Peru’s Sand Dunes and Wine Country

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Paracas/Ica area of Peru several times (it’s an easy four hour trip with something for everyone, so I find myself finding excuses to go there plenty), and thought I’d share my best travel practices for the area. Believe it or not, in my four trips there, I still haven’t seen everything! It’s a popular destination for backpackers and families alike. You’ll see as you read that there is something there for everyone, whether you want an adventurous or luxurious vacation in a sunny part of Peru. I’ve included a quick summary/fact sheet at the bottom of this post, so if you’re unfamiliar with the area it’s a nice jumping off point to get you started.

 Huacachinero Hotel
First off- getting there:
Those with their own vehicles can drive down the Panamerican Highway right to Paracas or Ica, which is around 4 hours each way. I prefer to take the amazingly dependable Cruz Del Sur bus instead. Their seats are comfy, the movies are passable, and there’s a lot less stress involved when I don’t have to see that much of the road.
Second- where to stay?
Here you can surround yourself with luxury, or embrace the backpacker life, and everything in between.
  • High end hotels- Hilton, DoubleTree, Hotel Paracas, and Las Dunas are among the favorites if you’re looking to stay in a resort with pool services and activities for adults and children.
  • Mid range- El Huacachinero. This hotel is literally feet from the sand dunes, and it’s my favorite stay, since it’s economical while still offering excellent service, a delicious restaurant, a pool, and convenient location to the sites.
  • Just looking for a cheap bed- there is an array of backpacker hostels throughout Ica and Huacachina perfect for those who just want a place to crash, but will be touring around outside the majority of their trip. Some restaurants even offer a work for lodging type of arrangement, so everyone will be able to find something no matter their budget.
Now, on to the fun stuff: What to do while you’re there?
1. My personal favorite past time is to ride around on the sand dunes. It’s difficult for me to accurately explain the dune buggy rides- they take a standard Ford engine bloc and put them in these crazy buggies that hold from 5-10 people. The drivers mostly grow up in the area, and have to be thirsty for adventure. They’ll make sure you’re strapped in to your seat (hold on to the handrail if you’re scared), and take you all over the dunes, zipping uphill fast, and hovering for a second just before big drops, so that you see just what you’re getting into…. It’s a great way to get your adrenaline pumping while looking out to the sand as far as you can see all around you.  Along the tour you will occasionally stop for some excellent views of the sand dunes, and to sled or board. The drivers bring along sand boards, and prep them with candle wax first for more speed. If you’re not a proficient snow boarder (like me), it’s best to lay on the board head first and sled down the dune on your stomach. Braver souls with more balance can stand on the board and fly down the dunes that way, too. My favorite time to go is around 4:30 pm, since the tour ends with a nice stop on top of the dunes to watch the sun set over the sand.
2. Wine tours!
What better way to relax in the desert climate than visit some gorgeous and historical wineries? The wines in this area are mostly sweet wines, so if you’re looking for vino tinto, you’re better off heading to Chile or Argentina to sample the Malbecs there. Still, the experience in Ica is worth it, and they do get quite creative with their wines there. The artisanal wineries offer great little tours to learn about the process, followed by tastings of their wines and piscos. Pisco is a clear alcohol made from grapes, and it’s usually between 40 and 45 % alcohol. It’s delicious mixed with ginger ale and fresh limes! Also, bottles of even the smoothest pisco are only about 35 soles (around 15 US dollars), so you can’t beat this for the price! After all the wine tastings, it’s a great idea to enjoy a nice meal at one of the restaurants along the Huacachina oasis. Also, it’s best to plan so you can see take the wine tours on days that aren’t Peruvian national holidays, as many of the wineries are closed for tours.
Pisco Winery
3. Islas Ballestas
If you’re staying in Paracas, you’re already set to go right out to the boat tours to visit the islands. If you’re staying in Ica, you can arrange transportation through your hotel or tour company to get you the hour to the coast.  Taking a boat tour around the islands will bring you in sight of sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and several species of birds. You’ll also see the curious trident shape in the sand, which has been around for hundreds of years (admittedly, my memory about this sand thing is a little foggy).
4. Nasca Lines
Confession: I haven’t actually seen these yet, but I’ll include it on the list still, because you’ll hear about them in any guide book on Peru. I recommend not taking a plane from Nasca to fly over the lines, as these planes are reputedly unsafe, and have resulted in deaths. If you wish to fly over and see these interesting crop circle-like shapes, I suggest flying from Lima, where the planes actually have to go through safety checks! As for me, I’ll take the pictures, thanks.
A Wrap-up:
I hope you’ve enjoyed my only slightly expert guide to the area. Ica and Paracas are relatively small towns, so they offer a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Lima. Still, it’s worth throwing out a few words of caution. Huacachina, because of the bars and large amounts of backpackers, can be extremely noisy around the holidays, and few of the hotels have air conditioning. This won’t be the best place to stay if you’re looking for a completely restful respite. Also, Ica is still suffering damage from a large earthquake several years ago, so you will see some run-down buildings, stray dogs, and mototaxis galore. As a safety measure, it is always prudent to ask your hotel front desk to call you a cab, rather than catching one off the street. Most cab rides within the city will be from 5 to 10 soles.
With that said, Ica and Paracas are great places to visit with family and friends. I’ve found the best time of year to go is August, as it is sunny all-year round and offers a great break from the dreariness of the Lima winter.
Want to take these tips on the go? Take a look at my fact sheet summary of Ica and Paracas: IcaFactSheet

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