4 Ways to Explore Peru’s Southern Coast

Scorched sand dunes, ancient geoglyphs, and Pisco galore make this a uniquely unmissable part of Peru. Our insider Steph has the scoop.


Photo © iStock/xeni4ka

The line of dusty towns along Peru’s southern coast might not look much upon first inspection, but be prepared for a region filled with everything from hidden desert oases to rustic Pisco bodegas, and enough adventure activities to satisfy even the most adrenaline-fueled traveler.

Wildlife Along the Paracas Coastline

Straight down the Pan American Highway from Lima, the town of Pisco doesn’t offer much of interest, so it’s no wonder that most bypass it for neighboring Paracas. It’s from here that two-hour speed boats (S/. 50, or US $15.30) skim across the waves to Islas Ballestas.

Dubbed the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, these rocky islands are a riot of toddling Humboldt penguins, dozing sea lions, colonies of rare blue-footed boobies and lots of stinky guano.

As the boats cruise around the rocks, keep an eye on the water, too: between August and October, you might spot Humpback whales.

Across the bay, the barren dunes of Reserva Nacional Paracas are similarly remarkable for wildlife: over 200 bird species, including Chilean flamingos, have been sighted. The best viewing is at dawn at the bay outside the museum, located 1.5mi (2.5km) from the main entrance.

There are facilities for camping here, but check in with the park ranger for safety updates, as robberies have been known in the reserve.

Humboldt penguins. Photo credit: iStock

Bodegas and Sandboards in Ica and Huacachina

Home to Peru’s national spirit, Ica’s a great place to spend an afternoon learning about and tasting the local tipple. 20 minutes away by taxi, Hacienda Bodega Tacama, the oldest vineyard and Pisco producer in South America, has tours to suit everyone, from wine aficionado to Pisco virgin.

For a more active adventure, it’s a ten-minute taxi journey from Ica to the mirage-like town of Huacachina. A disorientating array of hostels and restaurants have sprung up around a small lagoon wedged between sand dunes. While it’s less of an oasis of calm than previously, it remains Peru’s ultimate sandboarding destination.

Tours (S/. 50 or US $15.30 for two hours) strap you into a 4x4 dune buggy, which speeds across the desert before letting you out to skim down the dunes on a board. Sand isn’t soft like snow, so start slowly and don’t be cocky – you’ll save yourself some painful bruises.

If you’re happier on two feet, stretch your legs with a sweaty 20-minute climb to the dune above the town; it’s the place to watch the otherworldly landscape disappearing into the hazy dusk at sunset, or the spray of sand as the pros shred down the slope.

Accommodation for all price ranges is available, but as the lagoon isn’t ideal for swimming, consider splurging on a place with a pool; it gets fiendishly hot here during the day.

Huacachina. Photo credit: iStock

The Nazca Lines: Famous Pre-Colombian Geoglyphs

One of Peru’s most recognizable ancient landmarks, the tantalizingly mysterious, UNESCO World Heritage Nazca lines comprise 300 geometric shapes carved into the desert by a long-vanished culture – and no one really knows why.

Skip the viewpoint 12.5 mi (20km) north of Nazca – the lines are far better seen from the air. 30-minute, five-seater airplane trips (S/. 261 or US $80) take you over 13 shapes, including the hummingbird and a condor. Visibility is better and turbulence less likely before around 10:30am, when the haze starts to obscure the lines.

Use these suggestions for booking with a reputable airline in Nazca, as it’s not worth risking your life to save a few soles.

Flight over the Nazca lines. Photo credit: iStock

High-adrenaline Adventures and Criollo Culture in Lunahuaná and Chincha

Action-packed Lunahuaná is a newcomer on Peru’s tourist scene. This slice of green in the barren dust of the desert runs parallel to the ribbon-like Río Cañete.

Here in one of the top playgrounds for white-water rafting in the whole continent, expect everything from Class III to V rapids, and to pay S/. 100 (US $30.60) for a day’s tour. Horse-riding trips (S/. 25 or US $7.65) and canopy zip lines (S/. 40 or US $12.25) are also on offer in the valley.

A bit further south along the main highway, Chincha has a unique heritage: it’s home to the descendants of black slaves brought from Africa by the Spanish.

For the best insight into their criollo culture, visit during the Verano Negro festival in February or Fiesta de las Danzas Negras in November, when the town erupts into a chaotic whirl of dancing, music and food showcasing the region’s dual Peruvian and Afro heritage.

Dancers, Asociación Cultural Afro Chincha. Photo credit: Pixiquin via Creative Commons.

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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