Islands Made of Rock & Tropical Deserts of Paracas
Day 1 | Admire the Sunset and Slurp Delicious Smoothies
From Lima, my Peruvian friend, Esau, and I moved south to a tiny beach town called Paracas. We caught an early afternoon "luxury" coach from Terminal de Cercanias de Lima for 40 soles. The station operates Peru Bus and is used by locals for it’s low prices. Our bus was very nice and spacious; they offered snacks and had the AC running the entire way.
Four hours later, we arrived in Paracas. We made sure to confirm the proper stop as some buses pass right through town, missing Paracas entirely. Esau and I risked finding a hostel upon arrival because there weren’t many choices online.
Kokopelli was our first stop. They have many locations in Peru including Cusco (where we would later stay) but were fully booked in Paracas. For the better, as it turns out. Kokopelli tends to be young, loud and busy. Esau and I chose a double room at Backpackers House for 55 soles a night (not to be confused with Backpackers House the Pacific).
After settling in, we booked tours for the following day. First thing in the morning would be an island tour to Islas Ballestas, followed by a National Reserve tour in the afternoon.
As the sun began to set, I packed up my camera gear and we rushed to the beach a few blocks away. This was my first trip with a “real” camera and I was so excited to get in some practice time. I’d be testing out my brothers Canon 7D using 18 mm - 50 mm, 50 mm and 24 mm lenses (check out my photography journey in, Getting My Feet Wet with Photography).
The beach was small and covered in seaweed but south passed the crowd was a peaceful stretch of land. In a rush against the falling sun, I tested my new tripod and remote timer, pleasantly surprised with the results.
After sunset, it was time to grab a bite to eat. Pretty quickly, I learned asking for "el menu" would get you a meal for a few bucks. What’s the catch? You choose from a set menu which typically includes an appetizer, entree, drink and possibly dessert. The set menu varies by restaurant so each one typically has a chalkboard outside listing what's available.
This evening I chose pork, rice and beans and salad for ten soles. Esau ordered fried fish for double the price. Our food was tasty but service was slow. After dinner, we walked toward the beach fora smoothie where I learned another valuable lesson. Restaurants on the touristy strip near the beach are extremely pricey. The smoothie cost more than my entire dinner.
The night wound down and we made our way back to the hostel for a hot shower.
Day 2: Morning | Cruise Islas Ballestas
Our guide was to arrive at the hostel at 7:30 a.m. so Esau and I woke early to prepare for the day. Across the street, we found a woman in a cart selling a traditional drink made of quinoa and little sandwiches of avocado, egg or chicken. Being gluten free, I tossed the bun and ate the insides. Also, I learned if you drink your quinoa quickly they'll pour another glass for free. Traditionally, the drink is simmered with pineapple but flavors vary, a must try.
Our guide arrived with a few other travelers and we were off to the docks, a ten minute walk. Once at the docks, it was very busy and overwhelming. The Islas Ballestas tour cost 30 soles ($10 US) but we also needed to pay the entrance fee to the islands. Because we planned to take the Paracas National Reserve tour we bought a pass for that, as well. Together, both passes cost 22 soles. But keep in mind, Peruvians and South Americans often get discounts.
The group packed into a small speedboat - maybe 30 of us - and hit the water toward the islands. The Ballestas are a group of rocky islands covered with wildlife. They are located off the Pacific coast of Peru and a must see if you're in Paracas. After ten to 15 minutes we reached the famous Candelabra, a mysterious symbol carved into the soil 600 feet tall. A number of theories exist to explain it’s meaning but none are certain.
The boat took off to another island about 20 minutes away. The ride was super windy and chilly so I was happy to have a cover-up, along with sunscreen. We lucked out, our seats in the back of the boat offered the best photo opportunities.
The boat weaved in and out of the islands as the guide spoke about wildlife in the area. Hundreds of sea lions and thousands of birds covered each one. They're protected so you can’t swim with the animals or walk on the islands but you can get pretty close by boat.
Often times, male sea lions are banished to solitary treatment when they lose a fight for power among another males. This treatment can last for months until they are accepted back into the group. We saw many such males.
Here, all the pregnant female sea lions gathered on one island. Each mother and baby have a distinct sound they use to find one another. From our boat you could hear all the sea lions moaning out in search of their young ones.
After an hour and a half of exploring the "Poor Man's Galapagos", as it's commonly nicknamed, the boat began to head back toward the shore.
Around 10 a.m. we landed at the docks to unload. Esau and I found a street cart selling tamales. We ordered pork and chicken tamales with spicy yellow sauce and onions - talk about delicious. Esau recommended we try the traditional drink chicha morada, a sweet dark purple drink made of corn. For the two of us, tamales and drinks cost 15 soles ($5 US).
Day 2: Afternoon | Tour Paracas National Reserve
After freshening up at the hostel, a bus arrived for the Paracas National Reserve tour. Our first stop was Museo de Sitio Julio C. Tello, named after the archaeologist who made important discoveries of the ancient Paracas culture. The museum houses an exhibition of the evolutionary process of Paracas culture.
The exterior of the museum is beautiful. It’s organic shapes, colors and natural materials fit in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
Next up, our tour group entered the Paracas National Reserve, one of the largest protected desert reserves in South America. The Paracas National Reserve is home to many plants, birds and animals and covers nearly 500,000 acres of land.
The first stop was La Catedral, a viewpoint named for a famous rock formation that was badly damaged during an earthquake in 2007. Even so, the view was gorgeous.
Our next location was Play Roja, a beach that lies between Playa Lagunillas and Punta Santa Maria. The sand gets it’s color from rock that contains magma. The viewpoint is extremely windy so hold on tight.
The last stop was Playa Lagunilla where we had an hour to swim, eat and explore. Our tour offered a tasty shot of mango Pisco sour (for free) just as we arrived.
All the restaurants near the beach were packed with tourists and overpriced. Esau and I went exploring and found a little cart away from the beach. The woman was selling sandwiches and fried fish. After ordering a plate of fish, she disappeared around the corner and began to cook up a storm. A few minutes later, I had a piping hot plate full of delicious food.
Once finished with a much needed meal we relaxed by the water. People were swimming, boats passed by regularly and wildlife basked in the sun.
Finally, Esau and I walked up a path that wraps around the beach from above overlooking the entire area. We could see for miles; the view was breathtaking.
Our final stop, Playa Lagunilla, was beautiful and relaxing. Overall, the tour was a wonderful experience. We were able to see so much in such a short time. The only bummer was that we didn't see as much animal life as anticipated. I heard about sightings of penguins and flamingos and other sea creatures but no such luck.
Around 3 p.m. our group began to head back into town. Esau and I took a few hours to decompress and clean up then we stepped out to watch another beautiful sunset.
Toward the south end of the beach we bumped into a strip of local restaurants. I'm not sure why we didn't notice them before but were super happy to find something authentic. Esau talked two restaurants sitting side by side into serving us different set menus at the same table. I chose El Galeon and Esau the restaurant to it’s right. For 20 soles, I ordered fried fish and rice with ceviche as an appetizer. We both drank chicha morada once again.
In the morning, Esau and I move on to Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the desert. Our tickets were purchased through our hostel for 20 soles.
Paracas Backpackers House is an excellent place to stay while in Paracas. The hostel is clean and staff are very friendly. They're happy to help book transportation, as well as local tours. Backpackers House has two courtyards and a kitchen open for guests to use.
Showers have hot water and WiFi works best in public spaces. Remember to grab some tissue for the toilets because they often forget to stock them. They do, however, give you a roll as you check in. The location is in a great spot, right next to a few cafes in the main square.
What an amazing little town!