A complete travel guide to Paracas, Peru: Islas Ballestas, Paracas Nature Reserve & more
Just south of Lima on the Pacific Coast of Peru, the small town of Paracas is truly a nature-lover’s paradise, replete with stunning coastal scenery, its own vibrant Nature Reserve, and an incredible abundance of native wildlife. Paracas is perhaps best known for its proximity to the Ballestas Islands, lovingly referred to as the “poor man’s Galapagos”, but there are a number of worthwhile things to do in the area (not to mention some of the freshest seafood you’re likely to find on your travels). This travel guide will help you plan a great trip to Paracas, including how to get there, what to do, where to stay, where to eat, and tips for travelling in Peru!
What's in this travel guide
Getting to Paracas
PerúBus, Oltursa, and Cruz del Sur operate inexpensive buses (around S/50) between Lima and Paracas, typically a quick 4hr journey. I personally like Cruz del Sur, as their buses tend to be the nicest and their online site is super easy to use for booking in advance, but the journey is short, so it truly doesn’t matter which company you choose.
Alternatively, you can get from Lima to Paracas with Peru Hop, an awesome and reasonably priced hop-on/hop-off service. Two different buses operate daily out to Paracas: the first is a 4hr express bus leaving at 6am, but the second is a 6.5hr journey leaving at 7am that includes several interesting detours, the most worthwhile of which is a free guided tour of secret slave tunnels at the San Jose Hacienda. These added stops are what makes Peru Hop such a great option (plus the fact that you’ll be picked up and dropped off directly at your hotel), so if your budget allows, I’d highly recommend it! Check out all of the Peru Hop passes here or read my comprehensive review of Peru Hop.
What to do in Paracas
Billed as the perfect low-budget alternative to Ecuador’s stunning Galápagos Islands, the Islas Ballestas off the Peruvian coast are home to a booming population of sea lions, aquatic birds (like cormorants), and adorable little penguins. The islands are just a quick boat ride away from Paracas and are a veritable treasure trove of marine life, which has made this one of the top places to visit on Peru’s Pacific Coast.
It may not be quite as exotic as the real Galapagos, but the “poor man’s Galapagos” was still one of my favourite activities along the coast and a great way to get up close with the local fauna. Paracas Explorer offers a 2hr boat tour of Islas Ballestas for $15USD, which can be booked online in advance or upon arrival in Paracas, and a naturalist guide narrates the journey in both English and Spanish.
Paracas Nature Reserve
Golden desert meets red sand beaches and bright blue waves at Paracas Nature Reserve for a truly spectacular landscape that is quite unlike anything else along the Peruvian coast. This was actually one of my very favourite places to take pictures— not only was the backdrop of dramatic sea cliffs and vibrant beaches extremely impressive, but there were hardly any tourists around to annoyingly photobomb the shot!
You can explore Paracas Nature Reserve on two wheels (bike rental is S/20-30 for the day from a number of tour agencies in town) or join a guided tour that will zip you around to all of the best spots, like Playa Roja, La Catedral, and Bahia Lagunillas. I’d normally opt for a more DIY approach, but if you’re low on time like I was, joining a bus tour is a great way to see a large chunk of the Nature Reserve in half a day. These tours are typically S/30-40 and can be reserved last-minute when you arrive in Paracas; alternatively, travel with Peru Hop and get an amazing tour of the Nature Reserve included for free on the way to Huacachina.
Travellers don’t come to Paracas for the town itself, so don’t expect to find Cusco’s cobbled lanes or Arequipa’s beautiful churches hidden among the 3 or 4 blocks that this fishing village occupies. And definitely don’t expect pearly white beaches, because the minuscule stretch of coarse grey sand covered in seaweed will surely disappoint…
STILL, there is definitely something to look forward to in town— I had some amazing ceviche here that rivalled dishes I paid 5x as much for in Lima! This is as fresh as fresh seafood gets, so skip the touristy restaurants serving pizza or burritos and instead find an unassuming local joint where you can tuck into some delicious fish on the cheap. Check out my specific recommendations at the bottom of this post.
Go searching for flamingos
If your trip out to the Ballestas Islands sparked an interest in local birdlife and you’re just dying to discover more feathered fauna, walk 30min out of town along the beach (towards the Hilton hotel) to see Andean Flamingos wading through the shallow waters. This is a lovely stroll along the beach, especially as the sun is setting, and a great way to discover a quieter part of Paracas that most backpackers miss entirely!
Interesting bird fact: unlike other species of flamingo, the Andean Flamingos you’ll see here have white bodies with slightly pink/red wings, which were said to have inspired the design for the Peruvian flag.
Day trip: Huacachina
Surrounded by golden sand dunes and bathed in perpetual sun, the tiny town of Huacachina is located just 1hr from Paracas, making for a phenomenal day trip. And even though Huacachina has become a major backpacker hotspot, it is well-deserving of the hype and far exceeded my expectations in terms of stunning scenery and just general good vibes. The best way to get here is to grab a quick bus from Paracas to Ica and then take a 15min taxi out to Huacachina or travel with Peru Hop.
The town itself is little more than a few blocks, but the oasis around which it’s built is incredibly picturesque and there are heaps of adrenaline-inducing activities to fill your afternoon— sandboarding and buggy tours can take you up into the surrounding desert (S/50), soar over the oasis on a tandem paraglide, or just climb up the dunes yourself for an aerial view of South America’s only oasis.
Day trip: Nazca Lines
More than 300 enormous geoglyphs are carved into the desert sands around Nazca town in southern Peru, primarily animals and plants whose origins continue to inspire wild theories of alien invasion and paranormal activity. If you’re spending a few days in Paracas and looking for other interesting day trips, heaps of travel agencies in town offer tours out to the Nazca Lines, some including scenic flights and others just a quick climb up the viewing towers.
I wasn’t stunned beyond comprehension by the Nazca Lines (they are just a bunch of large drawings in the sand… I looked at them and then I left, what’s the big whoop?), but I also met a number of travellers who said that flying over the Nazca Lines was the highlight of their entire trip. If you are a lover of the weird and inexplicable, book a tour out to Nazca and discover these enigmatic geoglyphs for yourself (scenic flights cost $100-150USD).
Where to stay in Paracas
- Kokopelli Backpackers Hostel: Known for its lively bar (but not for crazy noise), this hostel offers the quintessential backpacker experience and is one of my very favourite hostel chains in South America! They have a wonderful pool, great onsite food, and the pod-style dorm beds are the best I’ve ever stayed in. Dorm beds from S/39 (discounted to S/33 if you are travelling with Peru Hop)
- Paracas Backpackers House: A more budget-friendly, but still highly-rated, option is Paracas Backpackers, which offers clean dorm rooms for just S/20. My friends stayed here and said their room was great, although the atmosphere was not quite as lively as at Kokopelli’s.
- Los Frayles: If you’re travelling with a partner or in a group and want to splurge on a private room, this 3-star hotel (also with a pool) comes highly recommended. For S/260 (amazingly discounted down to S/100 for Peru Hop passengers), you can enjoy a double room with a private bathroom.
Where to eat in Paracas
- Gula Gula: This local restaurant just off the beach serves up unpretentious traditional food at excellent prices. I stumbled across this place with friends and we later agreed that their ceviche mixto and pollo saltado was the best we had in all of Peru! If you’re looking for authentic cuisine, it doesn’t get any better than this.
- Restaurant Paracas: Located on the top level of a building overlooking the beach, this is another great spot to find traditional Peruvian fare. It can be a bit pricey, but there is an excellent menu del día and delicious happy hour pisco sours. Peru Hop passengers also get a discount on some of the food and drink here.
- Fruzion: This vego restaurant may not have traditional Peruvian food, but they make the best fruit smoothies in Paracas!
- You can experience all of the main activities in Paracas in 2-3 days and, given how small the town is, I’m not sure I’d recommend much more time than this. Instead, hustle on down the coast to Huacachina, Nazca, or all the way to Arequipa.
- Even as a solo female traveller, I felt totally safe carrying my camera and handbag around in Paracas. As long as you take basic safety precautions, you’ll be totally fine (so leave the weird nude-coloured money belt at home).
- As with all places in Peru, a basic knowledge of Spanish is pretty much essential for visiting Paracas. At minimum, make sure you know how to check-in to a hostel, order food, ask for directions, and buy bus tickets in Spanish, because it’s pretty rare for anyone to speak English outside of tour companies. That being said, Peruvian people are amazingly friendly and truly want to help, so they will go out of their way to understand you even if your Spanish is somewhat clumsy and you can’t remember the exact word for something.
- Avoid withdrawing money from the GlobalNet ATM in Paracas, as the fees are absolutely ridiculous! Instead, use the BCP ATM on El Chaco.
- Get a SIM card when you arrive in Peru, as this well enable you to use Google Maps to get around Paracas and look up bus times on the fly. Claro and Movistar are the main providers, but Bitel also offers good prepaid SIM packages specifically for travellers: get 20GB of data, 500min calling, and international call credit for S/49.
- Use the RedBus website to check public bus times and book tickets online or have a look at my comparison of public buses and the new hop-on/hop-off service Peru Hop to find out which is better for your trip!