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More than Mancora! The North Coast of Peru

After spending a few weeks exploring Piura and the Coastal Desert, I headed north along the coast to Máncora. It has long been Peru’s surfing mecca, producing some of the country’s most famous wave riders. Some – like Fernando “Wawa” Paraud – have set up schools and shops here.

Wave action in MancoraIt had been three years since I last was in Máncora. The scene that greeted me as I stepped off the bus was astounding. This once-upon-a-time little fishing village had erupted into a full-blown resort. The town stretches far south and far north of the bridges that used to be the city limits. The highway now is lined with a solid wall of kiosks selling shell wind chimes, jewelry and all manner of tourist knick-knacks.  

I strolled down to the malecón (seaside promenade) that had been built since my last visit. The locals told me that it had changed the currents washing ashore and is causing much erosion. Indeed, the beach here had become narrower; at high tide there is barely enough space to spread a towel.

The hustle for tourist dollars extends to kitesurfing, kiteboarding, horseback riding, zip-lining and dune buggying. Excursions are offered to Cerros de Amotape National Park, and to hot mud baths at Poza de Barro in Quebrada Fernández and Los Hervideros far north, near Zorritos.

Máncora has also gained a reputation of “party central” – fueled by liquid and other mind-altering substances. It is a must-stop on many foreigners’ itineraries on this coast. This has caused a boom in lodging, with now over 100 hotels and hostels. The most expensive and exclusive are on the beachside of the Pan-American Highway, on the town’s new outskirts.

However, I still found some good values.  Up the ravine from Puente Cabo Blanco on the south side of Máncora is La Posada de Máncora, an IYH hostel with dorms and private rooms. Off the east side of the thoroughfare are several other inexpensive hotels. Shoestring travelers can head to Cocos Camping, just 100 meters north of the malecón.

I found Máncora a bit too dizzying. I needed some place a bit more tranquilo. I headed down the coast on day trips looking for an alternative place to chill. Luckily, it was the low season for Peruvian family vacations (high season is mid-December through Easter week, and July to August.)

Vichayito and Los Órganos

I hopped the bus to Vichayito (10 kilometers south of Máncora) and Los Órganos (another 3.5 kilometers south). The beaches are broader and softer, bordered by vibrant vegetation. They definitely are quieter and more relaxed.  It is no wonder both of these are favorite vacation spots for Peruvian families. Los Órganos is famous for whale watching (August-November) and deep-sea fishing, as well as kitesurfing.

Unfortunately, the lodging here was in the mid- to upper-range price range and not for me, so I decided not to stay for long.  But they are perfect places to escape for the day from the mayhem of Máncora.

Cabo Blanco

Cabo BlancoCabo Blanco, 29 kilometers south of Máncora, holds its place in history. In the mid-20th century, it was THE place to fish world-record sized black marlin and tuna. Today, it is host to one of the surfing camp Billabong’s most important international surfing competitions.

So from Máncora, I bused down to El Alto, then from in front of the city hall caught a pickup truck to Cabo Blanco ($1). The road descended a steep cliff to the beach below. I hopped off at the entrance to town, near a glass building. The path at one side headed south one kilometer to the Fishing Club. This was the exclusive retreat for the wealthiest U.S. families, as well as Hollywood and sporting greats. I slipped the caretaker a few soles and wandered the abandoned building. Room 5 was the quarters of Ernest Hemingway, who had stayed here for a month during the filming of The Old Man and the Sea in 1956.

I walked the beach into town. Blue-footed boobies swooped over the blue sea where windsurfers plied the waves. My destination was Restaurant Cabo Blanco (daily noon-5 p.m.). I wanted to meet Pablo Córdova, a former bartender at the Fishing Club. Over a delectable platter of chicharrón de mariscos (breaded seafood), he told me about Papa hiring local boats for a day of fishing and the kindly Mary (Hemingway’s wife at the time).

Chicharron de MariscosThe moderately priced Hotel El Merlín is the only place to stay now in Cabo Blanco, and in the low season ranges from $23 for a single to a double for $46, still out of my price range.

I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks: Either a place is “too cold” or “too hot.” Nothing felt just right. I headed north along the coast to search for the perfect place to relax and be close to nature – without the tourist hoards.

Punta Sal

Punta Sal, 23 kilometers north of Máncora, is a Peruvian resort especially popular with Limeños (residents of Lima). In recent years it has come onto the radar of international travelers. It has two parts: Punta Sal Grande and Canoas de Punta Sal. Fishing and snorkeling are popular sports here, as is board and kitesurfing. When the season comes, they say you can see the passing whales right from shore.

I hopped off the bus at the crossroads (Km 1187 on the highway) and took a mototaxi down to the beach ($4). A soft breeze was blowing off the warm, crystalline Pacific. The sea was edged by a beautiful, grey-sand beach scattered with large black boulders.

Most of the lodging here, though, are bungalows, spas and expensive hotels with all-inclusive packages (including a Decameron). Even camping is a pricey deal for bargainer’s Peru – and you must have your own tent (which I didn’t). There really wasn’t a place for a solo budget backpacker to stay.

With a sigh, I hoisted my rucksack and caught the next bus passing along the highway.

The Pan-American cuts across this northern desert. At times the sea shimmers right outside the bus window. Dozens of fishing villages and occasional eco-lodges slip by. Cancas, Alcapulco, Punta Pico, Bocapán, Zorritos.

Zorritos

Sunset over ZorritosSome 70 kilometers north of Máncora, I finally found the place I was looking for: Zorritos!

This village stretches five kilometers along the highway. The fine, grey-sand beach extends for over 30 kilometers. The town has a small local market and a fish market, small restaurants and shops – everything except a reliable place to withdraw money. (Tumbes, though, is only 20 minutes away.)

I checked into the paradisiacal Hostal Grillos Tres Puntas just south of Zorritos. This hand-made eco lodge has everything from camping to caravan parking, and private bungalows with a porch. The beach has kiosks with hammocks. León, the owner, prepares fantastic Peruvian and Spanish seafood dishes. He also raises viringos, the native Peruvian hairless dog.

Over the next few weeks, I enjoyed the tranquility of Zorritos. I spent hours walking the beach and observing the multitudes of seabirds. Just five kilometers south is the lagoon at Bocapán.

One day I hiked with several others to Los Hervideros, an hour away. We spent several hours soaking in the warm, natural pools, smearing the medicinal muds across our bodies. We returned on foot, and washed ourselves in the sea. (A mototaxi for two, round trip with one hour wait, costs $8-11.)

Another day trip was to Tumbes (27 kilometers north). The landscape changed from sear desert to lush jungle. I then took a minivan to Puerto Pizarro (11 kilometers north of Tumbes), where local fishermen take tourists through the mangroves to visit several islands teeming with pelicans and frigate birds. The trip ends at a crocodile nursery, where the endangered species is being bred. Minibuses depart from Tumbes the corner of Av. Mariscal Castilla and Calle Juan Francisco, and cost $0.80. The mangrove tour costs $5.50-$25, depending on the number of passengers (negotiate hard). Entry to to the crocodile farm is $1.50 for adults.

For a nighttime excursion, we hired a vehicle ($4 per person) to take us to El Tubo, another hot spring. From the shadows, the desert foxes (zorritos) watched us. Afterwards, we sat around a bonfire on the beach.

But my time in this Eden was coming to an end. It was nigh the hour to hit the road north, to Ecuador!

Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored eight guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 100 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; twelve anthologies and nine chapbooks – including the new collection of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014). For the past decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.

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