Last updated: February 2023 / Photo by TheLamaList.com @travelinglamas
When planning a trip to Peru, most travelers stick to the obvious: Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lima. But did you know that just a few hours south of the bustling capital (not to mention a mere hour inland from this spectacular seaside retreat) there’s a destination home to Peru’s renowned pisco vineyards, a burgeoning wine scene and soaring sand dunes anchored by a natural desert oasis?
If your interest is piqued, it should be. The country’s diverse Ica Valley is a paradoxical blend of fertile terroir and arid desert, not to mention an IG-famed lagoon, boasting experiences idyllic to bucket list. Think: Peruvian wine and pisco tastings, surreal oasis sunsets, adrenaline-pumping dune adventures and flying over the mysterious Nazca Lines. Hotel stays and overnights are equally exceptional, like glamping in the desert or checking-in to a Spanish-style hacienda surrounded by pisco vineyards dating to the 17th century.
In this travel guide we give you all the intel on the above, plus more of the region’s best things to do, in Peru’s Ica Valley: home to agrarian Ica and its offbeat oasis town, Huacachina.
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DO: Taste Peru’s national spirit at the oldest pisco distillery in the Americas.
In the middle of the vast Ica Valley – aka Peruvian wine and pisco country – there’s a pisco vineyard that not only dates back to the 17th century, it lays claim as the oldest (and arguably most beautiful) pisco vineyard in the Americas. Here, Hacienda La Caravedo has been making the world’s best pisco since 1684. Made from the distillation of fermented grape juice, pisco is Peru’s national spirit, perhaps most famous for its refreshingly tart, eponymous cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
The spirit’s storied origins extend to the 1700s, when pisco production took over wine production in Peru as an act of rebellion against the Spanish crown – who had just prohibited the import of Peruvian wine as a protectionist measure.
Pisco is technically a type of brandy and while some compare it to grappa, or even tequila due to its herbal notes, the high-proof spirit easily stands out with a unique, additive-free distillation process (not even water is added) and flavor profile all its own.
At Hacienda La Caravedo, you can tour the property’s original and modern distilleries as well as taste a variety of piscos from its award-winning Pisco Portón and namesake La Caravedo labels. Tours start at S/. 35 (approx $9 USD) for a tasting of two piscos to S/. 140 (approx $37 USD) for a tasting of six, or you can opt for a full day visit. This premium experience includes a distillery tour and pisco tasting, plus a three-course lunch of traditional Peruvian fare and use of the hacienda’s glistening swimming pools.
Visit independently or with this half day wine and pisco experience that includes a tour and tasting at Hacienda La Caravedo, plus Viñas Tacama (more on Peru’s original winery below) and hotel pickup and dropoff. Alternatively, this comprehensive wine and pisco route covers Hacienda La Caravedo, Tacama and a third winery.
Related: Lima Travel Guide: Where to Eat, Stay and Play in Peru’s Bustling Capital
STAY: At a Spanish-style hacienda surrounded by pisco vineyards.
Upgrade to a truly immersive experience at Hacienda La Caravedo by checking-in to the 17th century pisco distillery’s namesake hotel. It’s located amidst the property’s bucolic vineyards and – as the name suggests – takes form as a luxurious, hacienda-style stay. Thirteen rooms at Hotel & Hacienda La Caravedo range from pool view to 3-bed bungalow to presidential suite. Expect elegant furnishings and in some, ornate chandeliers, chaise lounges, whirlpool bathtubs, kitchenettes and balconies or terraces.
A distillery tour and pisco tasting are included in your stay, as are complimentary bikes to tour the property’s picturesque grounds. Go for a dip in either of two swimming pools and don’t miss the traditional Caballo de Paso Peruano (Peruvian horse dance) held every afternoon. At on-site eatery Los Horcones, flavorful local dishes like carapulcra con sopa seca (Peruvian dried potato and pork stew with basil pasta) pair with outstanding pisco cocktails. Sipping a pisco sour here is a given, but also try the refreshing chilcano (pisco, ginger ale and dash of lemon) or aromatic capitán (pisco and sweet vermouth).
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DO: Taste Peruvian wine at the oldest vineyard in South America.
Given Peru is virtually synonymous with pisco, it should come as no surprise that the country’s wine scene has traditionally taken a back seat to the celebrated spirit. However a newfound push towards home-grown gastronomy – as heralded by a rising crop of star chefs purposefully pairing Peruvian wine with locally sourced menus – is finally giving the underdog category the recognition it deserves.
Oenophiles looking to tap into Peru’s blossoming wine culture should start at Viña Tacama: producer of red, white and sparkling wine (including its award-winning sauvignon blanc, malbec and carmenére), plus pisco. The storied vineyard and winery carries a cultivated legacy since 1540, when Spaniard Francisco de Caravantes planted the site’s – and the South American continent’s – first grape vines. In 1821 the property fell under ownership of Convent San Agustín, whose beautiful arches and bell tower remain today.
Viña Tacama offers a range of tour and tasting options starting at just S/. 26 (approx $7 USD), from the forty minute Hacienda Tour to the two hour Tacama Grand Tour. The latter combines a thorough look into the grape production process with a sommelier-led tasting of four wines, plus a tour of the property grounds and architecture. True wine buffs will want to opt for the Don Manuel Tour, a premium experience featuring a sommelier-led tasting and cheese pairing in the winery’s subterranean cellar. You can even linger longer with your favorite bottle at the excellent on-site restaurant, Tambo de Tacama.
Visit independently or with this half day wine and pisco experience that includes a tour and tasting at Tacama, plus a stop at (aforementioned) Hacienda La Caravedo and hotel pickup and dropoff. Alternatively, this comprehensive wine and pisco route covers Tacama, Hacienda La Caravedo and a third winery.
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STAY: Spend the night surrounded by Peruvian wine vineyards.
Why only visit a Peruvian winery when you can spend the night in one? Amidst the idyllic grounds of its namesake estate, Hotel Viñas Queirolo offers luxury accommodations for wine enthusiasts looking for a truly immersive experience. The heritage winemaker has been producing both wine and pisco since 1880, when the Queirolo family arrived in Peru from Geneva, Italy. Today the Queirolo name is lent to its original Santiago Queirolo label in addition to the more recent Intipalka (meaning “Valley of the Sun” in Quechua), both chalking up numerous awards for its wine and pisco offerings.
Eighty-nine spacious guest rooms range from Junior to Superior to Suite, featuring elegant furnishings paired with neutral hues, exposed wood beams and bucolic vineyard views. Suites further boast bubbling jacuzzis. Three swimming pools – all heated – cater to the entire family; two allocated for little ones and a glimmering, jacuzzi-equipped main pool. Guests can take a swing on the tennis court, peruse a collection of classic automobiles or grab a complimentary bike for exploring the property’s sprawling grounds. As you would expect, a guided tour of the vineyard in addition to a wine and pisco tasting are included in your stay. Sip your favorite at poolside Bar Queirolo at sunset or alongside local and international cuisine (plus vineyard views) at Intipalka Restaurant.
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DO: Explore Huacachina, South America’s only natural desert oasis.
Tucked between towering sand dunes on the edge of the Atacama desert – the driest desert in the world – is Huacachina Lagoon and its eponymous, offbeat oasis town. The incredulous destination claims status as the only natural desert oasis on the South American continent. It’s fed by water trickling in from underground aquifers, though, as Huacachina translates to “weeping woman” in Quechua, legend has it the lagoon was originally formed by the tears of a beautiful green-eyed woman who wept for the death of her beloved.
Visit Huacachina today and you’ll find a smattering of small hotels, eateries and souvenir shops, plus a charming malecón (boardwalk) winding its way around the shimmering lagoon, all fringed by lush vegetation like palm trees, carob trees and eucalyptus.
Surrounding desert dunes are now a worldwide-famed destination for dune buggying, sand boarding, sand tubing and even glamping (more below!) not to mention magnificent sunrises and sunsets. From the lagoon, you can reach this sunset view point via a 20 – 30 minute uphill hike through the dunes.
It’s not advisable to swim in the lagoon but small row boats and pedal boats are available for scenic glides. Or, you can simply admire the natural wonder from any of its surrounding eateries. Avoid the abundance of tourists traps by grabbing a table at popular Wild Olive Trattoria, fitting the bill for casual international fare with a lagoon view, or our top pick: Aromas de Arena. This brand new locale offers a refreshingly elevated dining and drinking scene in the otherwise dry culinary climate of Huacachina, helmed by Peruvian mixologist and pisco expert Ricardo Carpio. Expect excellent local dishes, perfect pisco cocktails and an unexpected edit of Peruvian spirits like an Andes-distilled agave or an herbal Andean digestíf.
Related: Best Things to Do in & Around Cusco, Gateway to the Ancient Incas: a 2023 Travel Guide
STAY: Sleep inside a natural desert oasis.
The kitschy oasis town of Huacachina gives backpacker party vibes far more than restorative escape. If you’re looking for the latter, you’re best served in Ica staying at Hacienda La Caravedo or Hotel Viñas Queirolo (both mentioned above).
Though it can’t be denied that sleeping inside South America’s only natural desert oasis is certainly a bucket list experience. To tick it off, your best bet is Hotel Curasi. It’s located just off the lagoon in a dune-framed corner of Huacachina that’s as luxurious and relaxing as it gets in town. If Hotel Curasi is booked (which is often the case), your next go-to’s should be Hostería Suiza, located in the opposite corner of the lagoon, or Hotel El Huacachinero. At the latter, request a 2nd floor balcony room for pool and dune views and to minimize noise from surrounding late-night bars (a plight that’s hard to avoid nearly anywhere in the oasis).
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DO: Embark on adrenaline-pumping activities in the soaring sand dunes.
The surrounding desert dunes of Huacachina Lagoon (reaching a mere 1,600 feet / 5,000 meters in height) are now a worldwide-famed destination for adrenaline-inducing adventures. Think dune buggying, sand tubing, sand boarding (seated or standing) and even sand skiing. What’s so extreme about a picturesque buggy ride through the dunes, you may ask? Not to be mistaken for a leisurely jaunt, Huacachina’s dune buggies fly through the desert at such lightening speed you may as well be on a rollercoaster. Thrilling to be sure, and not for the faint of heart.
Dune activities rank as the oasis town’s #1 tourist draw and a quick stroll around the lagoon will lead you to a myriad of options from eager tour operators. For those who prefer the peace of mind of booking ahead, this highly rated dune buggy and sand board excursion wraps with a spectacular desert sunset, plus includes hotel pickup and dropoff anywhere in Ica or Huacachina. Avid skiiers and snowboarders looking to test their snow skills on the sand will no doubt want to opt for this professional sand board and sand ski adventure, combining an exhilarating dune buggy ride with instructor-led sand board and sand ski runs. Evidence included by way of GoPro photos and video.
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STAY: Glamp in the Peruvian desert.
What’s it like to spend the night under the stars amidst Huacachina’s endless desert dunes? Epic in every way. Not just an overnight, this bucket list glamping experience starts with a thrilling dune buggy ride (read: rollercoaster), followed by stops for sand boarding and later, buggy-drawn sand tubing. The former takes place on a plummeting incline, encompassing two hair-raising runs: one seated sled-style and the second laying down on the board, face first. Grab your cameras because next you’ll marvel at arguably one of the most mesmerizing sunsets you’ll ever see.
Boho vibes abound at camp, where you’ll gather around a moonlit bonfire to enjoy a cheese platter aperitíf paired with a bottle of local Intipalka wine (from nearby Viñas Queirolo). Later, you’ll enjoy freshly grilled dinner under a billowing canvas canopy. You won’t want to miss stargazing before retiring to your private bell tent, equipped with plenty of cozy blankets, pillows and your choice of one double or two single beds. Even if you’re not an early bird – set your alarm because the morning’s surreal sunrise can’t possibly be missed.
If you don’t wish to spend the night you can still enjoy all aforementioned activities, plus dinner in the dunes, with this desert dining experience.
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DO: Fly over the Nazca Lines
Whether you believe Peru’s mysterious Nazca (Nasca) Lines were created by the region’s ancient civilization or another life force entirely, one thing’s for sure. Soaring over the Peruvian desert to view the mind-boggling site – a series of 2,000 year old geoglyphs so large in size you can only see them from the sky – is an easy must for archaeology buffs, intrepid explorers and Ancient Alien addicts alike. The incredulous glyphs date to 500 BC and take the form of three primary groupings: lines, geometric shapes and pictorial figures. Such figures can reach up to 1,200 feet in length and range from a monkey, hummingbird and spider to a whale, tree and condor – even what appears to be a waving man. Etched six inches into the desert sand, these massive geoglyphs remain remarkably preserved due to the region’s arid, isolated and windless conditions. In 1994, UNESCO declared the Nazca Lines a World Heritage Site.
To see the lines from Ica and Huacachina, you have two options. Fly directly out of Ica Airport or take ground transportation to the tiny Nazca Airport and board your flight from there. (Nazca Airport’s official name is Aerodromo Maria Reiche, named after the German-Peruvian archaeologist who dedicated her life’s work to researching and preserving the lines.) Most planes accommodate either 2, 6 or 12 passengers and the flight lasts approximately 30 minutes.
Great Nazca Tours offers each option, and while we were tempted to take the direct, 12-seater Ica flight to save time, we ended up opting for their ground transport experience due to the option of upgrading to a private, 2-seater plane. The 2 1/2 hour drive time (each way) may seem daunting, but gave us a fascinating look at local life and surrounding landscapes – you’ll traverse rugged desert terrain, the Río Grand Valley and the Palpa Valley before arriving into Nazca. Plus, your driver will stop at the free Nazca Mirador (lookout tower) on the return trip, which you can climb for close-up views of three of the site’s picto-glyphs.
For those wanting the most comprehensive flight experience, you can upgrade your Nazca flight to further include the lesser known Palpa Lines: a nearby set of bewildering geoglyphs only discovered in 1997 that happen to pre-date those of Nazca. Palpa is most known for its representation of human forms, like one famed set of figures depicting an ancient family.
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