Paracas & El Chaco: Home to Peru’s incredible red-sanded beach
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Being so close to Lima (only 3-4 hours by bus), the town of El Chaco, on the edge of the Paracas National Reserve is a great stop to break up your travels between cities. It has a little bit of a teeny resort feel right on the beachfront with a few medium-sized hotels, seafood restaurants, souvenir shops and a sprinkling of beach clubs, but nothing too over-developed. It’s still very much a small town.
The Paracas National Reserve area is famed for its Mars-like expanse of desert backing onto the cliffs and beaches along the Pacific Ocean, and it’s alternative option as a a ‘poor man’s Galapagos Islands’. This guide aims to tell you all you need to know about what to do around the Paracas National Reserve, how to get there and where to stay in El Chaco.
Back in the day, this area was home to the Paracas indigenous people, who are fascinating for their elongated skulls. They were big fans of cranial surgery, which makes archeological finds around Paracas something very special indeed.
After this guide to what to do in Paracas and El Chaco, don’t miss:
One of the most popular things to do from El Chaco is to visit the nearby Paracas National Reserve, home to the famous Playa Roja or ‘Red Beach’ and interesting rock formations such as La Catedral. It costs 10 soles (£2.30) for a day’s entry to the park. Whatever you do, make sure you visit this place with the help of a motorised vehicle.
We made the mistake of renting bicycles, which, peddling against a strong wind, mostly uphill through a 32 degree desert, almost killed us before we even got to the first attraction. We actually cut our day’s plan to see more beaches short because we were so worried about the arduous journey home.
We at least managed to get to see the famous Playa Roja, a beach with red sand broken into the cliffs. The water is a beautiful turquoise and the breeze is LUSH. Playa Roja is a protected beach, so unfortunately you’re not able to go onto it, but there is an official viewing platform to the North, and a further viewpoint on the cliffs to the South.
Less than 1km up the coastline is Lagunillas beach, which is much more touristy but still a good place to relax, and offers great but expensive seafood in a fair selection of restaurants. The sand space is limited, and things get mega busy around lunchtime, but the water is beautifully refreshing, especially if you’ve just fought the wind on a bike to get there.
On the way back, we stopped in at the Centro de Interpretación along the main/only road, near the park’s entrance which was pretty interesting. The interactive exhibition took us through some of the ecological and geographical factors that formed the area over time, and some of the efforts being made to protect the landscapes and wildlife of the Paracas National Reserve.
Had we taken a taxi for the same price as renting the bikes, or perhaps booked a minibus or ATV tour, we could have seen a huge amount more. Independent travel isn’t always best! Luckily it’s a story we can laugh about now – how Lozzy’s sister tried to get us to call an ambulance in the middle of the desert – and the alien landscapes we saw were pretty epic. If only we had seen a little more sense on the transportation front…
Things we missed out on in the Paracas National Reserve include Playa La Mina, a beach known for its turquoise waters, and Mendieta beach, a little further out but equally breath-taking.
2. Sail round the Islas de Balletas
This is an archipelago of islands that has been coined ‘poor man’s Galapagos Islands’ for its abundance of birds (including albatross), turtles, sealions and sometimes even dolphins, alongside some interesting rock formations. A trip to the Islas de Balletas will cost a fraction of the expense of a trip to the Galapagos Islands (though in our opinion, the real thing can’t be beaten!).
However, if you’re short on time and money this is a fantastic option for you – just make sure you are prepared for the smell of the sea lions! You’re not permitted to walk on the island, but you can get one of the 2 hour boat tours that leave regularly from El Chaco (usually from la Marina Turistica) to circumnavigate the islands. You can upgrade to a half-day Paracas boat tour, which would include Islas de Balletas and some of the Paracas coastline.
3. Kitesurf in Paracas
Because of the high-speed winds that roar through the Paracas area, it’s a perfect place for a spot of kitesurfing, especially in the months of September to April when the winds are more consistently high. There are several kitesurfing schools in El Chaco, such as PeruKite, which caters both to beginners needing lessons and more advanced boarders wanting to rent equipment.
4. Chill on El Chaco’s beach
While not the most sensational beach in all of Peru, the town of El Chaco does offer a stretch of sand that you don’t have to travel into the desert of the Paracas National Reserve for. As mentioned previously, there are a small number of beach clubs and bars in which to spend a sunny afternoon.
5. Marvel at Tambo Colorado
About an hour from Paracas, close to the town of Pisco, you can explore the ruins of an old Incan site called Tambo Colorado. It’s named so because of the striped red, black, white and yellow colours the walls were painted, some of which have been lightly preserved over time. Its thought the Tambo Colorado ruins were built in the 15th century as an administrative site.
6. Be wowed at the Juan Navarro Hierro Paracas History Museum
If you’ve got a hankerin’ for seeing some elongated pre-Incan skulls in El Chaco, the Paracas History Museum is the place for you! Its a small place, but it aims to teach you about the ancient Paracas people, their interesting penchant for cranial surgery and their influence on the culture in the Paracas region today. You’ll find the Paracas History Museum hidden away next to the San Austin Hotel.
How to get to Paracas
From Lima, there are direct buses to Paracas every 1-2 hours with several different bus companies – notably Cruz del Sur which is usually a safe bet in terms of bus quality. We recommend using BusBud to reserve your ticket, and make sure you’ve taken note of where the bus picks you up, as there are several terminals in Lima, including the private terminals of the bus companies themselves.
From Arequipa, there are a few direct night buses (13 hours) to Paracas per day with the companies Oltursa and Cruz del Sur.
There are no direct buses from Cusco to Paracas, however, two options for you are to first take a bus to Nazca and stop over for a day or two to see the Nazca lines, or to have a layover in Ica and spend a couple of days in Peru’s desert oasis in Huacachina.
Peru Hop also has Paracas and all the above-mentioned towns & cities on their bus itinerary.
Alternatively, you can fly from Cusco or Arequipa to the nearby town of Pisco, and then get a 20-30 minute bus or taxi from there to Paracas. Just whatever you do, for the love of ceviche don’t bike there.
Where to stay in Paracas
Make sure you’re staying either on the main El Chaco road that goes through the town or closer to the sea if possible. Any further than that and the streets start to lose infrastructure, dogs start to lose their manners and you start to feel on edge. We stayed at Willy’s House (another choice made entirely on the name of a place) and found it good enough for the price.
Nicer would have been Kokopelli, but it’s a bit more expensive than the Kokopelli in Lima as it has more of a luxury pool party vibe (though if you’ve been to one you can get discount on the second by keeping your wristband on).
The only accommodation available in Paracas National Park is a tent-stay on a scallop farm, which would definitely been a fascinating experience!
Where to eat in Paracas
We absolutely recommend trying one of the typical food restaurants on Alameda Alan García Pérez, near but not on the waterfront (non-surprisingly, the waterfront restaurants can get a little pricey). Of an evening, you’ll see locals start to sit out in plastic chairs at restaurants served by a pavement BBQ. Bloody yum!
Recommended stay to enjoy Paracas: 2-3 days
Now you’ve reached the end of this guide to what to do in Paracas & El Chaco, don’t miss: