When you think of Peru as a country, cuisine, and culture I’m betting a few things spring into your mind almost immediately: Machu Picchu, the Incas, lomo saltado, ceviche, alpacas, etc. Be honest, how’d I do?
My guess is that you’re less likely to associate Peru with wineries, deserts, dune buggies, and penguins. But that’s just what we found in the small region of Ica at the foothills of the Andes mountains in southwestern Peru.
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If you have in fact heard of Ica before, it’s probably because of the stunning desert oasis of Huacachina which has been getting some serious love on social media lately. The oasis, while beautiful, is far from the only reason you should make the 4 hour trek from Lima.
I’m here to break down for you what exactly to do, see, and eat if you find yourself in this beautiful part of the world.
Practical Info for Ica, Peru:
Ica is the name of this region in Peru as well as the capital city of the region, so when people are talking about visiting Ica they’re normally referring to the larger region as opposed to the city specifically.
Ica as a city isn’t as well connected to major cities like Lima and Cusco as other areas of Peru, so the city itself isn’t a major traveler destination. When looking for a home base, I’d recommend Paracas or Huacachina over the city of Ica. Or you can do what we did and splurge on a hotel outside of a city center entirely.
We traveled to the city of Ica directly from Lima by bus on the Cruz del Sur bus line, which was very reasonably priced. We were surprised by the quality of the transit – the seats each had their own TV screen and they even served some complimentary food. All in all, it was a pleasant journey.
Cruz del Sur also runs buses from Lima directly to Paracas, and the journey takes slightly less time (3 hours versus 4 hours). If you want to go directly to Huacachina by bus from Lima, then Peru Hop is the only bus liner to offer that route.
Pro Tip: Huacachina is shockingly close to Ica city center, so if your Spanish and haggling skills are good, getting a cab to Huacachina from Ica would be no problem.
Where to Stay in Ica, Peru:
When planning a long trip, I always make sure to include at least one destination where we can really relax. Whether it be a stay at a nice hotel, some unscheduled time by the water, or a day where we give ourselves permission to do nothing, I always find I enjoy traveling more when I give myself this time.
Our oasis in Peru was hands down our stay at Hotel Vinas Queirolo.
The hotel is about 20 minutes outside of the city of Ica tucked between the vines of a working winery. The grounds are beautifully appointed, with climbing flowers everywhere and lots of little nooks to sit and relax.
The rooms themselves felt spacious and airy with lovely balconies overlooking the vineyards. I particularly enjoyed the heated floor tiles in the bathroom. Hellooooo, little luxury I never even knew was missing from my life!
My one reservation about staying in a hotel outside of a city was my access to good food. When I travel, I travel to EAT.
Luckily, I didn’t need to worry here. The meals we had at Vinas Quierolo were up there with some of the best of our trip. We enjoyed a bottle of wine from the vineyard at almost every meal and appreciated the personalized attention from the staff. I’m still thinking about their ceviche and sopa criolla.
Oh and their pisco sours by the pool? Heaven on this earth, people. Is there anything that says “I’m on vacation” more than strong poolside drink? I think not.
Pisco brings me to my next topic.
What to do in Ica, Peru:
Tour a Winery
Vinas Queirolo does do tours for both hotel guests and non hotel guests, though they are currently only offered in Spanish. At the very least, participating in a tasting and appreciating the stunning location needs no translation!
There are other wineries in the area as well, the most well known and oldest of which is Hacienda Tacama. This winery is also located slightly outside of Ica town center.
What the winery at Tacama lacks in natural beauty (their grounds don’t hold a candle to Vinas Queirolo’s), they make up for in operations. English tours run frequently and contain great history, and the winery has an all in all more relaxed and smoothly run vibe. Basically, they cater more efficiently to tourism.
Bodega Vista Alegre and El Catador are other well known wineries running tours in the region. Arranging for a private taxi either through your hotel or through a company to take you to visit the wineries is very easy and recommended!
Visit the town of Paracas
Paracas is about an hour away from the town of Ica, and you can transfer there by bus, by booking a private driver, or by requesting a pick up/drop off from a tour company in Paracas. I had read on TripAdvisor while planning our trip that Paracas was dirty and not worth the visit – how very wrong that was, and I’m very glad I didn’t heed the warning!
Paracas is small with lots of tour companies and trinket shops vying for your attention. There’s a boardwalk with a few shops and restaurants that make for nice, lazy stroll.
I had my favorite ceviche of the entire trip (as I write this I hesitate – this TIED for my favorite ceviche of the entire trip) at a restaurant facing the ocean called El Arizal. Something about eating fresh seafood by the ocean just feels right.
So the town of Paracas is touristy, yes, but it’s also still charming in a lazy beach town kind of way. It’s your jumping off point for two of our favorite Ica activities: touring Las Islas Ballestas and the Paracas National Park.
Tour the Ballestas Islands
I can’t really explain how much I LOVED the boat tour of Las Islas Ballestas, and how much I really didn’t expect it to. The Ballestas Islands are a protected group of islands off the coast of Paracas that are home to an abundance of natural wildlife.
The boat ride out to the islands was cold and dreary, but as soon as we made it out of the jagged coastline and I saw penguins frolicking around, I was absolutely giddy like a little kid. It’s not that I didn’t expect it to be cool, I just didn’t expect to be so purely delighted by seeing these animals so closely.
Make sure you don’t miss this!
Ride ATVs in Paracas National Reserve
The next adventure during our day in Paracas was riding ATVs through Paracas National Reserve. It’s not very often you see desert colliding with mountains colliding with turquoise blue ocean, but the National Park in Paracas is just that.
We booked our ATV trip through Emotion Tour Peru. They were also the ones that organized our Ballestas Island tour, though the “organization” really just consisted of them being our middle man for the actual tour operators.
We ended up being the only two on our ATV tour, so we had all the time we wanted to spend at each beach, zipping down the coastline on the ATVs.
Pro Tip: Make sure you bring sunglasses and a jacket, the sand can whip into your eyes and the ocean breezes can be very cool if not!
Watch a Sunset from the Dunes in Huacachina
We almost skipped riding dune buggies in Huacachina, and I’m so glad we didn’t. If you really want to feel like a kid again, go dune hopping and tell me how you feel.
You know how when you were a kid and you rode rollercoasters you just couldn’t help but laugh as you were riding them? I can tell you whipping around on these dune buggies gives that exact same sensation, and as an adult you’re much more aware of the fact that you can’t stop laughing.
These are just good old fashioned fun.
The seatbelts in these dune buggies are there for a reason, a reason you’ll quickly discover as soon as the driver speeds off. There are a whole slew of dune buggy drivers waiting for the sunset eager tourists to arrive. The drivers all seemed to be aware of each other when you were actually on the dunes, but be forewarned they don’t take it at all easy on the dips and twists.
The never ending waves of the sand dunes gives you an intense perception of vastness. The only place I’ve ever see anything like this was in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. We had goofy smiles plastered on our faces throughout the entirety of our dune buggy tour, and I highly recommend this to anyone visiting.
Pro Tip: It’s windy up there on those dunes! Don’t wear a dress. You’ll miss out on fun things like sand boarding, and you’ll be sad about it.
Other Things to do in Ica, Peru
Many people staying in Ica take a day to visit the Nazca Lines. The Nazca lines are large geoglyphs permanently etched into the sand near the city of Nazca, which is about 2 hours south of Ica. The drawings are so big that you need to take a small plane up to see them. The Nazca people drew the lines, but for what purpose is unknown.
There is actually one of these sand drawings – a giant candelabra – that can be seen from the boat when touring the Ballestas Islands.
We also spent some time in the Regional Museum of Ica, which gives a history of the Paracas, Nazca, and Inca people who all previously inhabited the area.
In the city of Ica, the Plaza de Armas is picturesque. I’ve heard of others doing food tours in Ica (which I’m normally all in for), but we didn’t find a tour operator that we were begging to use when we did our research.
All in all, when thinking about what to do in Ica, Peru just have FUN. That was the theme of this stop of our two week trip in Peru. It was filled with lots of adventure and lots of relaxation.
Ica isn’t the most well connected to other places in Peru (yet) but that’s part of the charm of the place. You have to be a little more go with the flow, but if you can do that you’re all but guaranteed to have an amazing time.