With the spectacular Galapagos Islands topping the bucket-lists of many a visitor to South America, it comes as little surprise that there are a number of smaller attractions in the region laying claim to being the budget friendly alternative.
We had already experienced Ecuador’s Isla de Plata back in 2015, but Paracas - a small Peruvian coastal town three hours south of Lima - also lays claim to the title of the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’.
On our first big Latin American adventure, we had passed through in winter and bad weather prevented us from experiencing some the best things to do in Paracas; we swore it would be different this time! And thankfully, with endless summer sunshine and blue skies, we spent three nights in the dusty, windswept town, which, as it transpired, was the perfect amount of time to experience almost all it had to offer.
Here’s our complete guide to Paracas for backpackers and travellers, including all the very best things to do, where to eat, where to stay, transport connections, and our tips on the little things that can make a big difference to your stay.
Things to do in Paracas
Take an Islas Ballestas Tour
This is pretty much the sole reason the majority of travellers venture to Paracas, so it needs to be on your list.
From the moment you step off of the bus until the moment you leave, you will be inundated with offers to join one of the daily boat trips that head out to Islas Ballestas. These rocky formations, part of the Paracas National Reserve, provide a home base for not only adorable Humboldt penguins and sleeping sea lions, but a whole host of other bird life such as the ever entertaining blue-footed boobie and swarms of cormorants. You can even spot humpback whales at the right time of year!
To find out more about our trip out to the islands - and the key details to help plan your own - take a look at our Islas Ballestas day trip guide.
Cycling in the Paracas National Reserve
Remarkably, the most enjoyable (and by far most adventurous) thing we did during our time in Paracas, was a 30-odd kilometre cycle ride around the National Reserve. It was hot, it was sweaty, it was off-the-beaten-track, our legs were covered by bicycle grease, the back of our necks burnt, and it took days for our butts to recover from the pothole ridden roads, but the landscapes were (almost literally) out of this world.
For those that travel to seek the epic, this is the day trip for you. In fact, it is one of the best independent day trips we’ve done in Peru.
Piqued your interest? We’ve written this post all about where to rent a bike and how to do a day cycling through the Paracas National Reserve (featuring all the beaches you’ll visit along the way). If you don’t like cycling or aren’t able to, then it’s also possible to take a guided tour in a car or minibus through parts of the Reserve for approx. S/. 30 per person. You can also book this day-tour which combines Islas Ballestas with the National Reserve.
Hang out in the Town
FIrst things, first: Paracas is not the prettiest of towns.
Dirt roads, construction heavy design, and a look that screams both falling apart and in the middle of being built at exactly the same time. But what it lacks in design and flair, it more than makes up for in happy hour deals (hint, it’s happy hour, every hour here), two course fish dinners, and a troupe of hairless Peruvian dogs. It’s even got a little stretch of beach which, with the help of local volunteers and some strongly worded signs, remains pretty clean (it’s also the very best place to catch a sunset).
The centre of the town only consists of a few streets, the beachfront promenade, and the palm-tree centred Avenida Paracas thoroughfare, so it doesn’t take too long to acquaint yourself with it and get to know where will become your regular haunts.
Hit the Sand Dunes in a Buggy
We have to confess that we didn’t do this, choosing to cycle out into the Reserve instead. However, it is undoubtedly a very popular activity - especially amongst those that do not plan to go to Huacachina, Peru’s dune buggy and sandboarding capital.
The ATV sand dune tour be arranged by pretty much any hostel or tour operator in town (approx S./ 40 per person) but if you need to book in advance, see this link. As with many things to do in Paracas which we recommend, booking in advance can work out more expensive, but we know that for some people, organisation or a shorter trip time in Peru makes it a necessary evil.
Where to Stay in Paracas
For a small town, there are a surprisingly large number of accommodation options - from fancier hotels, to flash-packer hostels and budget-maker hospedajes. This reflects Paracas’ popularity not only amongst backpackers and tour groups, but also amongst holidaying Peruvians.
These are your best Paracas accommodation options:
Paracas Backpackers' House | This is where we stayed in 2018, and we can’t recommend it highly enough. With light and airy doubles for S/. 55, a decent kitchen, good wifi, large social areas, three cats, and ocean views from the top floor (which by excellent coincidence, was also where our room opened out on to). Staff speak minimal English, but they have enough to deal with any queries if you don’t speak Spanish. To check prices and availability, check here.
Do note that a large number of hostels in Paracas and on the very same street as Paracas Backpackers’ House - either through lack of imagination or an attempt to steal custom - are also using this name (or slight variations of it), so be sure you either book ahead or be certain that you are checking into the correct place (see picture below).
Kokopelli | We actually spent a few nights here last time we were in town. It’s definitely not going to provide you the cheapest bed for the night - or guarantee a good night’s sleep - but it has a nice little pool, private section of beach, cracking dorms and a reputation (very much lived up to) for a party. It’s the best bet if you want a more social, flash-packer experience, or a few days away from more basic hostels. There’s no kitchen but it does have a restaurant, a well-stocked bar and good social areas. Given its popularity, it really is necessary to book ahead - check prices and availability on booking.com or Hostelworld.
If budget is a little more important to you, you can find a double room on the same street as Paracas Backpackers’ House for around S/. 40 or a dorm bed from S/. 20 , but be aware that the facilities reflect the lower price.
A little beyond your backpacking years? Then you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of guest houses and fancier hotels in Paracas to cater for the number of Peruvians that visit this popular national holiday town - click here to see some of the best options.
Where to Eat in Paracas
If you’ve just arrived into Peru from Europe or the US, then Paracas will feel like quite a cheap place to hang out for a few days. However, if you’ve travelled throughout the country you’ll note that it’s a bit more expensive or limited than elsewhere for certain items like groceries, drinks, and eating out.
These are some of the best options for travellers:
Restaurant stalls at the western side of the beach (near Kokopelli hostel) | These small ‘ma & pa’ restaurants provide near-identical traditional Peruvian menus morning, noon and night for wide-ranging prices.
Given the set-up, you might expect them to be particularly budget friendly, but in order to secure the best prices, you need to request the menu del dia. Although probably the most expensive set meal we’ve found in Peru (at S/. 25 per person), with a soup, main and drink included, it’s a good option for hungry travellers. They specialise in fish and ceviche dishes. If you venture towards the other end of the promenade (after the dirty bit of beach and artisan stalls), you will actually find a handful or restaurants offering similar lunch deals for the same or a little less.
Vegano Peruano | For many of us, food and trying the local delicacies is an integral part of the experience - unfortunately for veggies (and vegans), many of these dishes contain meat or dairy. With plant-based alternatives to many Peruvian favourites, Vegano Peruano aims to bridge that gap. It’s based on the fourth floor and accessible by lift - note that it’s in the same room as Restaurant Paracas which is a highly-rated option in town for a finer Peruvian dining experience.
Misk’i | Set one street back from the beach, Misk’i is quite possibly the coolest place to eat in Paracas - and very popular with the backpacker set. There’s a wide selection of the yummiest foods, including pizzas, Mexican fare and burgers. It also has lots of veggie options and some interesting beers.
For afternoon beers by the beach, or a 2 happy-hour cocktails for S./ 18 (note that this offer is always available at most bars throughout the day), we liked Karamba.
If cooking your own meals in the hostel, then you are limited to a single shop on the corner of Alameda Alan Garcia Perez and the small park (it’s a few doors down from ‘Good Market’ which has few options), which has a surprisingly good range of fresh fruit and veg.
How to get to Paracas
Paracas is a popular spot on the backpacker trail, so getting here is a piece of cake!
How to get to Paracas from Lima
From Lima, you have a couple of choices; take a direct bus with Cruz del Sur or PeruBus. With on-board service, personal TV screens, and added extras, Cruz del Sur is the fancy-pants option. However, for a four hour journey, we honestly don’t believe it’s entirely necessary.
Instead, save your pennies and take PeruBus instead - this will drop you in the centre of Paracas, as opposed to the dedicated Cruz del Sur terminal around a five minute walk away.
Whilst you can certainly turn up on the day to book your bus from Paracas to Lima, to secure the best rate and seats, we recommend booking ahead on RedBus.
How to get to Paracas from Ica
Whilst there are a handful of direct buses to Paracas from the south, they are few and far between. Instead, most people will need to change at Ica - an easy 1.5 hour journey away from Paracas.
Note that bus pick-ups in Paracas (unless you’re taking a Cruz del Sur from its dedicated terminal) are on Avenida Paracas (also called ‘El Chaco’), with the spot to wait either in the park area by Hostel El Amigo or outside Hotel Residencial Los Frayles (this may sound a little confusing but don’t worry - these two places are literally facing each other on opposite sides of the road and there will likely be others waiting).
There are regular departures to Ica - the best place from which to make onward connections - whilst there are also daily departures to Lima.
Weather In Paracas
It’s a coastal town in South America - surely it’s hot all the time, right? Wrong.
Given it’s at sea level, it’s usually warmer than many places in Peru, but the weather in Paracas can be exceedingly changeable. In fact, despite hanging around for three days when we first visited back in 2015, not a single boat tour was able to make it to Islas Ballestas because of strong winds and rain - it’s the main reason that we had to come back.
If visiting the islands is your sole reason for venturing down the dusty road to Paracas, then we strongly recommend keeping an eye on local weather reports, especially if you’re visiting in winter when the weather tends to be worse.
Conversely, if you’re planning on exploring the Paracas National Reserve by bike, be aware that it can get very hot in the desert (especially in the summer) with next to no shade available for respite.