Peru has countless memorable experiences for you to try, and yet a trip to the Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas stands out among the best. The desert that Lima is built on is barely visible in the district centers but you’ll definitely see the sandy dunes on your drive south to the Ica district. Arguably a stark highlight of your trip will be seeing the penguins, sea lions, and myriad other wildlife up close at Islas Ballestas, located just a few kilometers from the Paracas peninsula. The Islas Ballestas is sometimes called “a poor man’s Galapagos” but it deserves a commendation in its own right: it is definitely an experience not to miss on your trip to Peru (especially if you’ve never seen this wildlife before). If you’re looking for something other than mountains, rainforests, and ruins, this is for you.
How to get there
There are buses that run between Lima and Ica and Pisco respectively. From here you can switch to a bus to the “center” of Paracas or take a taxi to your hotel directly. The journey from Lima takes roughly 4-5 hours, depending on your bus company and the sometimes inexplicable stops etc. They stop to check identities etc. regularly. We recommend checking for exact details from your hotel in Paracas/Lima, and the websites for Peru Hop, Oltursa, Cruz del Sur, Civa, Ormeño, or TEPSA.
Driving to Paracas
We got there by car. Yes, you read that right: Christian drove to Paracas. Let me preface this by saying that Christian is an excellent driver, rigorously trained in Germany, and has driven regularly in Sri Lanka, so his experience behind the wheel may be different to yours. The stretch between Lima and Paracas is pretty straightforward as it’s served by the Panamericana Sur highway. It’s the traffic in Lima that you really have to navigate. Driving in Lima has been one of the most challenging driving experiences Christian has had. That being said, we wanted to mention that it technically is possible to drive to Paracas if you want to make the most of your time (since I couldn’t find any good resources on the Internet for this!) but you’d have to be an excellent driver who is used to navigate traffic either in South-Asia, the Middle-East, or South America.
You can rent cars at Europcar, Sixt, or Budget. Budget and Sixt have kiosks at the baggage claim area of the Lima airport (or you can book ahead, online) and Europcar is located around 0.5 kilometers across from the airport. Europcar is located “across from the airport” but the lack of direct pedestrian ways across the main roads (and you don’t want to cross the Lima streets where there’s no pedestrian crossing, trust me – I’m from Sri Lanka!) means that you have to walk a short while to a pedestrian fly-over to get to it.
Note that unless you are renting a car at Europcar in Lima for more than 5 days, you are given a maximum mileage of 200 km per day in your rate, and then charged for any excess by the kilometer. There’s no flat rate for excess kilometers you can pay as of October 2017. It’s about 280 km between Lima and Paracas, one way. We’re not sure if this is the case with all car rental providers in Lima, but it’s important you discuss this ahead of signing your contract!
If you’re renting a car, we strongly recommend downloading the Google offline map of the Lima and Paracas regions to help you get around (see more travel hacks here!)
Taxis from Lima to Paracas can go for as low as 300 soles if you bargain well (it can go up to 450 soles), but note that that’s usually one way!
If you do drive from Lima or Paracas, or vice versa, check out restaurant Mirasur for some incredible food. This is the best rice I had in Peru, and that’s saying a LOT!
Where to stay
There are plenty of hostels and hotels right by the entrance to Islas Ballestas, on the Paracas Peninsula. We can recommend Palmeras House (if you’re on a budget and still want a clean, comfortable room and bathroom) and the DoubleTree by Hilton (if you want to splurge).
Paracas National Reserve
The Paracas National Reserve is a large area of tropical desert with some beautiful beaches, islands, and marine life. There is an excellent museum (Museo Paracas) introducing and detailing the exploration and excavations done in the area at the welcome center of the reserve. You can “walk to see flamingos” from the welcome center, but note that the way is cordoned off a few hundred yards from the flamingos. This is of course well done, as not to let tourist activity disrupt the wildlife, but we feel you should know this as you make your way down the path to manage your expectations. They’ve marked off where they found turtle fossils from millions of years ago on the path as well.
Other stops include La Mina beach, Playa Mendieta, Playa Roja, and Lagunillas (playa = beach in Spanish). You can easily organize a tour of the Paracas Reserve up to the day before you wish to visit at the “city center” or at your hotel. The tour usually consists of being picked up at your hotel by a van, with a guide that serves around 60 people at a time. You are free to spend your time as you wish at the various stops, but you are transported together, in vans of around 15-20. This is true of the tours that cost around 70 soles per person – the more you spend, hopefully and presumably the more intimate and comfortable experience you have. We found this tour an excellent overview of the reserve.
Tickets to the Islas Ballestas and Paracas Reserve when purchased together at the marina to the Islas Ballestas (or at your hotel) are cheaper than buying the tickets separately. We do recommend you visit both sites! The tickets you buy at the marina cover the government tax for entering the reserves. The “tour” you purchase at your hotel (usually around 70-80 soles per person) is for the transport to the Islas Ballestas, back to your hotel, to the Paracas reserve, and back. This also covers your guide to the reserve.
Can you do it without a guide?
Yes, you can visit both places without a guide, but it helps if you speak Spanish. We have also included the following details just in case you’ve rented a car and want to visit the reserve and islands by yourself. Note that you require a car if you want to do visit the reserve by yourself though! Taxis to and from the marina to the Islas Ballestas are available.
You should visit Islas Ballestas first, as early as 7:40am. Buy your tickets at the office and ask an official which of the myriad lines you should stand in (they are usually organized by tour operators). When it’s your turn, show your tickets and you’ll get through. It really helps if you can speak Spanish here.
Once you pass the ticket taker, you’re all set. You’ll see your boat, strap on your life jacket, and take off on the ride to see the mystifying Candelabra, penguins, and sea lions. Wear a cap. There will be hundreds of birds overhead and it’s more than likely that some excrement may fall on you (for good luck! ;))
Then drive to the Paracas National Reserve. You can buy your tickets at the office at the entrance (the way to the reserve is well marked) and you can stop by the welcome center and museum, and then follow the signs to the other beaches and points of interest. Don’t drive off-road.
Where to eat at the Paracas National Reserve
Lagunillas has a host of restaurants (and two bathrooms: you pay 2 soles for one, and 1.50 for the other, and they’re located across from each other!). We recommend El Che. You don’t have a view of the water but you can catch that from the viewpoints close-by before or after lunch anyway. Most importantly, the restaurant is recommended by locals, serves good food at a fair price, and is less crowded than the nearby alternatives offering “sea views.”
How long will it take?
If you are doing a tour, you will be picked up from the Islas Ballestas marina around 10am (insist on being picked up if you paid for the tour!) and driven to your hotel where you will be picked up at around 11am for the Paracas National Reserve. The entire trip to the Paracas reserve will last around 3-4 hours, and you should be back at your hotel around 2 or 3pm at the latest (remember that you started the day being taken to the marina for the Islas Ballestas at 7:40am)
There is not much else to do in the Paracas area unless you’d like to visit Pisco or Ica. We did the entire trip above within 24 hours (arrived in the night, visited the islands and reserve the next morning, and left in the afternoon) but you can definitely spend more time in the area if you’re interested in surfing or are “ruined out.”
Renting ATVs and sandboarding
You can rent ATVs to explore the Paracas reserve or sign up for sandboarding at offices at the center, right by the marina where you will visit the Islas Ballestas. We adore renting ATVs but wouldn’t do it here though, since the wind makes the sand almost unbearable when driving in an open vehicle. We also saw a few broken down ATVs along the roadside and one poor person pushing his through the desert to discourage us from wanting to recommend it.
Dining at the Paracas Reserve
You can also book a “romantic” dinner under a beautiful white tent in the middle of the desert if you wish. You will be with others of course, and the prices for this are above US$100 per person (transport included). You can talk to your hotel about organizing this (online resources tend to be sparse). The DoubleTree by Hilton and Hotel Paracas specialize in organizing these tours.
Like in most places in Peru, tours and visits can be organized on site, but we recommend figuring out how you’re going to get to Paracas and where you will be staying if you are tight on time. If you work/study like us and have limited time to travel and still want to see as much as possible, we’d recommend booking your accommodation and transport beforehand, and sorting out how you will get to the reserves on site. Your hotel should easily be able to help with this.
Have more questions about visiting Paracas? Visited Paracas and have something to share? Comment below with your questions/comments!
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