The deep blue sea contrasted stark with the bright yellow desert all around me. I walked on the dark brown sand of the beach to keep warm, but still I was shivering in the strong wind. I have to remind myself that I am still in Peru.
After all, I came here in search of old Inca ruins in the jungle, but here I was in the desert in Ica. Like most tourists, my first plan was to take a direct bus to Arequipa and then Cusco to visit the famous Machu Pichu.
But then I read something about Ica. A province south of Lima that is probably Peru’s best kept secret. For now, because it is becoming more popular. When I read about Islas Ballistas where you can see sea lions and penguins I was convinced to add Ica to my itinerary.
My 3 days here turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting to see in Peru and only shows the diversity of this country. Ica offers desolate desert landscapes, vineyards and great opportunities to spot wildlife
A travel guide tto the best things to do in Ica
My first stop was the small beach town of Paracas. My hostel had a pool, but unfortunately it was still too cold to swim. The quiet town was not particularly nice. All there was to do was strolling along the beach and the somewhat empty boulevard. The sunset was beautiful, but still I felt a bit disappointed on my first day in Ica. Nothing here gave me any indication of the beauty outside of town.
The next day I had to get up early for my tour to Islas Ballestas. These islands are a dream for biologists due to its rich biodiversity of marine life and birds. They are also called the poor man’s Galapagos and tours here will cost you only 15$. We had to wait in line and were then divided among several speedboats. The tours are quite proffesional and every speed boat has its own guide.
On the rough sea our guide pointed out the Candelabra. It’s a mysterious drawing of a trident made in the hills overlooking the ocean. My first idea is that it is probably connected to the famous Nazca lines further south, but according to our guide the Candelabra is believed to be much older.
In fact, it is more than 2000 years old. The meaning and purpose of it remain unknown. I can only be amazed by the size of it and that these lines have remained all these years in the sand, despite erosion and sandstorms common in the area.
My main reason to visit Ica was the possibility to see wildlife. Islas Ballestas did not disappoint me in that regard. After the Candelabra our boat speeded towards a group of rocks inhabited by thousands of birds and the occasional group of sea lions.
The birds are everywhere and the rocks are covered in their poo. I got really excited when our guide pointed out three small penguins among the pelicans. A moment later I spotted my first sea lion sleeping on a rock and soon we saw several groups of them lying around.
Paracas Natural Reserve
My visit to Islas Ballestas alone made my stop in Ica worth the effort to come here. I didn’t expect much of the Paracas Natural Reserve, but my visit there really surprised me too. We made stops on several beaches and I was mesmerized by the colors.
The deep blue sky, the dark brown sand of the beach and the bright yellow desert make this a place out of this world. It felt almost surreal to be there and the colors kept changing with the clouds passing by.
There was more desert at our final stop in Huacachina, a small oasis town catering to both local and foreign tourists who come here for adventure. Every evening you can take a tour to the desert in a buggy to go sand boarding. For only 15$ I did not want to miss out on this.
Despite travelling all over the world, I am actually not that adventurous. My fears include big insects, height and speed. I was not sure what I was expecting, but the sandbuggying didn’t sound scary to me. I thought it would be a gentle ride through the desert. Peru isn’t really famous for its sand dunes, so how high can they really be?
At a normal speed, we were driving out of the small oasis town. The scenery was amazing. That was when our driver gestured to us to securely fasten our seatbelts. After that, he continued on full speed driving up and down sand dunes like a roller coaster.
And yes, sand dunes in Peru are actually quite high. He would drive to the top and then go down at full speed. Every time I was so scared that I thought I was going to die. I did survive, but I have to be honest that while the others went sand boarding I stayed on top to enjoy the view and get back to a normal heart rate.”
The next day I feel somewhat ashamed for my fears. Several schools have made Huacachina the place for a school trip. Hundreds of kids are having fun with their sand boards sliding down the dunes while I enjoy watching them from a distance as I am waiting for the bus to Arequipa. Our bus makes a very last stop in a vineyard where they produce alcohol. We get to taste different varieties including Pisco sour, a local speciality from this region. I had a great time in Ica and it was a side of Peru that I did not expect to see.
Backpacking Ica: Accomodation
Paracas = Kokopelli Backpackers Hostel: A trendy hostel with a pool right at the beach. What else do you need?
Huacachina = Casa Bamboo: This is a more quiet option with an excellent restaurant. If you want to party and/or a pool there are plenty of places in town. If you want a good night of sleep come here.
Backpacking Ica: Logistics
From Lima it is about 4 hours by bus to Paracas and Huacachina. Direct buses to Paracas and Huacachina are rare. To reach Paracas you can take a local bus heading south to Ica and ask to go out in the town Santa Cruz. From there you can take a taxi to Paracas. To reach Huacachina you can take a bus to the town of Ica and take a taxi to Huacachina.
Paracas is the base town where you can organize your tour to Islas Ballestas and the Paracas Natural Reserve. The Islas Ballestas tours are available from $15 dollar onwards. In Huacachina you can organise the sandboarding tours also starting at $15 dollar.
Peru hop offers a convenient hop on hop off bus package going directly to Paracas and Huacachina, even delivering you and picking you up from your hostel. On top of that, they offer a free visit to the Paracas Natural Reserve and a Pisco vineyard.
My next stop with them was in Arequipa where I hiked the Colca Canyon.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.