Peru’s coast has a varied environment and even more contrasting coastal towns. If you’re heading south to north up the South American continent, it’s likely you’re going to pass through this region at some point. So here are some of the post popular stops along the way:
The coastal town of Paracas is popular as a launching point for boat visits to the Islas Ballestas, which have been championed as ‘the poor man’s Galapagos Islands’. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far.
The boats take you out to two principle islands not far from the coast. These islands don’t seem much from afar; they are grey and barren and painted on top in guano; that is, bird shit.
Upon closer inspection, the black smudge on top of the rock is actually thousands of Peruvian boobies and cormorants huddled together.
Penguins can also be found waddling along this craggy island, along with plenty of pelicans. And below on the rocks are sunbathing sea lions looking confusedly at us gawking tourists as we approach them for the up-close-and-personal photos.
Granted, the sights are interesting, but the tourists seem to be more intent on observing the animals behind the lens of their cameras than appreciating the wonders of nature themselves.
From the Islas Ballestas tour, I literally hitched a ride from the Pan Americana Highway on a local bus into Lima.
Here, I stayed in Miraflores, the district seemingly reserved solely for wealthy Peruvians, expats and tourists. The plush suburb seems unnatural and unlike anything else Peruvian. Wide streets are lined with expensive restaurants and shopping centres trying to outstrip each other in grandeur.
The coastline too is tarnished by further commercialism; a group of travel buddies and I struggled to get snaps of the sunset without the plastic red-and-white striped signs of TGI Fridays.
Central Lima itself is a little better, but lacks the cultural or historical integrity of other Peruvian cities; you can barely picture this as the first colonial capital established by the Spanish conquistadors.
The buildings themselves are interesting, colourful and balconied, and scrubbed clean the closer you get to tourist centres. But in all, the metropolis was clogged with traffic and devoid of the kind of intimacy or personality I like to seek in a city.
Further up the coast is Trujillo. Trujillo itself has a wonderful central plaza, surrounded by vividly colourful colonial churches and other buildings and windows adorned with wrought-iron bars.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy the city centre for more than half an hour without being approached by Peruvian males, each wanting to either sell me a tour or seeking me so they could practise their English.
Trujillo has two saving graces: archaeological sites and Huanchaco.
Considering its desert landscape, the historico-cultural diversity of this area is astounding. Within the city limits, one can find the extensive sandy ruins of Chan-Chan, a collapsed pre-Incan citadel of the Chimu civilisation.
The maze of streets and plazas and buildings within Chan-Chan are sadly replicas in many cases, so you never know whether the carvings within the walls are 1,000 years old, or just five.
Huaca de la Luna
More impressive, in my opinion at least, is the Huaca de la Luna. This trapezoidal structure built into a rocky desert hill was constructed by the Moche civilisation between 150 and 800AD, making it earlier than any Chimu or Incan buildings. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much more than a huge hill of sand.
But the pyramid shape was formed as the Moche bricked in the former temple and built atop its foundations. So when archaeologists discovered the site in 1991 and removed the bricks, they found totally preserved and incredibly colourful and elaborate paintings depicting Moche beliefs and lifestyle, which tourists are now privy to viewing themselves.
Huanchaco is a beachside neighbourhood about a half hour drive out of town. It pales in comparison to other seaside towns, but was a welcome relief from the perpetual harassment I got in Trujillo.
The sand is a little grubby and the beach and town all cater tourists, with Western eateries, seafood shops and hospedajes (accommodation).
But you can’t grouch about sunsets colouring the sky purple and falling asleep to the sound of waves.
Mancora is typically your last stop in Peru. It has a reputation of beachside lazying and all-night partying.
Mancora for me meant buzzing, breezy mototaxis (Asian tuk-tuks), lazy sleep-ins, sunbathing poolside while sucking on fresh fruit juices, gorging on rich desserts in town with people I’d just met, and strolling along the beach in solitary contentment.
It was the perfect way to relax before entering the wonderful unknowns of a new country, Ecuador.
Get to know more about Peru
Now that we’ve covered the coast, check out some of the other beautiful hot spots you can see in this incredible country: