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Paracas: Peru’s perfect seaside escape

While tens of thousands of travelers descend on Peru annually to visit well-known attractions such as Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Lima, one of the country’s most beautiful and interesting spots is virtually ignored by tourists.

Paracas, a small coastal town of less than 5,000 residents, lies 150 miles from Lima and is known regionally as the “Hamptons of Peru.” Every weekend, hundreds of Limeños, lured by the promise of sun, sea and surf, travel to the town to indulge in a beachside getaway.

The town, which is a curious mix of high-end hotels, backpacker hostels, luxury homes and ramshackle storefronts, is one of the county’s most beguiling and untapped destinations.

Brimming with wildlife, stark desert landscapes, gorgeous beaches and captivating history, Paracas is a worthy addition to anyone’s Peru itinerary.

Options for all

It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something for everyone in Paracas. A picturesque, sun-drenched coastal town with access to some of the world’s most fascinating geoglyphs, it’s a goldmine for outdoor adventurers, history hounds and beach lovers.

Paracas National Reserve

Paracas’ under-the-radar cachet, endless sunshine and beaches and alluring laid-back vibe make it an extraordinary destination. Its geographic setting — a seemingly impossible mix of endless desert and wildlife-rich ocean waters — help it steal the show.

There’s no better place to experience this dazzling landscape than at Paracas National Reserve. Spanning 335,000 hectares, a third of the protected area is desert while the remaining two-thirds is surrounding ocean.

The reserve features stunning rock formations, the most famous being the Cathedral (sadly, it was mostly destroyed in a 2007 earthquake), dramatic cliff faces, gorgeous sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages, like lovely Lagunillas. There are also plenty of wildlife watching opportunities.

Depending on what time of year you visit, expect to see condors, flamingos, rare Humboldt penguins, pelicans, desert foxes, humpback whales, dolphins, sea lions (go to Mirador de los Lobos for the best views) and more. Playa Roja, with its unusual red sand, is the most striking beach on the reserve; Playa de la Mina’s sedate waters are ideal for swimming.

There’s a vast area to cover and the best way to maximize your time is with a bike, ATV or bus tour — tour operators along Paracas’ boardwalk and main street, El Chaco, have increased in recent years.

Islas Ballestas

Forming part of the Paracas National Reserve, Islas Ballestas, teaming with marine and bird life, is a worthy stop if you find yourself in Paracas proper.

Half- and full-day boat tours (which, incidentally are also the only way to reach the islands) give visitors the opportunity to spot sea lions, whales, penguins, dolphins and hundreds of different species of seabirds.

Even if you’re not a consummate birder, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the antics of playful penguins or be enthralled by unexpectedly graceful pelicans diving for fish just feet from your boat.

All of the tours include a stop to gaze at the beguiling El Candelabro. Nearly 600 feet tall, the candelabra-like geoglyph etched into a cliff face is believed to date back to 200 BC but its origins and purpose remain a mystery.

4×4 desert ride/sandboarding

Seeing the desert is one thing, really experiencing it is another. Paracas means “rainstorm of sand” in Quechua (the language spoken by indigenous Peruvians, especially during the Incan Empire) and navigating the massive waves of sand via 4×4 with a professional driver gives you a new appreciation for the majesty and awesome force of this barren, sometimes hostile, landscape. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

Some tour companies (like Venturia) will even take guests sandboarding and end the excursion with a moonlight picnic under the stars. Aim to take a tour that includes a special sunset stop; the image of the sun slowly melting into the desert sand will take your breath away.

Nazca Lines

While not located in Paracas, seeing these enigmatic land features is most often done as a day trip from Paracas. The Nazca Lines are about 3 and a half hours away by bus or visitors can book quicker aerial tours.

There are over 300 figures (including fascinating images of a hummingbird, a monkey, a giant spider and what appears to be an astronaut) scattered over 175 square miles of arid desert in the Nazca Valley. The Lines, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are said to be over 2,000 years old.

What’s for dinner

As would perhaps be expected in an unassuming, seaside town, the food scene in Paracas tends towards casual meals with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Affordable set menus and animated happy hours are a mainstay in the majority of restaurants.

The lively waterfront area features a range of choices from hole-in-the-wall, raucous, footwear-optional eateries, to comfortable, unpretentious cafes serving tasty Peruvian dishes (like ceviche, causa and lomo saltado) alongside Western classics like hamburgers. The town’s few upscale dining options are found mostly in hotels.

Ballestas Restaurant

If you’re looking for a fine-dining experience that highlights the best of Peruvian-Mediterranean fusion cuisine, head to Hotel Paracas’ chic Ballestas Restaurant.

Certainly the priciest option in town, it’s also where you’ll find incomparable, innovative gourmet dishes that best showcase the region’s range of culinary possibilities, much of it revolving around seafood.

Its impressive list of gluten-free options will delight even gluten-eating individuals, and diners won’t want to overlook the extensive wine and cocktail list. The selection of pisco sours, (a quintessential Peruvian alcoholic drink made with pisco, simple syrup, lime and egg whites), is especially tempting.

Chalana Restaurant

One of the restaurants in the Hotel Paracas, deceptively casual-looking eatery Chalana is set on a private dock. It is hands-down the best place to go for fresh, creative seafood dishes.

One of Peru’s few sustainable “zero kilometer food” concept restaurants (hyper-local food that doesn’t travel), all the meals feature seafood sourced from local farms and fishermen who bring their daily catches directly to the dock.

The causa, layered mashed potatoes essentially, is delectable, but the show-stopper is the daily ceviche — think sea bass, octopus and scallops. When served with a glass of Peruvian white wine, it’s ambrosial.

Inti-Mar

Out of town, all the way across Paracas Bay, Inti-Mar is worth the journey for its fresh scallop dishes. No wonder, given that Inti-Mar is also a working scallop farm.

Guests can tour the farm and then dine on divine seafood dishes in the comfy restaurant overlooking the bay or opt for the always-full terrace just steps from the sea. Inti-Mar also runs a small, cozy B&B with six rooms all facing the ocean.

Pukasoncco Arte y Restaurante

To describe Pukasoncco Arte solely as a restaurant is to do it a disservice. As its name implies, this approachable eatery is as much an ode to art as it is to delicious, no-frills Peruvian fare.

Peppered along the walls, and in a larger gallery/workshop next door, is a whimsical collection of the owner, Sansón’s, own works, as well as pieces he’s collected over the years. Sansón is the restaurant’s only chef and waiter so be prepared to be patient — but the wait is worth it for scrumptious, made-from-scratch food. There’s also a variety of vegetarian options and even a couple of vegan menu items.

Ballestas Restaurant, Av. Paracas 173, Urb. Paracas, Pisco, Ica, Avenida Los Libertadores 173, +5156581333

Chalana Restaurant, Av. Paracas 173, Urb. Paracas, Pisco, Ica, Pisco, Avenida Los Libertadores 173, +5156581333

Inti-Mar, Km 38 Pisco — Punta Pejerrey, +51981318866

Pukasoncco Arte y Restaurante, H. U. Alan Garcia Perez mza. C lt.8, Ica, Peru +51 972 980 819

Put your feet up

Many of the Peruvians who frequent Paracas have small second homes in town (which is why it’s known as the “Hamptons of Peru”), so most accommodations center largely around no-frills hotels or hostels. Luckily, the few elegant hotels in town are fabulous.

Hotel Paracas, a Luxury Collection Resort

One of only two five-star properties in town, this Marriott property claims a coveted beachfront location in sheltered Paracas Bay, just five miles from Paracas National Reserve.

The luxurious hotel features three restaurants, a world-class spa and fitness center, free water sports, a kids’ club and two pools. Polished, cottage-like villas with private terraces (some with plunge pools) add to the seaside escape ambiance.

Despite being less than a five-minute walk from the central area of Paracas, the manicured, verdant gardens, protected beachfront and private pier (from which you can catch a tour to Islas Ballestas), could easily trick you into believing you’re alone on your own private island.

La Hacienda Bahía Paracas

The elegant four-star La Hacienda Bahia Paracas hotel boasts an oceanside location with incredible views of Paracas Bay.

Understated, contemporary rooms feature free Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs and minibars.

Guests will also enjoy a complimentary breakfast buffet, a selection of dining options and live Peruvian music nightly in the Marineros Bar. The large outdoor pool is a crowd-pleaser, and there’s also a spa and a small fitness room.

Hotel San Augustin Paracas

Casual and welcoming, Hotel San Augustin Paracas is known as a family-friendly hotel in a prime location near the city center and popular El Chaco beach. This three-star pick offers clean, unfussy rooms with private, ocean-facing balconies and free Wi-Fi.

There’s an on-site restaurant, a large outdoor pool that overlooks the ocean, a volleyball court and an indoor playroom designed for kids.

A quick walk along the beach path at the front of the property takes guests to the main Paracas pier (which makes it ideal to catch boat tours) and the main area of town filled with shops and restaurants.

Hotel Paracas, Av. Paracas 173, Urb. Paracas, Pisco, Ica, Avenida Los Libertadores 173, +5156581333

La Hacienda Bahía Paracas, Urb. Sto Domingo Lote 25 + 511213-1010

Hotel San Augustin Paracas, Chaco de la Puntilla s/n, +5156580420

CNN

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