A Pedacito of Paracas, Peru
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Paracas is a town on Peru's west coast. It's known for beaches, like El Chaco, set on sheltered Paracas Bay. The town is a launch point for the uninhabited Ballestas Islands, home to sea lions, pelicans, and Humboldt penguins. Rugged, wildlife-rich Paracas National Reserve spans desert, ocean, islands, and the Paracas Peninsula. The peninsula’s Paracas Candelabra is a huge prehistoric geoglyph, etched into a hillside.
It was a 4-hour drive down the west coast of Peru via Carretera Panamericana on what started off as a foggy and humid morning in Lima. By the time we arrived in Paracas, it was a nearly cloudless blue sky morning with a slight breeze off the sea. The town has the remanence of being a fishing village but it's definitely a place for tourists now with small mom and pop shops selling everything from sunblock (should have bought some of this...) to cheesy souvenirs and local beers and food.
We were herded down a make-shift dock that was mostly covered and traffic was controlled by a chain-linked fence down the middle of the pathway. We then boarded our "speed boat" which was long and provided no shelter from the sun; we sat two-by-two with a total of maybe 50 people on the vessel.
After leaving the harbor, we sped off for about 20 minutes until we reached the first point of interest, Candelabro (translates to Candelabra in English). This ancient sculpture was created by digging 2 feet into the side of the massive sand dune of the peninsula and is nearly 600 feet tall.
Our guide told us that the origins of the sculpture are surrounded by mystery and there are lots of local legends as to who, or what, created the sculpture. A variety of myths exist, from aliens to Freemasons, but it's most likely just a way to indicate to sea goers that they are arriving at Paracas, considering you can see the geoglyph from up to 12 miles away.
Our next stop was the reason I wanted to visit Paracas: the Ballestas Islands! This chain of islands consists mostly of beautiful rock formations and is a sanctuary for many species of birds, such as the blue-footed boobie, two varieties of seals, and Humboldt penguins. The sea is very rough as it reaches the islands mostly unobstructed and the sound of waves crashing on the massive rock structures prevails seconded only by the thousands of birds either in flight or on one of the islands.
This place is an ongoing drama of natural forces! Animals fighting to claim their territory. The hot noon sun baking the stones that are otherwise cooled by the deep cold of the Pacific Ocean. The wind creates the otherworldly textures on the rocky surfaces. And us, with our gas-guzzling motorboats, trying to take it all in and in control as the waves have their way with our fiberglass vessel...
We head back to Paracas at full speed and the wind helps cool my now sunburned head. Back at the port, the first order of business was to buy a hat and find some cold local beverages! Our guide made reservations for us at Restaurant Paracas whose open-air dining room was on the 4th floor of a skinny white building. The building has a small, slow elevator for those who can't do stairs (or for lazy tourists like me), which fit 4 adults uncomfortably.
The view from the dining room was very pretty. All of the small fishing boats in the harbor could be seen as well as some of the touristy shops below. I ordered ceviche, a light beer, and a pisco sour. I wanted to wash up before lunch and discovered that the bathroom was on the 3rd floor of the building... I opted to take the stairs this time... The drinks came out first and I literally chugged the beer (those who know me understand why I usually order two beers at a time) and quickly ordered another.
If you've never had a pisco sour, its kind of a cross between a gin fizz and a margarita. Pisco is a wine-based liquor that can be found all over Peru. It's a citrusy blend of pisco and fresh lime juice topped with a foamy layer of egg whites and a few drops of angostura bitters (to cut the smell of the whites). I had my first pisco sour in Lima but had to have it here seeing how I was about 30 minutes away from the town where it got its name: Pisco, Peru.
One of my favorite songs of all time is Farrah Fawcett Hair by Capital Cities. The song talks about the good things in life and one of those things is "enjoying ceviche in Peru", which has always been on my list of things to do, so imagine my excitement now that I am actually going to do it. Now, I've had ceviche many times and thought I really "understood" the dish, but this was on another level!
First of all, there is no "ceviche" in Peru, there's Leche de Tigre (translates to Tiger's Milk). Leche de Tigre is the term for the milky citrus blend that cures the seafood, typically a local white fish. Second, there's no substitute for fresh fish and this place gets its fish from across the street, literally!
I was blown away by how fresh, light, and masterful this dish was. How can something so simple be so good? And how can something so familiar seem so different? Needless to say, after spending the morning in the blistering sun out on the water, having something light and fresh was exactly what I needed.
Paracas made for a perfect day trip, but I couldn't imagine actually staying there. I'm sure there's more to do than what I did, but being in a desert by the sea only yields so many options. I noticed that some people were on a multi-day trip going northbound through Peru and Paracas was just one of the stops; now that's cool!
I recommend either going on a day trip or spending one night at one of the affordable hotels in the town. January wasn't very busy and the weather was gorgeous. If you go out on the sea, be sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, sunblock, and some cold drinking water.
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