The main landscape categories in the reserve and its buffer zone include: Desert (an area completely devoid of vegetation or only sparsely covered by grass), wetlands (featuring sedges and birds), the sea (the most important part of the reserve), seaside hills (hillocks and low hills), oasis (green areas linked to water sources), semi-desert (featuring thin plant cover such as bushes, trees or grasses), croplands (fundamentally in the buffer zone), industrial area (in the buffer zone, mainly fisheries), and the urban sector.
Paracas National Reserve lies 250 km south of Lima. It can be reached by the Pan-American Highway, which is paved and passes through the town of Pisco, then along the coastal avenue through San Andres, and onto the reserve. Or, there is a bypass around both towns leading directly to Paracas. Another access route is by sea, via the port of San Martin, located in Punta Pejerrey on the Paracas Peninsula. Due to the area's characteristics, broad and open desert, the reserve is entirely accessible. Through the desert, four-wheel drive vehicles or even a person walking on foot can easily enter the park and by the sea, boats can easily access any beach within the reserve.
Paracas National Reserve covers nearly the entire Paracas Peninsula. As the map shows, the border extends into the sea.
The landscape is dominated by sandy desert. There are also some portions covered by desert scrub, made up of xerophytic species that have adapted to the extreme, arid conditions. Some 74 species have been identified to date. Cacti dominate the transitional zone between the desert and the hills. The cactus Haageocereus limensis is the predominate species, along with other cacti and some semi-perennial scrub bushes. Plants from the genus Tillandsia also grow in the area, as they are sustained by the moisture from clouds formed in the sea. They are common in areas where there is not enough moisture to sustain normal vegetation. Species include Tillandsia latifolia, Tillandsia purpurea, Tillandsia paleacea (Bromeliaceae), Tiquilia paronychioides (Boraginaceae), Haageocereus sp. and Islaya omasensis (Cactaceae).
Wetland and salt marsh vegetation grow in swampy and/or muddy areas. These areas are characterized by poorly-drained soils, temporary stagnant pools of water with relatively high salt-content, that are typically found in low-lying zones or old river beds. Aquatic vegetation is found in and around these areas.
Herbaceous associations that stand out include the Poaceae families (including the Distichlis, Paspalidium and Sporobolus genus), Cyperaceae and Chenopodiaceae (genus Henopodium y Salicornia). Other plants include California bulrush, (Schoenoplectus californicus), known locally as totora and used in woven mats and other crafts; herb-of-grace (Bacopa monnieri), least duckweed (Lemna minuta), and knotgrass (Paspalum distichum).
Hills, sand dunes, hillocks, cliffs, and dry gullies occupy a large portion of the reserve. These areas are covered by sandy soil (sometimes rocky soil) that lacks sufficient humidity to sustain plant life. Yet, palm trees appear sporadically in these areas providing the water table lies relatively close to the surface.
The area's meteorological, geological and oceanographic characteristics produce special natural conditions for the existence of a wide diversity of animal species. To date, approximately 216 bird species, 19 mammals, six reptiles and 52 fish species have been registered in the reserve.
A large number of native and migratory bird species are found in Paracas National Reserve, including the pied-billed grebe (Podylimbus podiceps), white-tufted grebe (Rollandia Rolland), Peruvian pelican (Pelacanus thagus), Peruvian booby (Sula variegata), turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), black vulture (Coragyps atratus), and coot (Fulica americana).
Migratory species include the osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola), spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia), ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), sanderling (Calidris alba), red knot (Calidris canutus), western sandpiper (Calidris mauri), semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), gray gull (Larus modestus), Franklin's gull (Larus pipixcan), common tern (Sterna hirundo), royal tern (Sterna maxima), elegant tern (Sterna elegans) and storm-petrel (Hirundo rustica).
The main species that nest in the area include the snowy egret (Egretta thula), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), white-cheeked pintail (Anas bahamensis), cinnamon teal (Anas cyanoptera), American kestrel (Falco sparverius), snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), Peruvian thick-knee (Burhinus superciliaris), band-tailed gull (Larus belcheri), croaking ground-dove (Columbina cruziana), white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica), burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), chestnut-throated seedeater (Sporophila telasco) and rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis).
Several species found in the reserve are considered vulnerable, including the kelp gull (Larus dominicanus), black skimmer (Rynchops niger), and the American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). According to the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Redlist of Threatened Species, the following species are threatened to some degree: the South American flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), and the condor (Vultur gryphus) are near threatened; the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) is vulnerable and Peruvian diving petrel (Pelecanoides garnotii) is endangered. Both the Humboldt penguin and the Peruvian diving petrel are endemic species of the Humboldt Current of the Pacific Ocean and are found in the marine portion of Paracas National Reserve.
The Paracas Bay has three distinguishable zones: the marine, the marine-land interface, and the coastal environment. Each has rich biodiversity. In the marine zone, there is an abundance of fish species such as silversides (Odonthetes regia regia), mullet (Mugil cephalus), anchovy (Engraulis ringens), Pacific guitarfish (Rhinobatos planiceps), sardine (Sardinops sagax sagax), cabinza grunt (Isacia conceptionis), blackruff (Seriolella violacea), mackerel (Trachurus picturatus murphyi), Pacific bonito (Sarda chilensis chilensis). There are also several turtle species such as the Galapagos (Chelonia agassizzi), leatherback (Dermocheles coriacea), and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). In addition, there are several species of phytoplankton and zooplankton. In the marine-land interface, there are algae such as Ulva lactuca, Gigartina chamisoi, Agardhiela sp., mollusks Synus cymba, Nassarius gayi, Littorina peruviana, Argopecten purpuratus, Thais chololata, Aulacomya ater, Tagelus sp., crustaceans such as Hepatus chilensis, Ocypode gaudichaudii, Pagurus edwardssi, and worms like Nephtys sp., Nereis sp.
Sea mammals include the South American fur seal (Arctocephalus australis) and the South American sea lion (Otaria flavescens), as well as the marine otter (aka seacat) (Lontra felina or Lutra felina), which is an endangered species according to IUCN. There are also dolphin species such as the bottlenose (Tursiops truncates) and whales. Land-based mammals include the coastal fox (Pseudalopex (Dusycion) sechurae), bats (Desmodus spp.) and small mammals such as rats Rattus spp., which are common in the hills. Typical reptiles in the area include the Microlophus peruvianus and Tropidurus peruvianus lizards and an endemic gecko (Phyllodactylus angustidigitus).
Foreign and Peruvian tourists visit Paracas National Reserve all year-round, with a sizeable increase in the number of visitors over the past three years. Visitors enjoy seeing the various ecosystems, archaeological sites belonging to the Paracas culture, and the large variety of fauna in the area.
Touristy attractions along the Paracas shoreline include beaches, home to a great deal of wildlife, small-scale fishing, the industrial zone and towns. The Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve are the focus of tourism in the area. The most heavily-visited site is the Ballestas Islands, where demand is growing for eco-tourism, as can be seen from the increase in the number of local transport services. One can also hire minibuses to travel around the peninsula.
The Ballestas Islands are easily reached, as they are located in the bay just 20 km from the coast-a half-hour trip in a boat fitted with a 400 HP outboard motor. Boats run 6-8 trips a day to the islands during the winter, mainly for foreign tourists who flock here during June, July and August in tours organized by travel agencies. During the summer, the number of daily rides to the islands rises to 8-10, with more Peruvian tourists going to Paracas on the weekends. Trips to the Ballestas Islands provide views of the etching known as the Candelabro, or Candlestick, plus sightings of sea lions, birds, penguins, dolphins, and with luck, even whales. Tour operators interviewed for this study say they transport some 200 tourists a day, or 100-120,000 a year. Tour operators are members of the Association of Touristy Transport Operators of Paracas (AOTTAP) which has 18 members. The association has a guardhouse which monitors movement of boats and people, brings in additional clients, and provides information.
Tourism involving trips into the peninsula's interior basically covers the southern part of the area. Visitors can cross the narrow stretch of the peninsula in a trip taking an hour-and-a-half to get to the Supay beach. The tour continues on to the natural formation known as the Catedral (Cathedral), the Cerro del Fraile hill, the Yumaque beach, Lagunillas, and the Carbonera beach. The tour takes four hours, and tour operators run 2-4 tours a day, although demand varies depending on the season.