Journalist Laura Holt details her trip to the lesser-known Peruvian coastline in the Financial Times.
Jetlag has got the better of me and I’m awake early. I pull back the soft, muslin drapes of my suite and slide open the door to hear the wash of waves against the shore. I walk out along the sand, dimpled only by the footprints of seabirds. Then suddenly, the silence is broken, as a huge ribbon of pelicans flutter by, their wings large and audible. I look about for someone to share the moment with, but there’s not a soul in sight.
This is not a scene you normally associate with Peru. For years, the South American nation has attracted travellers to its Andes mountains, Inca ruins and Amazon basin. But few who journey to see the 15th-century citadel of Machu Picchu, ever reach the country’s considerable coastline.
However, all that is changing, thanks to the growth of one particular resort - Máncora. Situated in the far north of Peru, on the border with Ecuador, the town has gradually transitioned from sleepy fishing village to laid-back surf retreat over the last half century, due to its reliable offshore swell and tropical year-round climate. But Máncora’s latest incarnation sees it standing on the brink of becoming a fully-fledged luxury resort, after a wave of upmarket hotel openings.
After my pelican encounter, I sit down for breakfast at Kichic, one such new property which opened a year ago on the near-deserted end of Pocitas Beach. I feast on fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and freshly-made jugo verde (green juice), on a raised deck overlooking the sea.
Gazing out across the Pacific, Kichic’s receptionist Eduardo Mellet tells me that, from July to October, you can often see humpback whales cresting the waters beyond the hotel’s door. The season being against me, I opt instead for a tour that explores another side of the area’s rich marine life.
Ursula Behr moved to Máncora nine years ago, after working as a dolphin trainer in Lima. She had originally visited Máncora as a surfer when she was 16, camping out on the beach every New Year’s Eve. Now in her forties, she recalls that at the time: “There were no hotels, no electricity and everything was served warm – the only thing that was fresh was the fish!”.
Gravitating back with her husband, she realised that while the town had come a long way, there were still few tour operators. It was then she set up Iguanas Trips and started offering kayaking excursions along the coast. Eventually, she discovered giant sea turtles on one of her outings and used her knowledge as a dolphin trainer to start swimming with them.
In the shallow waters off El Ñuro pier, they begin to emerge. First one. Then several more. Finally, there are 15 swimming around our boat. There are estimated to be 500 of these graceful giants around Máncora’s waters, but only a handful are inquisitive enough to come this close. Insulated in neoprene, I flop into the water and swim, for an hour or more, eyeball-to-eyeball with giant green turtles.
It would be easy to spend hours lazing on the beach Máncora, but one day I decide to hit the surf. And who better to teach a novice like me than Pilar Yrigoyen, a former Peruvian national champion, who now runs classes out of Del Wawa hotel and restaurant. Despite much undignified spluttering and nose-diving, I manage to stand up – which may have had something to do with Pilar kicking like the clappers behind me. But that’s the great thing about Máncora’s swell – the waves aren’t so large as to be intimidating to novices, yet are reliable enough to keep experts coming back.
Back in the bustling heart of town - where rickety, three-wheel mototaxis whizz passengers along the Pan-American Highway, between the pueblo and Pocitas Beach - I check into another new retreat. Of all the places I stay, nowhere signifies Máncora’s upmarket aspirations more than DCO Suites, a sleek, Ibiza-like property, where house music wafts by the pool and Balinese-style beach beds line the shore.
However, Máncora isn’t entirely the creation of outsiders. It’s still very much underpinned by an authentic, local community that lovers of the rough-around-the-edges Latin America will adore. It’s there in backstreet cevicherias like César’s, a no-frills restaurant tucked away behind the market, which serves the best seafood in town. And it’s there in the people singing Spanish-language songs outside their houses on Sunday afternoons. For Máncora has managed a trick that few other resorts pull off – to shift from fishing village to surf town and finally a luxury resort – without compromising its original character. Like the surfers off Pocitas Beach, it’s just happy riding the wave.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Financial Times’ travel section on 14 March, 2015. Read full feature online here.
Laura Holt is a freelance travel journalist and writer of the Holt Who Goes There blog at www.laura-holt.com