I’ve travelled 19 hours on a bus from Lima and slept less than two, due to the unfortunate reality that screaming babies aren’t banned on Peruvian transport. 

As such, my humour was lost some time ago on Peru’s dusty Pan Americana highway – the only accessible route north into the province of Piura. But enough whining. From the minute I survey dawn’s pink sunbeams bouncing off the ocean, my faith in coming here is instantly restored. 

‘Here’ is Mancora, 1165km north from the Peruvian capital of Lima, and considered the epicentre of the country’s surf scene. Receiving two ocean currents year round, the cold Humboldt Current (14-19˚C) and warm El Nino Current (21-27˚C), the resulting surf is reliable and comfortable. In nearby Chicama, sets of waves in excess of 4km long are created thanks to forceful southwestern swells that push through the Pacific – that’s up to five minutes of continuous surf time. Strangely, though, this area remains largely off the international surf radar, even though it’s hosted some of the world’s best surfing talent in the past 30 years, including 2004 female World Champion Sofia Mulanovich, recent 2011 World Junior Champion Cristobal de Col and legendary 2008 Grand Masters World Champion Magoo de la Rosa, who firmly believes the waves here are “some of the finest on the planet”.

The historic associations of Peru’s surfing culture run deep. Many argue the birthplace of modern surfing lies in Hawaii, but scientific archaeology – the process of analysing and measuring salt erosion on ancient artifacts to enable deeper understanding of how our ancestors lived – indicates that it actually evolved on Peru’s northern Pacific coast in Huanchaco, where pre-Colombian cultures used reed boats, or caballitos de totora, to surf the waves. It’s still possible to see this mode of old-school fishing taking place here alongside semi-pro surfers, whose end game is not so much catching fresh grouper as it is the ultimate barrel.

One man who helps serious surfers (and mere amateurs, like myself) discover the best coastal spots is Marco ‘Pulpo’ Ravizza, a longtime surfer and tour guide whose specialist Octopus Surf Tours delivers the ultimate ‘off the beaten wave’ extravaganza. His trick, he tells me, is superior satellite forecasting for up-to-the-minute information on breaking swells and tidal shifts. But from Marco’s twinkly stare and obsession with the sea, I’m guessing it’s also a lifetime’s worth of intuition that lets him read the ocean like a second language.

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Day one is a trip to Lobitos, a good all- round ‘warm up’ beach some 40km north of Mancora heading towards the large coastal city of Piura. Boasting an impressive sand reef break with long lefts, these year-round waves can reach 3m (10ft), so a good technique and strong paddle is essential. I’ve got the latter, not the former, so Marco pairs me with one of his ‘personal surf trainers’ to help me better master my board. Having surfed since the tender age of 12, Carlos, a sunbeaten 28-year-old local, is the ripped by-product of somebody who regularly spends nine hours a day in the water. “One big mistake is catching the first wave,” Carlos advises, as we paddle over to 10 bronzed bodies who are floating in the ocean like a silent tribe. “If you keep patient, the right wave will appear with your name on it.” I quickly grasp that it’s impossible to learn how to ‘read the ocean’ overnight, but gradually, as the sets form, I notice the shift in power from the first wave to the fifth, and observe how fellow board-straddlers hold back from the earlier, deceptively strong waves until the one really worth fighting for presents itself.

Keeping a watchful eye over my posture, I’m told to tuck my tailbone in and go really low, like a snowboarder. It feels awkward (and great for my thighs). Like skiing, though, the closer to the ground and the further forward I lean, the better I own the board. A steady afternoon wind yields white horses from the south and indicates the arrival of some impressively high waves. Carlos feels my fear, breathes “muy tranquilo” in my ear and tells me to sit on my board and absorb the ocean’s energy instead. 

Heading back to Mancora town that night, we drop into the charming La Sirena (Spanish for ‘The Mermaid’). It’s the perfect spot to satisfy the kind of gnawing hunger that comes from battling waves for six hours. Run by local surfer and gourmet chef Juan Chi, the menu is a voyage into Peru’s renowned gastronomy with plenty of atmosphere to boot. 
I order a potent mango sour, then recline my aching biceps on to a retro red sofa in the cosy bar. 

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The next day, Marco drags me out of bed at 6am, bouncing off the walls from life – and caffeine? – and says:  “I check with my friend. There’s huge tubes at Piscinas for two more hours. You like to see?” Racing the 4X4 back down the PanAmericana, we take the turning off for Lobitos, hit a dirt track, then a sand dune and head into a desolate military facility requiring ID for beach access. We breeze through to join the other surfers, who skillfully glide through the barrels like bronzed darts. Marco turns to me and says, simply: “I live the really good life.” I don’t doubt it.

The good life, as it transpires, also extends to Mancora’s reputation as a backpacker party town. Perfect for kicking back after a hard day’s wave chasing, the main street offers a plethora of bars, eateries and entertainment for those craving a little aprés surf. I soon learn the nucleus of the small town’s party scene is at Loki, a large backpacker joint where twentysomethings mingle for hijinks and themed party nights with a similarly fun-loving bunch of nomads.

Knocking back pisco slushies and dancing to cringeworthy Bon Jovi classics is fun (for a short time), and at 2am the party shifts gear as the hostel decamps down to the beach for ear-blasting reggaeton and a generous dose of Rihanna.

I head home, however. For tomorrow is about a different kind of high; I’m off to visit Mancora’s resident shaman, Eloy. 

Shamanism and the concept of healing the physical through a purification of the emotional is integral to Peru’s holistic identity. For thousands of years, shamans have been visited for their ability to help enhance an individual’s consciousness in order to heal a person from sickness, addiction and mental disturbances. The catalyst that drives this ‘awareness’ is a selection of highly hallucinogenic plants from the Amazon. In other words, shamans get people high. But the difference between these guys and your average London dealer is the drug they use is legal (at least in Peru). That, and it’s taken as part of a carefully controlled ceremony, not before a warehouse rave. 

Entering Eloy’s peaceful farmstead the next evening on the outskirts of Mancora, apprehension and nerves shake my need for control to the core. I took LSD once – involuntarily (my drink was spiked when I was 15 and I was still seeing Pac-Man floating in front of me 48 hours later). So it’s fair to say my hallucinogenic career was pretty short-lived. Still, reports from others who’ve used the experience to free themselves from addictions, poor lifestyle choices and ‘clean their aura’ propel me to trust in the power of nature and give myself over.

Strictly speaking, you should detox for at least a week prior to taking ayahuasca. This means no sugar, meat, dairy, caffeine, alcohol or sex – stimulants are totally off the cards. I avoid telling Eloy I was out drinking rum till the early hours the night before. Not that I need to; his calm, observant manner suggests he’s got me pegged the moment I walk through the door. I later discover Eloy is a sixth-generation shaman, learning from his father and other established shamans to the north of Mancora in the Piura highlands.

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And so we begin. Local palo santo incense is lit and a pungent floral essence applied to my forehead and limbs. I sit cross-legged in the lotus pose, the dimly lit room filled with pictures of saints, owls and a rather disturbing eagle that I swear is staring into my soul. Eloy sits two metres in front of me. We both drink a small half-cup of ayahuasca, then another, then one more. I wait. Over the next 30 minutes, the sounds that were so distracting to me before – the bees and bugs, the banging of a loose gate, the sound of the river gushing nearby – grow eerily quiet. Then I notice Eloy has lowered his head and is breathing deeply into his diaphragm. Involuntarily, I do the same. He begins a slow, soft chant that rapidly grows into an arch of noise. Eloy has become my other, beside me, behind me, beneath me. His energy is everywhere. I learn afterwards the chanting element of an ayahuasca ceremony is what helps people ‘come up’. It certainly works in my case; I’m flying all over the place and for an unknown time, I lose all sense of spacial awareness and can’t feel the ground.

For an hour, two hours, who knows? I watch the shaman, who hovers before me waving his hands in rhythmic circles. “I see you as a television. I clean your static,” he announces, before guiding my hands upwards in a prayer position as the roof caves in and the entire garden – flowers, weeds, vines, butterflies and bees – soar through my fingers and make me gasp out loud. I’m then suddenly calm. The experience has been completely unique and that night, I feel totally at odds and disconnected from the party atmosphere of Mancora. My reflections come thick and fast, with one I can offer you. For those willing to ride the wave, Mancora’s experiences will doubtless take your breath away. 

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The Insider’s guide

Marco ‘Pulpo’ Ravizza is the owner of leading surf tour company Octopus Surf Tours. He gives us his pick of the region’s ultimate surf breaks and where to kick back after a hard day chasing the waves.

Pena Redonda (Round Rock)

“This is a great barreling beach break with short lefts and rights. It can be tricky to catch good conditions, so arrive very early before the wind picks up. When there are no waves at any other break you will find a little rideable wave here, especially when there’s a strong southern swell.”

Punta Ballenas (Whale Point)

“Close to Mancora town, Punta Ballenas offers a serious left-hand point break with a reef bottom. It’s shorter than Mancora but bigger and more aggressive, with the added bonus of throwing up the occasional tube. Don’t be under any illusions – this wave is intense and there may be a longer wait between sets than in Mancora. But it’s worth it. Take special care on the inside section, as there are jagged rocks that can catch you out if you’re not the strongest surfer. This is definitely a break for the more experienced.”

Cabo Blanco (White Cape)

“My favourite, and arguably the best, wave in Peru. This spectacular left reef break is strong, magical and tubular. Cabo Blanco is world-famous for its long, perfect tubes and I actually think it’s the perfect wave with heights up to 3m (10ft).

“Once the sun goes down I like to drop in and catch up with the local surf students at the laidback Kokopelli hostel, where a nightly happy hour means I can also enjoy a killer pisco sour for only 7 soles (£1.60). If I’m in the mood for serious food, my good friend Juan Chi at La Sirena always serves up a storm.”


KLM flies to Lima from London Heathrow daily, starting at £548 return. From Lima, you can fly to Mancora with LAN airlines for £80 one-way, or take the 19-hour bus journey on Oltursa for £65 return. 

 klm.com | lan.com | oltursa.pe

WHEN TO GO: Visit in April-September to ensure the longest waves and most reliable southwestern swell.

CURRENCY: £1 = PEN4.22 (Peruvian Nuevo Sol)

ACCOMMODATION: The ultimate place to party, socialise and lose sleep (and liver function), a night at Loki Hostel comes with a free ‘continental’ breakfast (be warned, this is a white bread roll). Dorms from £6pn.  lokihostel.com

For more laidback travellers, great staff and a damn fine pisco sour, try  Kokopelli Hostel at the same price.


SEE:  visitperu.com