get a dune buggy and swish around the sand in that, but that looked like a whole lotta sand in your face and not a lot of anything else to me. Unless you like being thrown out of your seat, jumping up and down over the sand “waves”.
You can also ski or get a sand sled.
Swimming in the oasis isn’t safe, so don’t do it. Even the locals say so, and they are some tough cookies, so you better trust them. You can rent a paddle boat instead.
A small town has popped up around the oasis with several eating and sleeping options, and of course various sand adventure outfits. When you arrive, you will be approached by many touts trying to sell you tours, but keep on walking to whichever shop you researched or booked beforehand.
Dito Sand Xsports, founded by four-time sandboarding world champion Dito Victor Chavez, is one of the best options. They have friendly, professional guides.
Hotel: The hotel options in Huacachina are geared more towards the sandboarding crowd (think surfer dudes and college kids), but Ica is right there and offers a much wider selection of hotels. If you also plan on trying out some pisco, you might as well stay at La Caravedo (see next tip).
The oldest distillery in South America and a happy me with my box of pisco
Since Peruvian beer sucks, we thought we’d give their wine a go. An hour away from Paracas, right before you hit Ica, there are vineyards. But you don’t just get wine, you get pisco! It’s the next level of wine: distilled wine=grape brandy!
I recommend paying a visit to the oldest distillery in South America—established in 1684—, La Caravedo (look for Hacienda Destilería La Caravedo in Google Maps). They give you a free tour of the facilities. It takes 1.5 hours and is only in Spanish, but you get to try free pisco samples at the end and that makes you want to buy a carton to take home with you. Or to loosen you up for the rest of your Peru trip! Who knows, if you drink a good amount, you might even begin to speak Spanish.
Again a happy me, this time with my happy wife
Beware that the road you will be taking looks like you’re driving to someone’s granny’s house, but trust your GPS and persevere. You’ll arrive at a stunning yellow mansion, and you’ll know you’re in the right spot. They even have accommodation with an incredible looking swimming pool.
If you aren’t staying over, at least give the restaurant a visit, the food was amazing.
For some, the Islas Ballestas are the only reason they visit the Paracas area. I’m certain that for many of those people, they leave underwhelmed and wonder why the heck they made the trip.
Luckily for you, you’ll know to focus on the main Paracas National Reserve and make the trip out to the poopy rock formations with managed expectations.
See, the trip to the Islas Ballestas takes about 40 minutes on a speed boat. Then you have maybe half an hour “there”, but you aren’t allowed to get off the boat, since the islands are just big rock formations and are protected. So you take lots of pictures and then spend 40 minutes on the boat trip back. The end.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice—the water is clear, you’ll see tons of seals, sea lions, Humboldt Penguins, and I’ve never seen so many birds in one spot in my life. We even saw dolphins on the trip there. But it isn’t the Galapagos like I read somewhere on the interwebs.
The Islas Ballestas are shitty—literally. What do you get when you have a big rock with thousands of birds hanging out on it year-round? Lots of shit. Guano. Poop. Once every few years, the guano layer of a meter or so (3 feet) is harvested by hand and used to make fertilizer. It takes months to finish the job. Where the birds shit during this time I don’t know, but wow. That’s impressive pooping.
Birds at the Ballestas Islands, working on the guano
Find your tour on Viator, it’ll cost you about USD 20 for the tour, more if you want hotel pick-up. Try to take a morning trip since the ocean water is calmer and less likely to make you seasick. You also wouldn’t want to end up falling off the boat and shark diving by accident (just kidding, shark sightings are extremely rare in Peru).
We’ve written a separate post about Islas Ballestas with more details.
Paracas National Reserve, the views were epic!
And of course, the best of the best, the actual Paracas National Reserve. The desert here is vast and beautiful (photos don’t do it justice), and coupled with the blue and turquoise shades of the ocean, is truly a memorable sight. It reminded me of the desert in Namibia, just a little cooler (I mean temperature-wise, not how on fleek it is).
Paracas literally mean “sand falling like rain”, and you know what that entails when you get back to your hotel and take your clothes off, only to find a pile of sand under you. You’ll be finding sand in your stuff even after you return home, like itty bitty reminders that you did, in fact, visit a desert.
The Paracas National Reserve is full of fauna, there are all kinds of birds, seals, penguins, whales and other critters, like snakes. We, fortunately, didn’t run into those anywhere.
Inside the Paracas National Reserve. Four-wheel-drive was not necessary but fun!
The main entrance to the Paracas National Reserve is on the road out of Paracas town towards the south. You buy your ticket, get your map and can be on your way. The drive will take you about 4 hours. The road is easy to navigate, and you don’t need a monster of a vehicle like we had.
There are dune buggy tours that come to Paracas as well, but unless you love sand in your eyes, nose and ears, I really wouldn’t bother.
There are bathroom areas at the main stops on the route, some better, some you wish you hadn’t gone to.
This is the map we got at the entrance to the Paracas National Reserve
The route is about 23 km (14 miles) and will take you about 4 hours to get through, depending on how long you stop in the individual spots. This is what you will see:
1. The first stop is the interpretation center and museum. There are already massive dunes all around you. You can see huge seashells that are thousands of years old at the interpretation center.
The Interpretation Center is connected to the rusty-colored Museum Julio Tello. If you are interested in the history of the Paracas culture, complete with elongated human skulls, stop by for 20 minutes.
2. Playa Supay is your next stop. The coast is very dramatic here and you can just stand and gaze for 10 minutes and then happily move on. Some people do go down to the beach, but it is officially forbidden, so we didn’t. The bad karma isn’t worth it. Just stare at it from above, people.
3. La Catedral is a 40-million-year-old rock and the symbol of Paracas. It is now a little island, but it used to be connected to the cliffs of the coast and was taller, hence making it look like a cathedral. After an earthquake in 2007, part of the rock collapsed, and you now only see a triangular rock with penguins on it. Still a spectacular spot (the general area I mean, not that one particular rock). 30 minutes.
Us with what’s left of the Catedral
4. Playa Yumanque is a beach, with cliffs! And the views are wonderful, just as they were on the stop before this one, just flatter. But the area feels so vast and empty, you still enjoy it, even though on paper (or a computer screen), it all sounds the same. The wind does pick up in these areas, so come prepared to eat sand. 30 minutes.
5. The next stop is more views, this time from the Paracas Isthmus (Mirador Istmo II). 10 minutes should be enough for 35 more photos.
6. This one is a highlight and is most popular among tourists. Playa Roja (meaning “Red Beach”), as you might’ve guessed, has sand that is a deep red color. This is caused by the ocean waves picking away at the surrounding cliffs and taking traces of the pink granodiorite, which they are made of, back to the beach.
The water everywhere along the coast is very cold, thanks to the Humboldt Current, but some people, mostly locals, do swim in it. I recommend just using your eyes.
This stop is awe-inspiring, but you’ll probably be done with it in 15 minutes.
Playa Roja (from this angle it looks like the beach is under a massive cliff and that you’re looking down at it from a height, but in reality it’s like 2 m from where I was standing to the sand!)
7. Last but certainly not least, Peru’s most beautiful beach—La Mina. This is where you really wish the water temperature would allow you to feel like you’re in the tropics. It gets crowded with beachgoers, but keep in mind it’s still a wild beach, complete with smelly, rotting corpses of animals here and there.
This area is also where you’ll find a few bigger restaurants, usually offering whatever the fisherman brought in that morning, with stunning views out to the ocean (duh, I think you’ve picked up on the theme here). We tried Cevichería La Tia Fela and were very happy. The sea bass fish and chips were really good.
That’s it. As you can see, there is so much to do in the Paracas area, so make sure to set aside enough time to see it all.
Also, read up on the top things to do in Lima if you’re spending some time in the city, or look through our other articles about Peru and get inspired.
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