Have you ever seen the desert run full speed into the sea? If not, you need to go to Paracas. The post will cover things to do, where to stay and how to get to this fun coastal town just a few hours south of Lima.
Paracas in a Nutshell
Less than four hours south of Lima, Paracas is one of Peru’s hidden gems and not-to-be-missed destinations. From the “poor man’s Galapagos” that is the Islas Ballestas to the desert/ocean bike ride through the Paracas National Reserve to the incredible seafood and sunsets, Paracas is full of reasons why it should be on your Peru itinerary. While you can do it all in a full day, we recommend two to really take it in.
Things To Do in Paracas Peru
There are two MAIN things that bring tourists to Paracas: the Islas Ballestas and the Paracas National Reserve. We also recommend two more: eating the best ceviche of your life and watching an incredible desert/ocean sunset.
Islas Ballestas: Boat Tour
Every morning at 8AM, virtually every tourist in the town heads over to the main dock to climb aboard a boat to the Islas Ballestas. It is a roughly two hour tour to some extremely bio-diverse islands just a couple miles off the coast of Paracas. Expect to see your fair share of birds, sea lions, and even penguins!
From the moment you step out of the bus terminal, you’ll be offered a tour from just about every one who is not a tourist. However, there is no need to book in advance since all tours are virtually identical. You can just walk over to the main dock in town (you can’t miss it as the town isn’t very big) about 10 minutes before 8AM. Multiple people will walk up to you and ask if you want to take the tour and all will offer you a cheaper price than what you heard the day before. We paid S/25 per person (~$8USD) and, looking back, might have been able to pay less.
In addition to the tour, you need to pay two additional fees:
- Park Entrance Fee: You have to buy an entrance ticket to see the islands. Combine this with a ticket to the Paracas National Reserve to save a little $$$. The combination ticket is good for 24 hours. Combo Ticket Cost: S/24 per person.
- Dock Fee: This one feels a little silly and should just be rolled up into the tour price, bus alas, it is a separate fee to use the dock. Dock Fee: S/5 pp
- Your tour guide will point you to a separate booth to pay each fee.
The Islas Ballestas ruins are called “the Poor Man’s Galapagos” since S/25 pp is just a bit cheaper than a trip to the real deal, which will run you about $1000 USD/week.
Paracas National Reserve: Bike or Bus Tour
The Paracas National Reserve is a massive park a few km outside of town. If you’re in a time crunch, there are bus tours to the Paracas that leave at 11am, giving you just enough time to catch it if you take a boat tour that leaves right at 8am. However, we highly recommend biking through the reserve instead. Expect it to take 4-5hrs, depending on your speed. Snacks, water, and a good attitude are essential.
Biking the Paracas National Reserve was one of the unexpected highlights of our time in Peru. It may have been my favorite activity in all of Peru; yes, even considering Machu Picchu -manage those expectations people! I went into this ride with none and was absolutely blown away.
All you have you to do is rent a bike! I don’t have a bike shop to recommend, just ask your hostel for the nearest one. Once you reach the reserve and show the guard your entrance ticket (the combo ticket from your Islas Ballestas tour), you will immediately be faced with a fork in the road. GO LEFT.
For the sake of your sanity, go left! Paracas is windy in the afternoon, and you will spend the first 1.5-2 hours of the ride biking uphill into the wind. So take your time, take plenty of pictures and keep in mind that the best is yet to come. Eventually you will reach the rock outcropping in the sea called The Cathedral and from there along the beach, through the desert and back to your bike shop is all downhill with the wind at your back!
Be sure to check your bike! These bikes are ridden around a lot of sand so be sure to give your bike a test ride before committing to one. Unless you want to play bike mechanic midway through your ride when you to slip the chain trying to change gears (**cough** Michelle **cough**).
Watch the Sunset
Does it get anymore picturesque than a sunset at the beach? I don’t think so. Throw in some massive sand dunes in the background and the view is over the top. Be sure to be camped out on the beach 30 minutes before sunset and watch the show.
What to Eat in Paracas
As a general rule, seafood is better when you can hear the sound of the ocean. Paracas is no exception. There’s more than ceviche to try, though if you don’t like raw fish, you may not like three-fourths of the options. Here’s what to try:
- Ceviche. You have 2 choices: Pescado (fish) or Mixto (calamari, clams, squid, etc.). We recommend going with the fish, since your likelihood of eating fresh seafood is higher (as it’s more likely the local fishermen are bringing in fresh fish, not calamari, every morning).
- Tiradito. Fish ceviche with a yellow aji sauce and a sweet potato slice.
- Causa. Mashed potato with ceviche and avocado.
- Leche de tigre. The juice that is the base of all Peruvian ceviche. It is very similar to ceviche, but more soup-y.
- Chicharrones. In Peru, “chicharrones” can mean ANYTHING that is fried. So chicharrones de pescado are fried fish filets or sticks.
- Pisco Sour. Given the prevalence of Pisco vineyards nearby, it’s just something you MUST try. Why not?
As for where to eat, it seemed to us that the food across town was comparable, and what varies is the ambiance of the restaurant. We visited Restaurant Paracas (the tourist talk of the town) and didn’t think it was as good as the shacks that sell menu del dia for S/20 pp by the beach. So it’s really up to you.
For lunch, we recommend skipping the overpriced Restaurant Paracas and opting for one of the seafood shacks in a string located near the Kokopelli Hostel. We chose the one that had the most locals (2nd from the beach) and had the best ceviche of our lives for S/20 pp. Note that these restaurants serve menu del dia or almuerzo (a 2-course lunch menu) for S/20-25 pp, and many offer this until 5pm. So depending on your mood, you could come back for an early dinner!
For dinner, there are enough waterfront options to be considered overwhelming. For equally tasty but less pricey options, cross to the north side of the pier.
How to Get to Paracas
Paracas is about a 3.5 hour bus from Lima. Use redbus.com (pay attention to the promo codes on their homepage) or busbud.com to find the option that works best for you.
Where to Stay in Paracas
For backpackers, Kokopelli is the best place, hands down. It is pricier than the other choices, but they have incredible common areas (including a pool), good breakfast, beach access, and a superb location.
Where to Go Next
From Paracas, you can either go north or south.
- North: 3.5 hour bus ride back to Lima (see our Lima Travel Guide!)
- South: 1.5 hour bus ride to Ica and the natural desert oasis of Huacachina. From Ica, you are a 12 overnight bus from Arequipa (see our Arequipa Travel Guide!).
All prices are current as of November 2019.