Paracas National Reserve
Peru has consistently looked after its biodiversity, and declaring the coastal area the Paracas National Reserve is an example of the high value the country places on its natural resources. Known as the “Poor man’s Galapagos”, the park is the country’s oldest marine reserve, established in 1975. It has beautiful seas, exquisite ever-changing sand dunes, stunning sunsets and some fascinating archaeological sites. Just what you need to get out of the city for a few days!
Best of all, the weather is perfect, ranging between 15.5°C (60° F) – 22°C (72° F). It’s a desert, so it does not rain, and you can be assured of pleasant conditions at the beach and out at sea.
Just a few stats from Wikipedia before we get on to activities in the Park:
The reserve consists of the Paracas Peninsula, coastal areas and tropical desert extending to the south slightly past Punta Caimán, a total of 335,000 ha (217,594 ha are marine waters and 117,406 are part of the mainland). It includes Bahía de la Independencia and miles of coastal waters. Its main purpose is to preserve the marine ecosystem and protect the historical cultural heritage related to ancient indigenous peoples, mostly of the Paracas culture.
From Lima, you can travel by car, bus or plane. It takes 3 and a half hours from Lima to the park by car. Pisco is the nearest big city.
Here’s what to do when you get there
Overnight in Paracas or Huacachina
There are two lovely villages to stay overnight so you can get the most out of this visit. Paracas is right next to the ocean and it’s from here you would take a boat to the Islands. It has great hotels. Take a suite with an ocean view at the Doubletree Hilton.
Huacachina is a lagoon in the middle of the desert. This is where you would stay to see more of the desert and to do dune buggy riding or sandboarding. El Huacachina Hotel is lovely.
Both places are tranquil and calm during the week. On the weekend they attract partygoers, so you can join in the action!
Visit the Ballestas Islands
These beautiful Islands lie off the southern coast of Peru, near the city of Pisco. Take a boat from the pretty harbor, teeming with pelicans. You’re sure to see a ton of seals sunning themselves in rocks (called wolves of the sea in Spanish), pelicans, Peruvian boobies and Humboldt penguins.
You’ll also pass by the fascinating etching of a Candelabra on a hillside. No one knows how it got there, but it is very distinct. It dates back at least 1000 years and was once used as asymbol for the Free masons in Peru.
Visit the Pampa de Santo Domingo, where archeologists have dated finds of human remains to 6500 BC. Frédéric Engel conducted archeological excavations here in the 1960s, discovering human life dating back at least 6500 years. From the bones excavated, he determined that early Paracas man was a fisherman primarily but also did a little bit of agriculture, one of the earliest of humankind to do this.
The Museo Arqueologico Paracas houses a collection of 35 of what have become known as the Paracas skulls. In 1928, the Peruvian archaeologist, Julio Tello discovered a massive graveyard with tombs filled with the remains of individuals with the largest elongated skulls found anywhere in the world. Tello found more than 300 of these elongated skulls, some of which date back around 3,000 years.
Why the skulls are elongated is a mystery. Some claim that parents head boarded or bound their children’s heads at a very young age to imitate aliens. This sounds pretty far-fetched, but who knows? A first round of recent scientific data using DNA reported that that the skulls have mitochondrial DNA “with mutations unknown in any human, primate, or animal known so far”. A second round of DNA testing concluded that the skulls are more than 2,000 years old, and are of European and Middle Eastern Origin. Whatever the reason for their elongation, go see them for yourself. They are very strange.
There are many unusual rock formations along the coast, one of which is La Catedral (the Cathedral). Its arch was destroyed during an earthquake in 2007, but it is still interesting to look at.
Look at the birds!
Even if you’re not an avid birder, you will love the birdwatching. Who can resist a cute penguin? The Humboldt penguin breeds in Peru. Social animals, you will be amused by their antics. There are other fascinating birds like the Peruvian booby, an endemic bird, the tiny Many-colored Marsh-Tyrant (yes, it’s really called that!), Chilean Flamingos – which have been listed as Near Threatened – and pelicans. There is guano in the rocks everywhere, which the locals collect and sell as it is a great fertilizer for plants and lawns, and a natural fungicide.
Go sandboarding and dune buggy riding
If you’ve never experienced the thrill of riding dunes in the desert, this is something you must do. It’s absolutely exhilarating, no matter what your age is. You can go on your own on a buggy or on the back with a tour guide, if that would make you feel more confident. Join a tour from the town of Huacachina.
Your tour begins on the banks of the lagoon, heading east towards the dunes of the Ica desert. It’s one of the most deserted but beautiful areas in South America, with strange structures that have been formed by centuries of wind. Great place for photography. Don’t forget to take water, wear sunblock and a jacket for the cooler evenings.
We hope you enjoy these few days’ break from Lima in this wild, empty, vast desert with its unusual land formations, flora and fauna. We’d love to hear your feedback.