If you’re in Lima, one of the best and subsequently most popular getaways is Paracas, just three hours south of the metropolis. Most visitors only take time to see the Ballestas Islands, but those who stay longer to explore Paracas National Reserve can enjoy exceptionally scenic beaches and opportunities for adventure activities, from dune buggy rides to windsurfing.
The Paracas National Reserve was established in 1975 and is 827,800 acres (335,000 hectares) of coastal desert, a few islands, and surrounding marine habitats. Inhabiting this protected region are representative samples of Peru’s coastal-marine ecosystems and the highest concentration of seabirds anywhere in the world.
In contrast to the Ballestas Islands, wildlife plays second fiddle to the region’s desolate, hauntingly beautiful landscapes of mainland Paracas.
Map of Paracas National Reserve
The Paracas National Reserve is in the Pisco province of the Ica region of Peru. On the mainland, the reserve covers all of the Paracas Peninsula and extends further south about 50 mi (80 km).
The northern edge of the peninsula curves up to form Bahia de Paracas or Paracas Bay. El Chaco, the small port and fishing village turned resort town, is on the bay just above the northern limit of the reserve and receives most visitors to Paracas.
Like the rest of the country’s coastline, the land is dry with little vegetation. The arid environment of southern Peru along the Pacific shore played a crucial role in preserving pre-Columbian organic material buried in the sand for hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years.
Highlights of Paracas National Reserve
Though extremely arid, the Paracas Peninsula shelters its fair share of flora and fauna, including 74 species of plants, 216 species of birds, 16 types of mammals, and ten species of reptiles. The nutrient-rich waters of Paracas National Reserve also sustain an impressive number and variety of residents on land and sea, including whales, orcas, dolphins, Humboldt penguins, and leatherback and hawksbill turtles.
Julio C. Tello Site Museum
Named after Peru’s famed archaeologist, the Museo de Sitio Julio C. Tello presents textiles, ceramics, and informational displays that explain the evolution of the Paracas culture and its sophisticated artistic production. Venture along the footpath from the museum building to a lookout over the Paracas Bay for a chance to see flamingos and other bird species.
It’s worth mentioning that the best examples of Paracas artifacts and mummy bundles have been moved to museums in Lima, including the Larco Museum and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru.
The Centro de Interpretación de Paracas is adjacent to the Tello Museum and has exhibits on conservation and ecology. Take the short walk from the main building to a lookout point of the Paracas Bay and catch a glimpse of fossilized remains of marine life whose origins trace back to the Paracas Culture. Near the shore, visitors may see dried up jellyfish that produce mandala-like formations on the sand. Other coastline denizens include seashells, ghost crab, and sea hares.
Play in the waves and soak in the sun at a beach in the Paracas National Reserve. A handful of restaurants and restroom facilities serve northern beaches on the peninsula, but the southern reaches of the reserve are more remote with limited or no services.
- Playa La Mina is fun for an afternoon of sunbathing and camping. The beautiful beach is in a cove that protects from winds and gives it calmer waters better suited for swimming. Closeby is Lagunillas, a tiny fishing village, where you can scarf down a fresh seafood meal of ceviche and other Peruvian food favorites.
- Playa Roja, or Red Beach, has maroon-colored sands that get its color from the erosion of porphyry rocks. The beach is a popular spot to visit on a Paracas tour.
- Playa Yumaque is an alternative when conditions are crowded at La Mina. The long stretch of sand at Yumaque gives plenty of space to spread out from other visitors, and the beach has public restroom facilities. Campers set up their tents on the sand, often with their cars nearby, and fire up their grill around sunset for dinner.
- The undulating coastline of Paracas stretches as far as the eyes can see and gives way to more remote beaches. Playa Mendieta and Playa Barlovento are among the picturesque beaches that are usually reached by visitors with their cars or private transport.
Cerro Colorado (Red Mountain) was the burial grounds of the Paracas culture for hundreds of years starting as early as 400 BCE. In excavations of the site, archaeologist Julio C. Tello determined two separate burial systems. Paracas Caverns consist of underground tombs accessible through long shafts. Each tomb held thirty to forty mummified bodies. By 200 CE, burial practices evolved. The Paracas Necropolis was a series of shallow graves for individual bodies. Neighboring groups also used the peninsula to entomb their dead.
Collectively, the gravesites of the Paracas Peninsula have provided archaeologists with an invaluable cache of textile art, ceramics, and human remains – including skulls with evidence of cranial surgery and deformation – that lend insight into Peru’s earliest civilizations.
The giant Paracas Candelabra glyph is on the northern tip of the Paracas Peninsula. Experts have not been able to determine if this drawing is related to the Nazca Lines.
The once-regal sea arch known as La Catedral was an icon of the coastline of Paracas. Unfortunately, the rock formation was largely destroyed in the 2007 earthquake that devastated the region, including the town of Pisco north of the reserve. Today the lookout from where it was once possible to admire La Catedral is still a nice spot to admire the coast.
Salinas de Otuma
The enormous salt flat at Otuma is a source of salt and other minerals. Rock salt is shipped to North America where it is used for salting icy roads in winter.
What to Do in Paracas National Reserve
Ballestas Islands + National Reserve Tour
The Ballestas Islands are one of the main attractions that draw visitors to Paracas. This small cluster of rocky islands is known to be one of the most dynamic and diverse homes for wildlife in the world, rivaling places such as the infamous Galapagos. The Ballestas Islands are part of a second reserve (separate from Paracas National Reserve) called the Reserva Nacional de las Islas, Islotes y Punta Guaneras.
If you want to see both national reserves, but your time in Paracas is limited, it’s possible to see highlights of the Ballestas and the Paracas Peninsula on the same day. Contact our team to arrange this Paracas tour in your custom travel package. Take a morning boat ride to the islands, passing El Candelabro along the way, and then explore sites of the Paracas National Reserve by car in the afternoon.
Dune Buggy & Sandboarding
Cruising down the dunes around Paracas is an exciting prospect for travelers who do not plan to visit Huacachina Oasis, Peru’s capital for sandboarding an hour and thirty-minute drive from El Chaco. The desert coast of Peru gives way to pockets of expansive dunes that host fun opportunities to sandboard and complement wildlife excursions at the reserve.
Wander Through the Reserve
Dirt roads crisscross the Paracas Peninsula, leading to lookout points over the sea and remote beaches. Marked walking trails make it possible to explore limited areas on foot. However, first-timers get lost easily. Do prior research and have a good map, or consider hiring a guide. Fun alternatives to walking include reserving a Paracas National Reserve quad tour (i.e. ATV tour) or renting a bike for an independent day trip.
It’s popular to camp in Paracas National Reserve at beaches such as La Mina and Yamanque during the summer (December to March). There is limited access to food and water, so plan with sufficient supplies and bring all the necessary equipment. Some but far from all parts of the reserve have public restroom facilities. Many local campers come with their vehicles, set up their tents in the sand, and start grilling around dinnertime.
There is a lot of open space in Paracas National Reserve, and while it may be tempting to find a remote beach or dune to set up camp, it’s best to stick to parts where other campers are to avoid getting singled out for theft.
Surfing San Gallán
San Gallán Island, also known as Isla de Sangayan, is off the northern tip of the Paracas Peninsula and part of the national reserve. Few tourists come to Paracas to surf, but those who do head here. Big swells bring epic barrel potential, and the right waves offer some of the best surfing in Peru.
The island is only accessible by boat. San Gallan Xpeditions is a reputable company that takes surfers out on full-day surf trips aboard speed boats that depart from El Chaco.
Enjoy a day at the exceptionally scenic beaches on the western shores of the Paracas Peninsula. In El Chaco, fishing boats crowd the waters and seaweed accumulate onshore.
Upscale Paracas hotels such as Paracas Hotel, a Luxury Collection Resort and Hacienda Bahia Paracas overlook the bay and host all the comforts for divine relaxation. Reserve an appointment for a massage at the hotel spa and sip a pisco sour by the pool.
The flat water of the bay and strong winds make Paracas ideal to practice a variety of water sports. Check with your Paracas hotel to borrow (or rent) equipment to kayak, stand up paddleboard (SUP), windsurf, and kitesurf. Paragliding tours are also available.
Peru’s coastal waters are cold throughout the year. It’s coldest July through October when the water is 61°F to 63°F (16°C to 17°C). The average summer temperature is around 70°F (21°C). In general, wearing a wetsuit while surfing or taking a long dip in the ocean is recommended.
How to Visit Paracas National Reserve
Private and group land-based tours of the Paracas Peninsula in a small van depart from the small town of El Chaco, otherwise known as the “town of Paracas.” Adventure-seekers can also sign up for an ATV tour and whip across the desert wilderness. Yet another option is to peddle through the reserve on a rented bike.
It’s also possible to explore the Paracas National Reserve independently by car. In one day, it’s way too far to walk between all the attractions within the protected mainland region. The hard-packed dirt roads are in pretty good condition, but the ride can get bumpy and sandy conditions may be challenging to maneuver. If planning an overnight camping trip to La Mina beach, for example, or further south along the more remote beaches, it’s best to travel in a group because of theft.
Browse our Peru packages with Paracas tours and let our Travel Advisor customize a trip for you.
Best Time to Visit
Paracas National Reserve is a year-round destination. The high season is during the summer from December to February when the days are warm and clear. Residents of Lima visit Paracas during their summer and around Fiestas Patrias (Peruvian Independence Day) every July 28th and 29th.
Paracas National Reserve Entrance Fee
Entry to Paracas National Reserve is 11 soles for adults and paid at the main entrance. Many tours include the cost of entry.
Paracas has a desert climate with very little rainfall. The average temperature is about 75°F (24°C). The name “Paracas” is a Quechua word meaning rain of sand, in reference to the winds that whip through the desert. Afternoon gusts are notably strong in August. Wind speeds average between 15 to 37 mi/h (25 to 60 km/h). If there’s too much wind or bad weather in Paracas, head to the pisco distilleries in Ica or Pisco or try a dune buggy and sandboard tour in Huacachina Oasis.
Winter from June through August brings slightly cooler temperatures. It’s a good idea to wear a jacket or layers during Paracas National Reserve tours.
Check out the Travel Tips in our complete Paracas Guide for details about what to pack, how to stay safe, and more.
Where to Stay in Paracas
El Chaco is the tourism hub for Paracas and where most travelers stay. For being so small, El Chaco has an impressive selection of accommodations ranging from bayfront resorts to mid-range hotels and backpacker hostels like Kokopelli. Browse our top recommended Paracas hotels.
Overnight options are far more limited if you want to stay in Paracas National Reserve. Inti-Mar is a rustic bed and breakfast across the bay from El Chaco and the only hotel that’s within the reserve. Camping is the only other option.
Getting to Paracas National Reserve
The first step is to get to El Chaco, the main bayside town in Paracas. The southern reaches of the reserve are accessible via Ica.
How to Get to Paracas National Reserve
By bus: Regular first-class bus service connects Paracas to other tourist destinations. Reputable companies are Excluciva, Cruz del Sur, and Oltursa. These also provide onward service to Arequipa, Cusco, and Ica.
- Lima to Paracas by bus: ~ 3.5 hours
- Ica to Paracas by bus: ~ 1.5 hours
- Nazca to Paracas by bus: ~ 4 hours
- Arequipa to Paracas by bus: ~ 12 hours
- Cusco to Paracas by bus: ~ 20 hours
By road: El Chaco is approximately 160 mi (260 km) south of Lima along the Pan-American Highway. From El Chaco, the northern entrance of the reserve and the Interpretation Center are less than a 10-minute drive away.
By plane: The Capitán FAP Renán Elías Olivera International Airport is a 15-minute drive from El Chaco near Pisco. As of this writing, airlines do not offer commercial service between Lima and Pisco.
In addition to the Paracas National Reserve, obligatory stops along Peru’s southern circuit include the wineries of Pisco and Ica, the Huacachina Oasis, and the enigmatic Nazca Lines.
Short distances separate these highlights (1 to 4 hours depending on the destination and mode of transport). Plus, the well-paved roads are refreshingly easy to navigate from Lima. For a Nazca Lines flight tour, a great way to save time and cut back on transportation between destinations is to book a flight from the Pisco airport.
Paracas National Reserve tourism is on the rise. Contact us and get started planning a fully custom travel package with a few days in Paracas. The fascinating views of land, sea, and wildlife of the Paracas region are a delightful break from Lima.
Britt is a California native who left her home to explore South America and now lives in Peru. She’s just a little obsessed about planning getaways with her family, scuba diving, and trekking.