After a long, colorless journey from Piura, the bus begins stopping at little beach towns along the coast. I warily take in my surroundings as my stomach sinks – have I really traveled this far to get to a beach in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere?
We finally pull into the terminal just as the sun is leaving angry orange streaks on the darkening sky. Exhausted and sticky, we flag down a young tuk-tuk driver with a trustworthy face and he scoots us to our hotel. He motions towards a few dusty alleys that we should avoid on the way, all of which seem to be identical to the next. How to identify one from the other seems to be a learned skill I don’t possess.
The hotel we had booked was full, so we end up staying in an overpriced hole at the end of the Malecón. Trying to overcome the initial setback, we dump our backpacks and venture out into the world of Máncora, a major destination in Peru for cheap holidays.
“Yeah man, all this used to be dirt,” he says, gazing towards the paved sidewalks, concrete amphitheater, and rows of handicrafts.
The old hippie from the Midwest, his long, dirty-blonde dreadlocks tied loosely in a half bun, is no newbie to Máncora.
“It wasn’t like this before. The Americans and the Europeans came and built hotels, but the people here still didn’t have sewage. I really feel for them. I slept on the ground for like three years in the mountains. Yeah, I know what it’s like.”
I mask my look of confusion, wondering what his extended camping trip has to do with waste disposal in Peru.
He had attached himself to a young group of artesanos 20 to 30 years his junior. As evidenced by his colorful Spanglish-speaking abilities, I doubted the group had much in common besides chipping in on high-grade Peruvian weed together.
The hippie continues his oration, quickly spurting out random fragments of memories collected here and there, the pace of which reveals he is a little bit lonely and happy to have an English speaker around. My interest wanes when he starts recollecting how back in the day “squares” would never smoke weed. Now, “everyone is doing it – actresses, politicians, you name it.” He is not impressed.
I tune out his ramblings and focus on the scene, trying to ascertain what the big deal is about Máncora.
Groups of excitable children line the amphitheater, watching in awe as backpacking fire twirlers and comedians perform for a few extra soles to pay for their overpriced hostels. A few are repeats from Montañita – not surprising, as both offer opportunities to make money off tourists, drink alcohol in excess, or a custom mixture of both.
On the boardwalk, clusters of international and domestic visitors stroll through the temperate night sampling the cheap street snacks while vendors wait in anticipation for their next clients. Tuk-tuks race along the street Asian-style, scattering pedestrians trying to survive the street crossing.
From my jaded position, I see Máncora as a haphazard dose of bedlam mixed with an excess of entertainment, consumption, alcohol, and hustling – in other words, just another overrated beach destination. Others might be seduced by its promise of sun, lawlessness, and good times.
But you tell me – is Máncora an awesome party or an overpromoted pit of hedonism?