Guide to PARACAS and the ISLAS BALLESTAS

Here comes a guide to Paracas which is actually only a short promenade along the shore. However, it’s a great gateway to natural treasures like the Islas Ballestas, Peru’s Galapagos Islands.

Every morning, the tour boats leave the village and show the visitors the undisturbed wildlife on these rocks. Sea lions, flocks of different birds, and even groups of penguins are greeting from the shores.

About 250 kilometers south of Lima is the Paracas Peninsula. As you leave Perú’s capital, it’s basically the first stop on what is called offhand the Ruta del Gringo.

The Paracas National Reserve

Located just south of the Paracas Bay, together with the Islas Ballestas, it forms the Paracas National Reserve. This protected area became a protected national park in 1975. It actually covers a total area of ​​335,000 hectares and stretches all the way down to Chile.

Also, there are many important archaeological sites inside the reserve. To be honest, I’ve heard about the Paracas Necropolis long before I knew I could see penguins there. I always loved that beautifully woven fabric.

Detail of a mantle from the Paracas Necropolis.
Detail of a mantle from the ancient Paracas Necropolis.

However, most travellers visit the bay and the offshore islands for the rich occurrence of pelicans and birds, seals and penguins, and other wildlife.

Pelicans relaxing on the city beach of Paracas.
Pelicans relaxing on the city beach.

Some of them, you meet right on Paracas’ promenade, others on the adjacent beaches. And many on the offshore islands.

Although Paracas has also beaches, obviously, they are a bit less attractive to humans.

The southern part of Paracas' city-beach.
The southern part of Paracas’ city-beach.

Due to the mild climate, the water here is a bit warmer which leads to large increase of seaweed. While it doesn’t look pretty on pristine beaches, it is a feast for all those cute critters. You can’t have one without the other.

Islas Ballestas

The Islas Ballestas are an archipelago off Paracas’ shores. As a matter of fact, the archipelago consists of the three islands which are Ballestas Norte, Ballestas Centro, and Ballestas Sur as well as a couple of smaller rocks.

Islas Ballestas
The islands consist of beautiful rock formations.

On these rocks, in the surrounding waters, and on top of you, you can take a closer look at the abundance of marine and bird species that are in small groups on these islands.

Flock of birds on Islas Ballestas
Large flocks of birds – producing day in, day out ‘guano’, precious excrements.

Penguins, sea lions, and guano boobies are the dearest highlights, just to name a few.

Penguins on the Islas Ballestas
These must be the famous chameleon-penguins – you can hardly spot them against the rocks.
Sea Lions on the Islas Ballestas
Quite a family: Sea lions and their many, many babies enjoying the beach and the Pacific ocean.
Sea Lions on the Islas Ballestas
Sea lions enjoying the beach.

However, there is another attraction between the mainland and the islands. Basically leaning on a hill, there is a huge rock painting. Based on its shape, it’s called El Candelabro de Paracas.

The candelabra’s design resembles the famous Nazca lines. Although this decor is located about 200 kilometers north of Nazca, it might be related. After all, according to the latest findings, half of those designs were created by members of the Paracas culture.

Candelabra in Paracas
The beautiful candelabra that you can spot on your way to the Ballestas Islands.

Nonetheless, the meaning of the candlestick is mysterious. It might have served as a navigational landmark.

The Desert Coast

So the natural reserve consists of 65 percent of water and, consequently, 36 percent are land. More precisely, sand.

Paracas
Sea’n’Sand – those are Paracas’ natural treasures.

Amazingly, not less than 74 plant species grow in this extremely dry area.

Desert of Paracas
The tropical desert of Paracas.

Legend has it that freedom hero General José de San Martín – I mentioned him in the chapter on Perú’s history in the main post  – landed on the coast of Paracas during his expedition in 1820.

After he woke up from a nap on the beach, he was amazed by the beauty of flamingos flying by. They say that this sight inspired him to the first red and white Peruvian flag.

We, on the contrary, did not nap and maybe, therefore, did not get really close to the flock of flamingos. We basically guessed them miles away.

Two women on the coast of Paracas
View of the Playa Roja, the Red Beach – and of us. The sand got its red color from the eroded cliffs. As you can see, Paracas just blew us away!

Never mind, the tour we took into the desert to see one of the world’s most important ecosystems was still amazing.

Practical Information

How to Get There

Getting to Paracas is as easy as ABC. There are various public buses leaving every day from Lima.

If you leave Lima early enough and organize the trip to the desert privately, you can do both in one day. To avoid too much of a rush, we arrived at noon, did go into the desert in the afternoon and to the island the next morning. After lunch, we took a coach to Huacachina.

If you are coming from the south, you can catch a bus in Ica. There are public buses as well as privately operated coaches.

Also, Paracas is on the PeruHop-tour. If you book through them, the trip to the desert is even included.

Since Ica is only about one hour away, you can also include just a day trip to Paracas in your itinerary.

How to Get Around

The town of Paracas is really tiny, you can walk everywhere. To explore the surroundings, you can rent a bicycle.

For an extensive visit to the desert, you have to go by 4×4 jeep. Your accommodation will surely arrange something for you.

Going to the Islas Ballestas, just be at the Marina Touristica on time. Normally, there are two tours per day, at 8 a. m. and at 10 a. m. During high season, there is a third one at noon. Therefore, it should be okay to book on the same day or maybe one day ahead.

I would totally refrain from pre-booking anything online – anything but Machu Picchu, that is. All the other activities can be much better booked spontaneously and far cheaper on the spot.

Where to Stay

Amazingly, one of the cheapest lodging options in Paracas, the Kokopelli Hostel*, is practically right on the beach.

They have kind of capsules and also private rooms. Our room, however, was really not nice – a bit the charm of a like a jail cell.

However, they were quite helpful with our tours to the Islas Ballestas as well as the trip into the desert.

Since the beach is not that great in Paracas, anyway, and there are other options at almost the same price a bit further from the shoreline, I would not stay there again. However, if you are backpacking and don’t mind sleeping in a dorm, it’s an okay option.

Nevertheless, here are other options for where to stay in Paracas*:

Booking.com

Where to Eat

There are many restaurants along Paracas’ ocean promenade – all of them serving, obviously, seafood.

Gratinated mussles, ordered in Paracas
Clams in a thick blob of parmesan cheese. Homemade lemonade is the tastiest and at the same time cheapest drink you can get in Perú; well, Pisco Sour is also tasty – very tasty!

If you haven’t done it yet, now is definitely the time to try some Ceviche, Perú’s legendary dish made of chunks of raw fish, sauteed in lemon juice.

If you don’t want to eat your fish raw, try some Jalea. It’s small battered fish chunks – crispy outside, juicy inside – just fantastic.

Cash And Cards

Paracas is a very touristy place, hence, cash and also cards are accepted basically everywhere. Also, there are several ATMs, one for instance right at the Marina Touristica where you buy your tour to the Islas Ballestas.

Language

Yes, Perú is a South American country once conquered by the Spanish, and Castellano is spoken to this date.

Since Paracas is one of Perú’s natural paradises, most people have a quite good knowledge of the English language. Nevertheless, you might want to brush up your Spanish on babbel – and be it just as a courteous gesture.

Paracas was only one of the truly amazing places I’ve visited in Perú. To read about the others, go to the main post and take your pick!

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