Most people so closely associate Peru with Machu Picchu that they forget there’s a lot more to the sizable country. Before visiting the tourist spots inland and eating my way through Lima, I explored Paracas, a coastal town that elicits “You mean Caracas?” (as in the Venezuelan city) from Americans but that is to Limeños what the Hamptons is to New Yorkers.
A four-hour, 168-mile drive from Lima, Paracas is a small fishing village in the Ica region with a nature reserve, beaches, and the Islas Ballestas, nicknamed the “poor man’s Galápagos.” Paracas may never overshadow Machu Picchu, but it’s absolutely a worthy side trip or detour. (Stay at the oceanfront Hotel Paracas.) Here are five reasons Paracas should be a part of every Peru itinerary.
It’s hard to imagine the joy that can come from sliding down a giant pile of sand can until you’ve actually done it. Paracas’s dune-filled landscape is made for adventure, and the operator Tikariy offers several types. First, they’ll let air out of the tires of a 4-wheel drive SUV and take you careening up and down steep slopes, catching air and launching off sharp peaks. It’s more scream-inducing than your favorite roller-coaster. Later, you leave the car behind, wax up a board, and slide down the dunes face-first on your belly—or standing, if you have snowboarding skills. It’s a true adrenaline rush, topped off with a dramatic sunset.
Yes, Machu Picchu is old. But the Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs—shallow trenches carved in the earth that depict enormous monkeys, llamas (naturally), birds, human figures, and flowers—are truly ancient. Archaeologists believe the Nazca people created them sometime before 500 C.E. The way to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s 70-plus mystical geoglyphs is via a small, single-engine aircraft. The experience can be a bit stomach-flipping, but it’s one of a kind.
Paracas is 9.3 miles south of Pisco, but they’re both in the region that produces the clear spirit claimed by Peru (and Chile). Vineyard tours (and tastings) are available at such distilleries as Pisco 1615, while Hotel Paracas holds interactive pisco sour–making classes. You’ll practice shaking up the frothy, sweet-and-sour cocktail—and go home with a flawless recipe.
Tours to the rocky Islas Ballestas leave right from the dock at Hotel Paracas. During the cruise, you’ll get up close and personal with Humboldt penguins, sea lions, blue-footed boobies . . . and guano (bird shit), which is harvested and exported as fertilizer. The “poor man’s Galápagos” are a multisensory experience with enough flapping and howling and scenic photo ops—you’ll pass a hillside geoglyph modeled after the San Pedro cactus on the ride to the islands—to overwhelm your ears and fill your camera.
Paracas’s beaches are spectacular. They range from white sand with cold green water surrounded by massive slabs of rock (La Mina) to deep red sands accented by frothy turquoise surf and bright orange cliffs (Playa Roja). Due to the area’s consistently strong winds and large bay, kitesurfing and windsurfing are popular sports for both first-timers and pros. When booking a beach trip, remember: Peru’s summer is our winter and, while Paracas is sunny for most of the year, it’s not hot year-round.