An Alternative Guide to Paracas, Peru

14 Mar 2020

It's going to be a hot day. We can tell because it's 5AM and the air in Lima is already stagnant and getting heavier with the rising dust. We load up the car moving swiftly and a few minutes later we're on the highway, bound South. We're going to Paracas.

Up until I was 19 years old, I called Lima my home. I'm a local. Over the years I've done this 3 hour drive so many times: I've been to the Ballestas Islands, the Paracas National Reserve, I've done tubular buggy rides on the sand dunes and Pisco tasting in Ica. Today we're doing something different. Fancy beaches, off-road biking and snorkelling? Read on...

We start our self-guided day trip from Lima and soon we hit our first stop: El Buen Horno. This bakery and restaurant is open from 7AM and it's a local's hidden gem. We buy a cafe cortado and a canasta de panes (bread basket). I get a variety of olive bread, garlic and oregano, cheesy bread and sweet potato bread; all of which I scoff down in a few minutes.

Back in the car and a couple of hours later we are crossing into the Paracas National Reserve. It's quite early so there's no one to take payment at the entrance (S/11 nuevos soles / £2.50). We drive on to our first stop: Playa La Mina.

Paracas Beaches

On our visit we descend onto La Mina beach so early, it's just us and the widlife here. But with the sun hitting hard we scramble to find some shade. We're walking to El Raspón beach, but as we stop by the edge of the cliff, we spot a cove. Since you can't see it from the paths, we decide it will be our private beach for the day.

The best way to see the most beautiful beaches in the reserve is to take the Salinas route as you drive through the entrance. Take a right when you see the route to Catedral and you can pretty much follow a route that takes you through Playa Supay, Mirador Catedral, Playa Yumaque, Playa Roja, Lagunillas and then on to El Raspón and La Mina.

A Spot of Lunch

After hours of swimming and playing on the rocks on the cove, we jump back in the car and drive to the pier next to Lagunillas. Here there are public toilets and a handful of restaurants. We consult the menu on a couple, but start talking to a fisherman and decide to follow him to the actual pier, where we get a dish of Ceviche for a third of the price. Today, this'll do for us.

Other great places to grab lunch are Pukasoncco (vegan-friendly) and Miski's, both in Paracas downtown.

What to do in Paracas

The Paracas National Reserve

The Paracas National Reserve protects desert, ocean, islands, the peninsula and their biodiversity. The Reserve is home to over 1500 species of flora, algae, reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, molluscs, and invertebrae.

But what fewer visitors know is that the Paracas culture lived here more than 2000 years before the Incas ruled the Andes. The Paracas accompished incredible things, such as brain surgery (over 70% success rate!) and had incredible textiles including the famous Paracas Mantle.

The #1 reason most visitors go to Paracas is for a 2 hour tour of the Ballestas Islands where they get to see the incredible wildlife and the famous Candelabra (a prehistoric geoglyph). Totally worth it. We've just been exploring the beaches, but let's skip to the lesser-known adventures...

Sand Dunes Buggy Tour

Racing through the dunes at full speed in a buggy is one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever had. Often done at sunset, it feels like you're on a free-falling roller coaster, but with incredible views. Here's a Buggy experience I recommend.

Self-guided Bike Tours

A bunch of bike rental businesses operate in Paracas. If you are staying in the area you can scope out which ones have bikes available that work for you. Negotiate, the rate should be around S/25 per day, and agree a pick up time for the following day. Make sure to test the bikes (tyres, suspension, brakes, gears should all be in working order) and get a map of the Reserve. I recommend departing early, around 7AM, and taking breaks when the sun gets too hot. Ensure you bring enough water, sunscreen and shade with you - big hats are a must!

Snorkelling and Diving in Paracas

Surprisingly, Paracas has azurre, almost turquoise waters and is one of the best places in Peru to practice diving. Divers and snorkellers gather early for a 2.5 hour diving and snorkelling session (around $200 - $350; but depending on demand, you can get up to 70% off). They often visit La Mina or Mendieta beaches. Tours can be booked with local companies such as Playa Roja tours and previous experience is not required, since they can provide your first lessons there. These beaches have almost no waves and the depths will depend on your experience.

Kitesurfing and Windsurfing in Paracas

Paracas has some of the best beaches for kitesurfing and windsurfing. I first learned about this on a Channel 5 documentary, New Lives in the Wild, following a British couple who had retired to Paracas and built a kite surfing school, Peru Kite. They have now built an impressive business with lessons, rentals, trips and even accommodation. They stock the latest and safest products and have professional staff on hand at all times both for lessons and rescue. Full kit rental starts at $70 per day.

Other activities

Paragliding off Supay and Cerro Mirador, catamaran sailing, and guided treks can all be done in Paracas.

Pisco and Wine Tasting

Beyond these activities, you can also enjoy wine tasting and Pisco tasting if you don't mind going a little farther East. Catch a bus from Paracas to Ica (1.5 hours) and then get a taxi to Viña Tacama, a well-known Peruvian vineyard. Here you can sample wines (tours include guided walks within the grounds and wine-tasting of up to 4 wines, S/30 - 65 soles). We opted to enjoy a glass of rose at the vineyard and head over to El Catador for our Pisco tasting.

Visit the Museo Julio C. Tello

This museum was awarded Best New Museum in Latin America by London's 'Leading Culture Destinations Awards 2018'. It aims to educate guests around the Paracas Culture, one of the most extraordinary prehispanic societies to have lived in Peru. Entry is S/7.50 soles.

The museum was recently re-designed following earthquake damages and today houses over 120 pieces of textiles, ceramics and utensils. It's also home to skulls where one can clearly see the trepanations (brain surgery) carried out.

How to get to Paracas

Paracas is a 4 hour coach ride from Lima. You can get tickets online on PeruBus for S/45 soles / £10 and use an e-ticket / email confirmation to board. You'll need your passport handy!

If you'd prefer private transport I highly recommend VenTaxi, which I personally use for work trips. It's a small business run by 2 brothers-in-law. They have the latest fleet and it's definitely more on the luxurious side. You can get a quote via Whatsapp (this is how everything is done in Peru) - get in touch with Elvin on +51 920 838 297.

When to go

Paracas has subtropical arid desert weather. The best time to visit is between December and April - the summer months - when the average is 22 degrees Celsius.

Fun fact: Paracas actually means sand rain in Quechua (one of Peru's official languages), because of the typical winds of the area, which blow cool air from the sea onto the desert, lifting the sand.

Where to stay

On the 'luxurious' side is the classic Paracas Hotel. Whilst I wouldn't count it as a 5-star hotel, it is a classic, having stood there since as long as I can remember. It has a family beach club vibe and it's great for relaxing after all the day's activities. For a more chill and down-to-earth vibe, stay at Kokopelli.

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