Things to do in Paracas and Ica: Peru’s best kept secret

Things to do in Paracas and Ica: Peru’s best kept secret

Backpacking Peru: A travel guide on the best things to do in Paracas in Ica for the independent budget traveller

This post is about the best things to do in Paracas. Paracas is the centre of adventure tourism in Ica. A beautiful region just south of Lima that is unlike any other place in Peru.

My experience in Paracas

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 near Paracas. For the adventurous soul it turned out there were a lot of things to do in Paracas. Like most tourists, my first plan was to take a direct bus to Arequipa and then Cusco to visit the famous Machu Pichu.

deep blue sea at the Paracas Natural Reserve, one of the most beautiful things to do in Paracas

But then I read something about Ica. A province south of Lima that is probably Peru’s best kept secret. For now, because it’s city Paracas is becoming more popular. One of the things to do in Paracas is Islas Ballistas where you can see sea lions and penguins. It was the main reason for me to visit Ica, but I enjoyed all the other things to do in Paracas just as much.

My three days in Paracas turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting to see in Peru and only shows the diversity of this country. Among the things to do in Paracas are desolate desert landscapes, vineyards and great opportunities to spot wildlife

sea lion at Islas ballestas, one of the top things to do in Paracas

The best things to do in Paracas

1. Paracas town

My first stop was the small beach town of Paracas. I must be honest that Paracas town is not particularly nice. Besides the boulevard there are not a lot of things to do in Paracas itself.

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 Paracas town and the great tours you can do here.

Tip: Paracas is really a bit of a sleepy beach town with hardly any nightlife to speak of. One or two nights is more than enough to see the Islas ballestas and the Paracas Natural Reserve.

I stayed in the Kokopelli hostel. This is a great social place that often organizes activities in the evenings if you are up for it. They also have a pool and it is right at the beach.

The boulevard in Paracas

2. Islas Ballestas

The next day I had to get up early for my tour to Islas Ballestas, one of the top things to do in Paracas. 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.

The candelabra in the desert near Paracas in Ica

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.

hundreds of Pelicans at Islas Ballestas in Ica Peru

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.

Sea lions at Islas Ballestas in Ica Peru

Tips: Tours are very easy to arrange in Paracas. There are tours at 8 AM and 10 AM. The early morning tours at 8 AM are best as the sea is still relatively calm, but gets more wild during the day.

Sea lions at Islas Ballestas in Ica Peru

3. 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 such as Playa Roja and Bahia Lagunillas. 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.

If you are in Paracas don’t miss the Paracas Natural Reserve. It certainly is one of the most beautiful things to do in Paracas.

Paracas Natural Reserve in Ica Peru

Tips: Tours are very easy to arrange in Paracas. You can also book a combination tour of Islas ballestas in the morning and the Paracas Natural Reserve later in the day.

I didn’t do this, because I had no time, but the best way to explore the Paracas Natural Reserve is actually by bicycle. You can rent bicycles in Paracas and it will take all day, but the landscape around you is wonderful and you will get to see more of it than on a tour.

This guide on cycling the Paracas Natural Reserve from along dusty roads is excellent.

Paracas Natural Reserve in Ica Peru

Things to do near Paracas

4. Huacachina

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.

Huacachina certainly is one of the most adventurous things to do near Paracas. 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.

Huacachina desert oasis is among the top things to do in Ica for adventure

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?

A sandbuggy in Huacachina

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.”

Sandboarding in Huacachina

The next day I feel somewhat ashamed for my fears. Several schools 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.

Tips: the sand buggying tours in the evenings are easy to arrange in Huacachina.

Huacachina is a little bit of a party town. Most hostels have a pool and play music till late night. Check your accomodation to know what to expect. I can recommend casa bamboo for a more quiet option.

Schoolkids sandboarding in Huacachina

5. Pisco vineyards

Pisco is a Peruvian alcoholic drink and a local speciality in Ica. It was in the 16th and 17th century that Ica had the largest vineyards in Peru. Some of them are still active and open to visitors where you will get to taste a variety of Pisco.

I had already tasted Pisco sour in Lima. The famous combination of pisco with lemon juice. Little did I know that there is so much more to Pisco.

6. Nazca lines

Ica is also the place where you can book flights over the famous Nazca lines. The ancient geoglyphs are made by depressions in the soil of the Nazca desert. Although most are simple straight lines, there are also figures such as animals, trees, flowers and geometric shapes.

The Nazca figures are so big that they are best seen from the air. The 90 minute flights cost between 250 and 300 dollar and will show you 12 figures. Most will include a pick up from your hotel in Paracas.

If the flights are a bit out of your budget. There is a view tower on the road from Paracas to Arequipa from where you can also see some of the Nazca lines. What was most impressive for me is that when you are on the ground it’s hard to see them even if you are standing next to a line. Only when you climb on top of the tower they come in sight.

Where to stay in Ica

Where to stay in Paracas

Kokopelli Backpackers Hostel is a trendy hostel with a pool right at the beach and a free breakfast. What else do you need?

Where to stay in Huacachina

Casa Bamboo is a more quiet option in Huacachina with an excellent restaurant. If you want to party and/or a pool there are plenty of other places in town. If you want a good night of sleep come here.

When to visit Paracas

The weather in Paracas can be quite unpredictable. Don’t always expect warm and sunny days in this beach town.

In winter it can be cold, windy and rainy. These days boats might not be able to make the tours to Islas ballestas, because the sea is too rough.

Summer is better, but in the dessert it can get very hot. Bring enough sunscreen, water and something to cover your head to protect you from the sun if you plan to explore the desert.

The desert in Paracas Natural Reserve

How to get to Ica

How to get to Paracas

From Lima it is about 4 hours by bus to Paracas. Direct local buses to Paracas are rare. To reach Paracas you can take a bus heading south to Ica and ask to go out in the town Santa Cruz. From there you can take a taxi to Paracas.

Several companies that are slightly more expensive than a local bus do have direct buses from Lima to Paracas. Check Peru bus, Cruz del sur, Peru hop, Green toad bus and Oltursa.

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.

How to get to Huacachina

To reach Huacachina you can take a local bus from either Lima or Paracas to the town of Ica and from there take a taxi to Huacachina.

In Huacachina you can organise the sandboarding tours 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.

You can read about my experience with Peru hop in my Peru hop review. My next stop with them was in Arequipa where I did the Colca Canyon trek.

Backpacking Peru: A travel guide on the best things to do in Paracas in Ica for the independent budget traveller

There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Sarah at 10:13 am

    One of our most memorable sunsets was on the sand dunes of Huacachina – such a beautiful part of Perú. We loved seeing the coast after spending a lot of time around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Great blog post 🙂

  2. Lia at 8:43 pm

    We had an awesome time in Ica and Huacachina! I was terrified on the sand dunes too. The jeep was horrifying and I didn’t get up the courage to sandboard either lol. It’s too bad you didn’t get a chance to tour some Pisco wineries! That was a highlight of our time there. Oh and do you guys eat any chocotejas? They’re a local specialty and SOOOOO good!

  3. Jo at 5:24 pm

    Thanks so much for your sharing!
    I’m planning a trip to peru and bolivia in late july for 5 weeks and would like to visit the places that you mentioned above, how many days would you suggest me to stay there? or how long did you stay in the Ica area? Thanks in advance 🙂

    • ellisveen Author at 5:03 pm

      I stayed about 2 days in Ica. With Peru Hop this was enough to see most important sites. If you are using public transport I would maybe add another day to give you a bit more flexibility. Peru and Bolivia are both very beautiful and there is so much to see 🙂

  4. Emese at 11:25 am

    What a great place! You did see a lot of wildlife! and gorgeous scenery. I’ll admit, I would’ve been like you after that rollercoaster sand dune ride. I had to laugh about Kokopelli – the name in Peru … Kokopelli is part of the ancient US Southwestern legends – what is he doing in Peru having hostels named after him? Are the owners from Arizona? Regardless, sounds like a great experience; I’d love to check it out – especially for the wildlife.

  5. Lori at 11:42 pm

    We’ve been to other areas of Peru but have wanted to go to this region. We’d love to go back and see this part of the coast. great tips, thanks.

  6. Anna at 8:24 pm

    Awesome post! Your photos are amazing! There is still so much to explore in Peru, I think I just need to go back a few times.

  7. Kristina Johnson at 9:21 pm

    Wow! I’ve been to Peru but did not know about this place. It looks gorgeous. Thanks for posting about it.

  8. Alison at 10:38 pm

    The photos are splendid. I barely scraped the surface in Peru and this area is one I would love to explore! It looks amazing!

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