Four hours outside of Lima, on a desert plain between the Andes and the ocean, huge sand dunes meet the edge of the Pacific, a rocky coastal island home to hundreds of marine species. Travel to Huacachina Oasis which offers a bohemian spot to have lunch and or see the sunset.
Travelers will marvel at the scale of the Nazca Lines from a low-flying aircraft, mysterious figures in the sand that still cannot be explained to this day. With Paracas as a comfortable base and the Nazca Lines as a can’t-miss highlight in private travel, a bit of beachside leisure along with marveling of the pre-Inca archeological mysteries.
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The region's essential business is the boat tour of the Islas Ballestas and the one-day sojourn around the bald deserted Paracas peninsula. Birds and sea mammals are the lures here, but, lest we forget, this is also one of Peru's most important archaeological sites thanks primarily to the pre-Inca treasures unearthed by one of the country's most important archaeologists, Julio Tello in the t920s.
Since most of the archaeological booty dug up nearby has been carted off to Lima, Paracas' tiny museum is left with only a few scraps, the most striking of which are the elongated human skulls. This amazing museum is located in Av. Los Libertadores. Admission is 10 Soles per person and it is open from 9 am - 5:30 pm.
Grandiosely nicknamed the poor man's Galápagos,' the Islas Ballestas
(Tours from 35 Soles per person. Park's island entrance is only 10 Soles, island and peninsula 15 Soles) make for a memorable excursion. The only way to get there is on a boat tour, offered by many tour agencies, touts, and hotels.
Tours leave at 8 am, 10 am and noon from the Marina Turística de Paracas. The 8 am tour usually has the calmest seas and best wildlife viewing. While the two-hour tours do not disembark onto the islands, they do get yon startlingly close to a repressive variety of wildlife.
None of the small boats have a cabin, so dress to protect against the wind, spray, and sun. The sea can get rough, so sufferers of motion sickness should take medication before boarding. Wear a hat (cheap ones are sold at the harbor), as it's not unusual to receive a direct hit of guano (droppings) from the seabirds.
On the outward boat journey, which takes about 30 minutes, you will stop just offshore to admire the famous Candelabra Geoglyph, a giant three-pronged figure etched into the sandy hills, which is more than 150m high and 50m wide. No one knows exactly who made the glyph or when, or what it signifies, but theories abound. Some connect it to Nazca Lines; while others propound that it served as a navigational guide for sailors and was based on the constellation of the Southern Cross (or even a masonic symbol). Some even believe it to have been inspired by a local cactus species with hallucinogenic properties.
A further hour is spent cruising around the islands' arches and caves and watching large herds of noisy sea lions sprawl on the rocks. The most common guano-producing birds in this area are the Guanay cormorant, the Peruvian booby, and the Peruvian pelican, seen in colonies several thousand strong. You'll see some extraction facilities on a couple of islands. The Peruvian government still extra is guano (it's a great natural fertilizer) from the islands, but only does so every eight years.
You'll also see cormorants, Humboldt penguins and if you're lucky, dolphins. Although you can get a close notch to the wildlife for a good look, some species, especially the penguins, are more visible with binoculars.
Back on shore, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the many waterfront restaurants near the dock in El Chaco, or you can continue on a tour of the Reserva Nacional de Paracas.
This vast desert reserve (park entrance Islas Ballestas only 10 Soles per person, island and peninsula 15 Soles) occupies most of the Peninsula de Paracas. An alternative to tour operators, taxi drivers who function as guides often watt beyond the dock where passengers disembark in Paracas' beadle village of El Chaco, and can take groups into the reserve for around 50 Soles for a three-hour tour. You can also walk or rent a bike from El Chaco - just make sure to allow lots of time, and bring food and plenty of water. To get there, start at commemorating the landing of the liberator General José de San Martín's house that lies near the entrance to El Chaco village, and continue on foot along the tarmac road that heads to the south.
Located 1.5 km south of the entry point to Reserva Nacional de Paracas, this modest center’s displays kick off with a 12-minute rather twee video aimed, it would seem, at wide-eyed teenagers.
The subsequent exhibits on fauna, archeology, and geology are weightier and more inspiring. The bay in front of the complex is the best spot to view Chilean flamingos, and there's a walkway down to a mirador (lookout), from where these birds can best be spotted from June through August
A few hundred meters behind the visitor complex on Cerro Colorado are the 5000-year-old remains of a necropolis related to the Paracas culture, which predated the Incas by more than a thousand years. A stash of more than 400 funerary bundles was found here, each wrapped in many layers of colorful woven shrouds for which the Paracas culture is famous.
There's little to see now; indeed, signs warn you of the site. Lima's Museo Larco and Ica's Museo Regional exhibit some of the exquisite textiles and other finds from the site.
Beyond the visitor complex, the tarmac road continues around the peninsula to Puerto General San Martín, which has an odoriferous fish-meal plant and a port on the northern tip of the peninsula.
Turkey vultures feast on the washed-up remains of yesterday's marine carcasses on the lonely beach at Lagunillas, 5 km south of the Centro de Interpretación, where three almost identical salt-of-the-sea restaurants constitute 'the village'.
From Lagunillas, the road continues a few kilometers to a parking area near this clifftop lookout, which has grand views of the ocean, with a sea-lion colony on the rocks and plenty of seabirds gliding by.
Other seashore life around the reserve includes flotillas of jellyfish (swimmers beware), some of which reach about 70cm in diameter with trailing, lm-long stinging tentacles. They are often washed up on the shore, where they quickly dry to form mandala-like patterns on the sand. Beachcombers can also find sea lions, ghost crabs, and seashells along the shoreline, and the Andean condor occasionally descends to the coast in search of rich pickings.
This beach is a short drive or walks south of Lagunillas on a dirt road. Sunbathers come here in summer (January to March) when you may find the odd mobile drinks concession set up. Camping is also allowed. Plan to bring all the water you will need, and never camp alone as robberies have been reported. Adjacent is the rockier El Raspon beach.
The reserve protrudes south a fair few kilometers below the Paracas Peninsula roads branch off just east of Lagunillas to Yumaque beach and La Catedral. The latter a majestic natural arch that jutted out into the sea - was destroyed by the 2007 earthquake. Formed over hundreds of thousands of years of wind and wave erosion, it got toppled in less than a minute. Today it is little more than a sea stock.
An early Inca lowland outpost about 45 km northeast of Pisco, Tambo Colorado (admission 10 Soles per person; dawn-dusk) was named for the red paint that once completely covered its adobe walls. It's one of the best-preserved sites on the south coast and is thought to have served as an administrative base and control point for passing traffic, mostly conquered peoples.
From Pisco, it takes about an hour to get there by car. Hire a taxi for half a day (50 Soles) or take a tour from Pisco (60 Soles, two-person minimum). A combi through the village of Humay passes limbo Colorado 20 minutes beyond the village: it leaves from the Pisco market early in the morning (Ticket is 8 Soles, 3 hours of trip). Once there, ask the locals about when to expect a return bus, but you could get really stuck out there, as transportation back to Pisco is infrequent and often full.
Just when you thought the landscape was dry enough for Martians, out. ¡Jumps lea! Peru's agricultural 'miracle in the desert' that churns out bumper crop after bumper crop of asparagus, cotton, and fruits, as well as laying claying to being the nation's leading (and best) wine produce lea, like Pisco, sustained significant earthquake damage in 2007 - the graceful cathedral and two other churches suffered serious damage and are undergoing lengthy repairs. Most people who make ¡t this far bed down in in-finitely more attractive Huacachina 4-km to the west, but lea has reasons to be cheerful too: the south coast's best museum (outside Arequipa) resides here, plus - arguably - the finest winery in Peru. If Nazca seems too much of a circus, it's also possible to organize Nazca Lines excursions from lea - the desert etchings lie 1 ½ hour to the stoutly.
Ica's main square has been repainted post-Earthquake in generic mustard-yellow to reflect its 'city of eternal sun' moniker 'lite two sinuous obelisks in its center is supposed to signify the Nazca and Paracas cultures. Elsewhere, bustling commerce has returned.
In the suburban neighborhood of San Isidro, there is a museum befitting a city three times the size. While it might not be the Smithsonian in terms of layout and sign, this understated gem catalogs the two key pre-Inca civilizations on Peru's Southern coast, namely the Paracas and Nazca cultures, the former famed for its intricate textiles and the latter for its instantly recognizable ceramics.
Any attempt to understand the region's ancient history should begin here where a whole gamut of locally excavated artifacts is on display.
Unfortunately, the museum's famous riches have attracted malign as well as benign interest. In 2004, the building was robbed, with thieves making off with three priceless textiles.
The museum is 2.5 km southwest of the city center. Take a taxi from the Plaza de Armas (3 Soles). You could walk, but it's usually not safe to do so alone, and even larger groups may get hassled. The museum is located in Ayabaca Cuadra 8. The admission cost 10 Soles and it's open from 8 am - 7 pm. Between Monday to Friday and from 9 am - 6 pm, Saturdays and Sundays.
Ica's cathedral was the last church the Jesuits built in Peru before their expulsion. It was rebuilt in the late 19th century and contains a finely carved wooden altar. The effects of the 2007 earthquake caused a steeple and part of the roof -to collapse. The Cathedral is located at the corner of Bolivar with Libertad street.
This fine church has an image of the patron saint that is venerated by pilgrims during Semana Santa and again in October. The streets surrounding the Plaza de Armas display a few impressive Spanish colonial mansions, including along the first bloke of Libertad. The church tower fell in the 2007 earthquake, but the dome survived. Years later, it is still undergoing extensive renovations. It is located in Cutervo.
This hulking church withstood the 2007 earthquake and continues to show off its fine stained-glass windows. It is located in the San Martin Municipality.
This art gallery sits in a restored courtyard next to the cathedral; expositions inside are small but packed with local talent. It is located on Bolivar street 232. From 9 am to 5 pm.
Ica is Peru's largest and most revered wine producer, though its desert-defying vineyards are unlikely to get any Euro wine snobs jumping on a plane anytime soon. The main drawback is 'sweetness'. Even Peru's semi-seco (medium-dry) wines are sweet by most yardsticks. Nonetheless, tours around the vineyards can be novel and worthwhile diversions. Most offer a free sampling. Bodegas can be visited year-round, but the test time is during the grape harvest from late February until early April.
The countryside around is also scattered with family-owned artisanal bodegas, including San Juan de Bautista about a 7km taxi (7 Soles one way) or Colectivo (1.50 Soles) ride from Ica's center. Colectivos leave from the comer of Municipalidad and Loreto.
Carnaval inspires the water-throwing antics typical of any Latin American Carnaval, plus dancers in beautiful costumes. It is developed in February.
This famous grape harvest festival includes all manners of processions, beauty contests, cockfights and horse shows, music and dancing, and, of course, free lowing pisco and wine. Early-mid-March.
Celebration of the founding of the city by the Spanish conquistadors on June 17, 1563. Mid-June.
Tourist Week brings festivals, food, dancing, and more. Mid-September.
This religious pilgrimage culminates in fireworks and a traditional procession of the faithful that keeps going all night. Late of October.
Imagine... It's 6 pm and you're sitting atop a giant wind-sculpted sand dune watching the sun set psychedelically over a landscape of golden yellows and rusty reds. Two hundred meters below you lay a dreamy desert lagoon ringed by exotic palm trees, and furnished with a clutch of rustic yet suitably elegant hotels. It took you an exhausting 20 minutes to climb up to this lofty vantage point, but with a well-waxed sandboard wedged beneath your belly, you'll be down in less than one.
While not as famous as Nazca lo the south, Huacachina, an aesthetically perfect desert oasis 4km west of Ica, is a firmly established stopover on Southern Peru's well-trampled Gringo Trail, and with good reason. Sand boarding, dune buggie rides, and good-old romantic idling are the orders of the day here. This is backpacker central, so expect plenty of late-night disco parties and international flavors. Many people just make it here for a quick overnight and dune trip the next day, but a few days of relaxed strolls and dune climbs may just channel your inner chi.
Sand is an essential ingredient in most Huacachina activities.
You can rent soundboards for 5 Soles an hour to slide, surf, or ski your way down the dimes, getting sand lodged into every bodily orifice. Snowboarding this isn't. There are no two rapes or chair-lifts here. Instead, you must stagger up the sugary dimes for your 45-second adrenaline rush. Make sure you are given wax (usually in the form of an old candle) when you rent your board as they are pretty useless without regular rub-downs. Start on the smaller slopes and don't be lulled into a false sense of security - several people have seriously injured themselves losing control of their sandboards. Most riders end up boarding belly down with their legs splayed out behind as emergency brakes. Don't forget to keep your mouth shut.
Many hotels offer thrill rides in (dune buggies) which head out early morning (8 am-ish) and late afternoon (4 pm-ish) to avoid the intense sun. They then stop at the top of the soft slopes, from where you can sandboard down and be picked up at the bottom. Word on the street is that some drivers take unnecessary risks, so ask around before choosing an operator. Make sure cameras are well protected, as sand can be damaging. The going rate for tours is 45 Soles per person but ask first if sandboard rental is included and how long the tour lasts. Tours do not include a fee of 4 Soles, which must be paid upon entering the dunes (this doesn't apply to those entering on foot).
Litter is an issue on Huacachina's dunes, as it is in much of Peru. It ought to go without saying, but pack out all your rubbish when you visit these beautiful sandy behemoths.
The lagoon’s murky waters supposedly have curative properties, though you may find swimming in the hotel pools (of which there are half a dozen) more inviting. You can also hire boats - both the rowing and pedal-powered-at a couple of points on the lagoon for 12 Soles an hour.
From Ica, the Panamericana Sur heads southeast through the small oasis of Palpa, famous for its orange groves.
Like Nazca, Palpa is surrounded by perplexing geoglyphs, the so-called Palpa Lines, which are serially overshadowed by the more famous, but less abundant, Nazca Lines to the stoutly. The Palpa Lines display a greater profusion of human forms including the Familia Real de Paracas, a group of eaglet figures on a hillside.
Due to their elevated position, the figures are easier to view from terra firma at a mirador (lookout) 8km south of town. A small museum hut onsite offers further explanations in English and Spanish. The best way to see more of these lines is on a combined overflight from Nazca.
It's hard to say the word 'Nazca' without following it immediately with the word 'Lines,' a reference not just to the ancient geometric lines that crisscross the Nazca desert, but to the enigmatic animal geoglyphs that accompany them. Like all great unexplained mysteries, these dramatic etchings on the pampa, thought to have been made by a pre-Inca civilization between AD 450 and 600, attract a variable fan base of archaeologists, scientists, history buffs, New Age mystics, curious tourists, and pilgrims on their way to (or back from) Machu Picchu.
Question marks still hang over how they were made and by whom, and the answers are often as mush wild speculation as pure science (aliens? prehistoric balloonists?).
Documented for the first time by North American scientist Paul Kosok in 1939 and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, the lines today are the south coast's biggest tourist attraction, which means the small otherwise insignificant desert town of Nazca can be a bit of a circus.
The best-known lines are found in the desert 20km north of Nazca, and by far the best way to appreciate them is to get a bird's-eye view from a Sobrevuelo (overflight).
You'll get only a sketchy idea of the Lines at this lookout on the Panamericana Sur 20km north of Nazca, which has an oblique view of three figures: the lizard, tree, and hands (or frog, depending on your point of view). It's also a lesson in the damage to which the Lines are vulnerable. The Panamericana Sur runs smack through the tail of the lizard, which from nearby seems all but obliterated.
Signs warning of landmines are a reminder that walking on the Lines is strictly forbidden. It irreparably damages them and, besides, you can’t see anything at ground level. To get to the observation tower from Nazca, catch any bus or collective northbound along Panamericana Sur (1.50 Soles, 30 minutes). Some tours (from 50 Soles per person) also combine a trip to the mirador with visits to another natural viewpoint and the Maria Reiche Museum. About 1 km south of the man-made mirador there is a Mirador Natural (free) on a small knoll-like hill with a close-up view of one of the geometric lines made by removing reddish pebbles from the grey earth.
When Maria Reiche, the Germán mathematician and long-term researcher of the Nazca Lines, died in 1998, her house, which stands 5km north of the mirador (lookout) along Panamericana Sur, was made into a small museum (open from 9 am - 6 pm. Admission cost 25 Soles). Though the museum is disappointing regarding information, you can see where she lived, amid the clutter of her tools and obsessive sketches.
The sun can be punishing, but it's possible to walk here from the mirador in a sweaty hour or so, or passing Colectivos can sometimes take you. To return to Nazca, just ask the guard to help you flag down any southbound bus or Colectivo. A visit to the museum can also be arranged as part of a tour to the nearby mirador.
On the east side of town, this excellent archaeological museum has an aqueduct running through the back garden, as well as interesting reproductions of burial tombs, a valuable collection of ceramic pan flutes, and a scale model of the Lines.
You can get an overview of both the Nazca culture and a glimpse of most of Nazca's outlying sites here. Though the exhibit labels are in Spanish, the front desk lends foreign-language translation booklets for you to carry around. To get to the museum follow Bolognesi to the east out of town for 1km, or take a taxi (cost 2 Soles). It is located in Av de la Cultura 600. The admission cost 20 Soles per person, an additional for the camera 5 Soles. Open from 9 am to 7 pm.
This small planetarium is in the Nazca Lines Hotel and offers scripted evening lectures on the Lines with graphical displays on a domed projection screen that last approximately 45 minutes. Call ahead or check the posted schedules for show times. It is located in Nazca Lines hotel, Bolognesi street 147. The admission cost 20 Soles, a guide in English at 7 pm. Guide in Spanish at 8:15 pm.
Most outlying sights can be visited on tours from Nazca, although individual travelers or pairs may have to wait a day or two before the agency finds enough people who are also interested in going.
The most popular excursion from Nazca, this cemetery, 30km south of Nazca, will satisfy any urges you have to see ancient bones, skulls, and mummies. Dating back to the lca-Chincha culture around AD1000, the mummies were, until recently, scattered haphazardly across the desert, left by ransacking tomb robbers.
Now they are seen carefully rearranged inside a dozen or so tombs, though cloth fragments and pottery and bone shards still litter the ground outside the demarcated trail. Organized tours last their hours and cost US$10 to US$35 per person. The admission cost 7.50 Soles and it is open from 8 am to 2 pm.
The Pardeones ruins, 2km southeast of town via Arica over the river, are not very well preserved, primarily because they were constructed from adobe rather than stone. Their position on a slope above the town is commanding, which is probably why the Incas used it as an administrative control center between the mountains and the coast. The admission cost 10 Soles, including the entrance to Cantalloc Aqueducts.
About 4km southeast of town is the 30-plus underground Cantalloc Aqueducts, which are still in working order and essential in irrigating the surrounding fields. Though it was once possible to center the aqueducts through the spiraling Ventanas (Windows), which local people use to clean the aqueducts each year, entry is now prohibited; instead, you can take note of the Nazca's exceptional stonework from outside. The admission cost 10 Soles, including the entrance to Pardeones Ruins.
It's possible, but not necessarily safe, to walk to the aqueducts; at least, don't carry any valuables. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi to take you there. This should cost around 40 to 50 Soles round-trip. There are also tours from Nazca that take 2 hours, cost from 15 Soles per person, and may be combined with a visit to see El Telar, a geoglyph found in the town of Buena Fe, and visits lo touristy gold and ceramics workshops.
A dirt road travels 25km west from Nazca to Cahuachi, the most important known Nazca center, which is still undergoing excavation. It consists of several pyramids, a graveyard, and an enigmatic site called "Estaquería", which may have been used as a place of mummification. Tours from Nazca take three hours, cost US$15 to US$50 per person, and may include a side trip to Pueblo Viejo, a nearby pre-Nazca residential settlement.
Going here with advanced reservations from a tour agency is recommended. This nice place is open from 9 am - 4 pm.
This national reserve is a vicuña (threatened wild camelid) sanctuary, high in the mountains 90km east of Nazca on the road to Cusco. It is the best place to see these shy animals in Peru, though tourist services are virtually nonexistent.
Every year in late May or early June is the "Chacuu" (round-up), when hundreds of villagers round up the vicuñas for shearing with three festive days of traditional ceremonies, with music and dancing and, of course, drinking. Full-day or overnight tours from Nazca cost US$30 to US$90 per person.
Stand down all other pretenders. Cerro Blanco, 14km east of Nazca, is the highest sand dune in the world. With 2078m above sea go level and - more importantly - 1300m from base to summit. That's higher than the tallest mountain in England and numerous other countries. If Huacachina's sand didn't o irrevocably ruin your underwear, this could be your bag.
Due to the dune's height and steepness, it's best to organize an excursion from Nazca. Trips leave at about 4 am to avoid the intense heat. The arduous climb to the top of the dune (buggies can't climb this behemoth) takes approximately three hours. Going down is counted more in minutes with some clear runs of up to 800m. Many agencies in Nazca offer this trip.