On Mancora and Microcosm

Máncora… I don’t even know where to begin. After rolling northwards some 1160 km and 19 hours on the Panamericana Norte from Lima, we stagger out of the coach bus into a reed-and-bamboo terminal. It’s not quite 7am. As if rushing to fill a vaccuum void, the bus air, all polyester-velour-and-body-heat, exhales us into the warm tropical morning. Blinking hard and still awakening, I take a deep pull on my water bottle and see brilliant blue cracks of sky through the thatch terminal roof. In south and central Peru, the subtropical desert coast has been blanketed in a textureless, paltry grey fog for the past 8 months. Peruvians call this the panza de burro, or the “belly of the donkey.” Yes, we’d found plenty of quality surf down there, but the water had been cold and we’d been living in a more-or-less greyscale photo.

Last night, while we slept, we rounded South America’s westernmost point, passing from beneath the donkey, and out of the influence of the cold, southern Humboldt ocean current that causes the depressing 8-month weather pattern. We’ve now strapped our boards to the roof of a moto-taxi and are puttering our way along the main street towards our hostel. We pass a sunbleached Coca-Cola sign that reads in English:

MÁNCORA

SUMMER

FOREVER

Peru’s North coast is sunny year-round, and though it’s within the same map lines as the rest of the country, we’ve entered a distinctly separate space. The UV-drenched coast is peppered with small fishing towns, most of which remain fairly quiet to this day. Except for Máncora. Oh, Máncora, “Peru’s worst kept secret.”

Máncora too was once a tranquil little fishing hamlet. Today it’s inhabitants pull as many fish from the sea as they ever did, but the place is anything but quiet. Now having made it most of the way through its identity crisis, Máncora’s 9000 souls seem to accepted and embraced the town’s new duality, though some more reluctantly than others; I caught a man wearing a shirt reading, Máncora’ no se vende, Mancora se defiende.

I can see why he doesn’t want his town for sale. The main beach strip is lined two-storey tiki bars. They perch so close to the water at high tide the waves lap around their foundations and customers can't get in or out without wet feet. Not that anyone's wearing shoes here anyways. Jet-setters from Lima are sipping cheap drinks next to the bronzed local surfer-bros trying their heavily accented pick-up lines on two sunburned 19-year old Irish girls. The local year-round uniform is boardshorts and flip flops, apparel that hang in every doorway and shopfront surrounded in hammocks, fedoras, and fakes sunglasses. Moto-taxies, actual motorcycles, ATV’s and the occasional dune buggy dominate the sandy streets. There are strangely few cars here.

I rise early on our second day to catch a perfect, windless sunrise surf. On my way I pass three sun-blanched and dreadlocked gringos “wooks” as we affectionately call them still ferociously conscious on the seawall, bottles in hand, charging around the elbow of their bender. But, I can sense that their multi-substanced bliss is becoming a foggy stupor. They would last impressively long. It wasn’t until the early afternoon that I found them passed out in the sand, families stepping over their toxic bodies, surrounded in newly-arrived sunbathers. One had his half-shaven, half-dreaded head downslope of his feet, neck angled sharply, mouth open. Finding himself.

Sixty years ago, during one of his Latin-American stints, Hemingway visited Máncora for its famed sport-fishing. The town has since changed profoundly, but perhaps the hard-drinking, womanizing writer might not mind the developments. The shenanigans would at least provide a buffet of inspiration for his cynicism. Plus, the fish are still out there despite the havoc that climate change is wreaking on our oceans. This March, a 1500 pound Marlin was caught right off Cabo Blanco, a few kilometers south of town, and the commercial fisheries are still thriving. Though Hemingway penned The Old Man and the Sea from a desk in Bermuda, and set the story in Cuba, it’s reasonably speculated that he drew considerable inspiration from his trophy Marlin days here.

Our four days in Máncora pass by dreamily, comfortably. We spend much of our time on the waves, reading on the beach or at our hostel, visiting the market or the bakery. We lunch on bananas and bread and cheap beer. It’s the kind of place that is totally fun to visit, but would be very difficult, for me at least, to call home for any extended period of time. If it wasn’t for the surf, I don’t know how I would fare here. It’s surreal to surf in the hyper-productive, bathtub-warm waters. One day, there were swarms of tiny, un-stinging jellyfish forming dense clouds in the water. It was like paddling through bubble-tea. I picked them up and threw them at Kevin. On another day, at dawn when scores of fish fed along the reef that formed the wave, I remember standing up on a wave and surfing over a school of fish. I could see them fleeing left, right, and straight ahead in the clear water beneath my surfboard as I stood, stood on my feet, above them. It was incredible

We form fleeting community: the Chileans, Ecuadorians and Germans from our hostel; our Canadian friends staying up the beach; the owner of the barbecue we frequent for dinner; the surfer-bros we see so often out on the break during our multiple daily surfs. This type of community that forms and disbands is a known hallmark of hostel-type travel. It has it’s pros and cons, and I will not pass judgement on its authenticity. I have never backpacked until now, and my first observation is that it is an interesting experiment in human connection. First, put a bunch of people who don’t know each other in a novel locale they’ve never been. Then, remove the responsibilities of their lives at home, add a dash of party incentive and see how they behave.

While a good half of the people I encounter on a given day are there for a good time and not a long time, the other half are locals with a range of feelings about how their town is today. For some of the younger folks, they have only ever known their town as the surf-party destination, while others have seen their town usurped by outsiders. The restaurant owners and hoteliers have embraced the change and capitalized on the resort economy, while crusty fisherman adorn faded “Máncora is not for sale” t-shirts. In the collective interaction between the local and tourist population there exists ample quantities of both genuine hustle and genuine kindness, and discerning between the two can be difficult.

We’re moving into some quieter towns now. As the dudes and I pack away our boards and wetsuits on our last day, I think about this dichotomy I’ve drawn. I come to realize that perhaps kindness and hustle don’t even have to be mutually exclusive. Can local surfer bros resent us for crowding their wave, but still genuinely enjoy our shooting the shit with us out there? Can fisherman earnestly wish me a buen dia when I’m the very reason his town is for sale? I think so, but It’s all very complicated. I wonder if the wooks passed out on the beach find Máncora to be this complicated of a place? Better open myself one last beer.