These three locations by Peru’s southern Pacific coastline are home to mysterious treasures and unusual experiences. From mythical geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, to an oasis amidst a desert in Ica and Ballestas Islands laced with wildlife in the Paracas National Reserve, this unique part of Peru delights travelers.
Several ancient cultures arose in the valleys of the Rio Grande de Nazca and Ica which undertook engineering projects such as the building of underground aqueducts; they produced textiles, ceramics and other crafts.
The Paracas culture, followed by the Nazca culture, based themselves in the desert plains of coastal southern Peru, and while their cultures were relatively short-lived they left an enduring legacy which attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Nazca – The Mystery Unsolved
You may arrive to the town of Nazca easily by bus from Lima (7 hours) or Arequipa (9 hours).
The best way to observe the enormous geoglyphs is on a 15-minute flight which costs 80 dollars. There are more than 300 patterns on the plateau formed by light lines created by removing the darker volcanic surface. To this day, it is not clear why they were created. There are speculations concerning spiritual significance or even extra-terrestrial communication.
The individual shapes are fully visible only when viewed from the plane. I would recommend you to go on the flight with an empty stomach as some of the acrobatics are quite demanding, especially if they seat you in the back seats. The seats on the tiny planes are distributed according to your weight and the weight of the co-passengers for safety and aerodynamic reasons – there are 8 people on each plane, 6 passengers and the pilot and co-pilot. The captain and the co-pilot will explain to you that they would always maneuver over each geoglyph first from one side and then the other side, so all the passengers have a chance to observe the image well, without needing to incline or lean on one side which could actually be dangerous for the plane´s equilibrium.
The Nazca Lines have puzzled experts for centuries, given their geometric patterns, natural forms and giant scale. Some of the geoglyphs, created between 500 BCE and 500 CE, measure 370m in length. They depict flowers, plants, animals, insects, birds, humans, geometric shapes etc. Often, there are simple long straight lines of several kilometers in length.
The flight starts from the Nazca Airport and takes you to these images in the following order: Whale, Trapezoids, Astronaut, Monkey, Dog, Hummingbird (one of the most renowned images, which in South and Central America is generally considered a symbol of happiness, joy and blessings), Condor, Spider, Heron Bird, Parrot, Tree, Hands – and then back to the airport.
There are also flights from Pisco (3 hours away from Lima by car); if you want to visit the Nazca Lines only, without going to Paracas and Ica, it might be worth to make use of that option. In that case the flight from Pisco to and over the Nazca Lines and back to Pisco takes about an hour and a half.
The geoglyphs of Tree, Hands and also Lizard can be seen from an observation tower by the Panamericana highway. The entrance is 5 soles.
While the Nazca Lines can be seen all year round, if you are planning on flying above them, best time to go is between November and March, when the chance of rain is small and days are clearer and less hazy.
Another thing well-worth to see in Nazca is the Aqueducts which are located in the basin of Rio Grande and are characterized by large, spiraling, rock-lined holes that lead to an underground network of ancient aqueducts. These aqueducts form part of a sophisticated hydraulic system containing trenches, tunnels and wells – known collectively as puquios – that bring water from underground aquifers up to the surface for domestic and agricultural use. Although their age is still debated, the puquios are thought to have been constructed by the same people who created the Nazca geoglyphs. Many of these are still used by the inhabitants of the valley.
The cemetery of Chauchilla is an intriguing place located in the middle of the desert. Mummies can be seen amidst some fading ruins, ancient textiles, and an arid landscape scattered with human bones, all of which seem impervious to both time and the relentless heat of the sun. It has been speculated that over 400 tombs were built in the area with over 1,000 corpses buried among them. Looters have in the past raided much of the site although the mummies and many of the artifacts remain.
Ica – Home to Wine, Pisco and the Oasis of Huacachina
When going to Ica (2.5 hours away from Nazca), you are bound to visit some of the traditional bodegas (wine shops, wine cellars) and vineyards as well as pisco distilleries.
The guided tours as well as tasting are usually free of charge and if you wish to buy a bottle of wine or pisco you will pay around 40 soles per one on average. Some of the bodegas are combined with a restaurant too. Peruvian wines are generally semi-dry and sweet. Pisco can be made of a single-type grapes or a mixture.
If going on a tour from Lima, you will most probably first start at the vineyards of Pisco and then will continue to those of Ica. These two towns are located one hour away from each other.
The oldest distillery in the Americas, established in 1684, is nestled in the Ica Valley in Peru and is called Hacienda La Caravedo. The ancient distillery engages itself in maintaining well the Peruvian heritage and producing high quality artisanal spirits. The tour of the distillery introduces you to 7 varieties of pisco and allows you to visit the original facilities from 1684 that still house a giant circular container where the grapes were stomped. The tour is completed by a Peruvian Paso horse show and an extensive visit to the new distillery and the tasting.
Another winery worth visiting is that of Tacama. From Ica, you get there by taxi for 25 soles (on holidays for 35 soles). After about half and hour you arrive to a hacienda surrounded by hills, gardens and vineyards where you can get lunch or dinner in the restaurant, buy a bottle of wine in the wine shop and sit on the grass enjoying it while watching some traditional dance and other performances, go on a tour according to your choice (they start at 20 soles and the most complex one costs 70 soles) which in majority include wine-tasting. Make sure to bring a repellent!
When in the zone, visit the Regional Museum of Ica, which houses the remains of the ancient cultures; there is even a display of fine textiles from the Paracas people or some musical instruments of the Nazca people.
Another recommended stop is the Santuario del Señor de Luren which is famous for its black Jesus.
The region is also home to cotton fields, pecan farms, asparagus factories and chocolate shops (with some amazing local pecan chocolate, pecan biscuits and the traditional “tejas de pecana” – a white sugary mass filled with manjar blanco and dried nuts), so make sure to spare enough time to see all of these.
Probably the most popular target in Ica is the Oasis of Huacachina, where you find an artificial lagoon (there used to be a genuine one but got dry and is now being refilled artifically) surrounded by palm trees and huge sand dunes which are roamed by buggies.
If you like a bit of adrenalin adventures, book a 50-sole tour with the buggies to take you on a phenomenal ride up and down the dunes, sometimes at crazy speed. You can also arrange to have sandboarding or sand-sliding as part of your tour. I recommend to set off before sunset and observe the sunset from up the dunes. The oasis is known for its many hotels and bars, night life is a big thing here.
Another place that is of tourist interest, but far from that massive one of Huacachina, is the Canyon of the Lost (Cañón de Los Perdidos), which is located in the middle of the Atacama desert near Ica. It is a wonderful creation of nature (formed by two rivers which have dried out by now), surrounded by desert full of fossils, minerals and interesting rock formations.
Best time to visit Ica is in from April to May, or from October to November.
The Paracas National Reserve and Ballestas Islands
The usual way to explore the Ballestas Islands is by taking a boat with one of the agencies from the Paracas harbor. Along the way to the islands, you see the famous geoglyph in the sand known as The Candelabro (chandelier), an enigmatic design overlooking the ocean, etched on the desert floor around 200 BCE. The theories regarding its symbolism differ from a god´s trident to a hallucinogenic cactus plant.
A protected area since 1975 (declared a World Heritage Natural Site by UNESCO), Paracas is not only an important breeding ground for many resident bird species, but also plays a key role as a reserve for migrant birds: 63 species from the Arctic, 6 from the Galapagos Islands and 34 from Patagonia as well as a score of Andean migrants.
The Ballestas Islands, called sometimes “Small Galapagos” or “Galapagos of the Poor”, are inhabited by amazing marine life, with over 200 types of migratory and resident birds, including Peruvian pelicans, Belcher’s gulls, Guanay cormorants, red-legged cormorants, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies, turkey vultures and many more. No wonder these islands are a major resource of guano.
Hundreds of sea lions are resting around the islands, at the beaches, sleeping on the rocks or swimming nearby. The islands also provide shelter to the shy Humboldt penguins which are usually seen at the entrances of small caves near the cliffs.
The best way to explore the Paracas Reserve and its many beaches with crystal clear waters is by renting a bike. There are a number of tour companies in town which rent bikes and some hotels and hostels also provide rentals. The rate is from 20 to 25 soles per bike/per day. The cycling tour around the reserve will take around 7 to 8 hours, depending on how much time you spend on stopping to bathe and eat. Make sure to stop at Playa Roja and the beautiful Playa La Mina as well as Playa Supay, a long beach dotted with piles of seaweed (allegedly sold to luxury skin care brands) and edged by imposing granite-grey limestone cliffs; if you are lucky, you might spot dolphins on the shoreline.
Paracas is famous for its seafood, so be sure to try it out. Do not miss out on the viewpoints of La Catedral and Lagunillas. In Lagunillas, you will find some really good restaurants. A dish is worth from 25 to 50 soles on average.
The summer months of December, January and February are perfect for visiting the Ballestas Islands and the Paracas National Reserve. Sea lions give birth between January and March, so this is a great time to visit and see nature in action. You might also catch a glimpse of humpback whales making their way north for the mating season from August to October.
HERE is a GoPro footage from the buggies in the Huacachina oasis in Ica, from the flight over the enigmatic Nazca Lines and from the boat trip to Islas Ballestas.