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The beach town of Paracas, home to the Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands also known as “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, is probably the best place in Peru to visit the Pacific coast.
Within just a few square kilometers, you can see enigmatic archaeological sites, jaw-dropping desert scenes, stunning beaches, and an extraordinarily diverse array of avian and marine wildlife. The best part about Paracas is that it’s only about a four hour drive from Lima, making it a super convenient location for a quick trip from the capital, either as a weekend getaway or as a stop on a longer trip of the country.
The Paracas Peninsula and its surrounding area was first settled by the Paracas culture which shares its name in 900 BC. These first-known inhabitants lived as fishermen and farmers, but they were also known to be extremely skilled artisans. Their finely-crafted tools, pottery and woven textiles have survived to this day, many unearthed in the tombs of the nearby Paracas Necropolis, a massive burial site of the Paracas and later Nazca cultures. These two cultures were also well-known for their practice of skull elongation, producing an eerie extraterrestrial-like appearance which has led to all manner of wild speculation and conspiracy theories. Many of these interesting discoveries can be seen at the nearby Juan Navarro Hierro Paracas History Museum.
Nicknamed “The Poor Man’s Galapagos”, it’s the most well-known attraction for travelers in Paracas. Given the nickname due to the similarity to the Galapagos at a way better price, these rocky islands off the Pacific coast of Peru are an essential stop for any nature lover. The islands are home to hundreds of species of animals such as the endangered Humboldt penguin, seals, many subtropical birds (the blue-footed booby, guanay, etc), and much more exotic and interesting wildlife.
On the way to the Ballestas Islands, visitors will pass El Candelabro, a large prehistoric petroglyph of unknown origin spanning over 150m high and 50m wide. There is still no definite answer as to why it was etched on the sandy hills but there are many theories with the most reasonable being that it was used as a navigational guide for ancient sailors.
Like the Ballestas Islands, the Paracas National Reserve is a protected area for many important wildlife species, particularly birds. In total, the reserve is home to 74 species of plants, 216 species of birds, 16 types of mammals, 10 species of reptiles and 193 species of fish. The main attraction, however, is the scenery. This peninsula represents a point where the driest desert on Earth meets the Pacific Ocean, creating a very picturesque and dramatic landscape. There are several coastal areas and beaches with their own unique appearance: the tiny finish village of Lagunillas, the stunning red sand beach of Playa Roja and the secluded cove of Playa de la Mina, among others.
Since the town of Paracas is only a small outpost existing primarily as a hub for travelers visiting the area’s sights, there are only a couple bus companies which offer service directly to Paracas from Lima. Once in Paracas, it will also be necessary to purchase the relevant entrance tickets and arrange transportation to the islands or reserve independently. There are many different tourist agencies and transportation companies offering these services within Paracas.
The best way to avoid any hassle, however, is to book a trip with Escape From Lima. The 2-day excursion on offer right now will pick you up directly at your hostel in Miraflores and bring you to both the Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands, plus a trip to Huacachina for sandboarding at South America’s only desert oasis. Travelers departing from Lima on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday will also visit the secret slave tunnels of Chincha for no extra charge (travelers departing Lima on Tuesday or Thursday can use their extra free time to check out other activities in Paracas, such as the Juan Navarro Hierro Paracas History Museum mentioned above). Since transportation, hostel/hotel pick-up and drop-off, accommodation, entry prices, etc. are included, all you’ll have to worry about is the cost of food. It’s really the best and most convenient way to visit these locations.
Here’s a typical 2-day itinerary (there are 1 and 3-day options as well):
06:30am – 07:00am
Pickup at your hotel/hostel in Lima.
07:40am – 08:00am Visit Cristo del Pacifico – Huge Christ statue overlooking Lima. Get the best view of Lima and learn all about the war between Peru and Chile from our knowledgeable Peruvian guides.
Approx. 08:30am Panoramic viewing tour of Pachacamac. Lima’s poor version of Machu Picchu, we stop to see these ruins over the wall from our bus and avoid paying $25 USD for the tour.
09:30am – 10:00am Breakfast stop at the unique bread oven – freshest bread in Peru!
12:00pm – 13:00pm Secret Slave Tunnels in Chincha – Take a tour in the beautiful estate of the Haciendo San Jose and go into its hidden labyrinth of underground tunnels used to illegally smuggle African slaves in the 17th century.
14:00pm Bus arrives to Paracas.
08:00am – 10:00am
2 hour boat tour of the Ballestas Islands.
11:00am – 13:00pm Tour of Paracas National Reserve.
13:00pm – 14:15pm Direct bus from Paracas to Huacachina, a small natural oasis located in the Ica desert.
16:00pm – 18:00pm 2 hours of dune buggying and sandboarding – Ride the dune buggies up and sandboard down the biggest dunes in South America. A once in a lifetime experience in the only natural desert oasis in South America.
18:30pm – 23:45pm Bus back to Lima. You will be dropped off at your hotel/hostel.
As you can see, this excursion allows you to see an amazing number of things in only two days. More information on Escape From Lima’s two-day Paracas tours and pricing can be found here. Paracas and the surrounding region is one of the most beautiful areas in Peru, and paying a visit is definitely well worth it. Hope to see you soon!