Huanchaco, Peru: A Surfer’s Shangri-La

by Amy Rogers on April 3, 2013 · 12 comments

Huanchaco isn’t just another fishing village or beach resort town – it’s a low-key blend of both. And if you stay in just the right place, you might find leaving Huanchaco easier said than done. That’s what happens to many travelers here: they come, they stay, they never leave. It happened to us, and it can happen to you to (although we did leave eventually). My advice? Let it.

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After a quick stop-over in the lovely city of Trujillo, Adam and I came to Huanchaco with the intention of staying here for a month so that I could learn to surf. We ended up staying nearly 6 weeks, and the biggest factor in our prolonged stay was Casa Amelia’s, which became as close to a home as one could have on a long sojourn abroad.

Casa Amelia’s: the key to bliss in Huanchaco

There are oodles of places to stay – quiet traditional hotels and party-every-night backpacker hostels. There are camping hostels and apartments for renting long term. But the créme-de-la-créme of all of these is the Peruvian-owned, Dutch-run Casa Amelia’s.

It really is a charming place, as you can see below.  There are only two private rooms and one dormitory. Just a few steps from the ocean, and a five-minute walk away from the loudest, busiest part of Huanchaco, you’re close to the action but can sleep with only the sound of the surf in your ears.  Three rooms makes for a very peaceful stay and the inn-keepers, a couple named Renee and Paul, keep everything clean as can be.

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We had such a lovely time here! Renee and Paul even made Dutch apple pie for guests. They’d have the whole house smelling like cinnamon, sugar, and baked apples!  We spent many nights sitting in the common area enjoying a beer and chatting about life, travel, and surfing. Paul also bakes bread and pizza, which meant we enjoyed a number of “pizza nights” throughout our stay.

You’ll find Casa Amelia’s right on the sea front. It’s a place where one can watch the sunset from any number of hammock-laden vantage points.

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We met a fantastic group of people staying there for our first few weeks. After lots of shared meals, exchanging of recipes, discussing books, politics, and laughing at the differences in our cultures, it began to feel like a house full of family – not strangers. One-by-one, people left, and soon it was only us and new people coming and going. But we won’t soon forget our friends!

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Casa Amelia’s boasts a fantastic kitchen, and we cooked our way into food-stuffed oblivion nearly every night. Simple and delicious pasta sauces, tomato/basil sandwiches, eggs and toast, vegetable stir-fry dishes of colorful hot peppers and fresh cilantro, and smoothies every day! Did someone say basil-pesto sauce?
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Huanchaco Market

What bliss! Mountains of fresh, local produce! Fish, chicken, beef and other somewhat ambiguous-looking meats are available as well. We came here every morning and afternoon. I do believe it’s one of the nicest markets we’ve had the pleasure of visiting so far!

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Mango, banana, peach, strawberry, apple, pear, spinach, lime… You name it, we mixed it in every possible combination and drank more fruit in the last month than I’ve ever eaten in my entire life!

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We also ate  at the wonderful Otra Cosa restaurant. With a vegetarian menu and a huge menu del día, this place lured us back time and again. The apple pie is amazing (but watch out! Paul and Renee’s gives it a run for its money!) and you can’t miss out on the falafel.

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Huanchaco Beach

A true “Peruvian beach,” Huanchaco caters mostly to Peruvian vacationers, who flock all during the high season. People from nearby Trujillo also come here for the weekends quite often.

There are, of course, foreigners like us from all over, but not on a scale like Montañita, Ecuador or Máncora, Peru. Families from Trujillo and Lima can pack the kids and the dog up in a car, hit the beach, rent some chairs and umbellas, eat lots of junk food from beach vendors, drink beer, have a great seafood meal, have sand fights, take their photo with a horse (yeah, that’s a thing), and head home – the kids sleeping in a sand-covered stupor in the back seat and spending not more than S.50 for the whole day.

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When we arrived, kids were on their summer vacation, and the beach was brimming on weekends and weekdays. There was lots of entertaining people watching.

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I love how this little girl flies a kite made from a plastic bag! Way to recycle!

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Unfortunately, recycling is the last thing on most people’s minds here. Each day, the crowds leave behind an astonishing amount of litter. Although the city is making an effort to fix this by posting “no littering” signs and setting up copious amounts of trash cans, few people seem to care very much.

Families leave their ice-cream wrappers, cups, bottles, napkins, dirty diapers, fast food containers, bottle-caps, and cigarette butts behind them in the sand.  Each morning, a dutiful crew of cleaners combs the beach, but, sadly, their efforts end at the edge of town. A short walk away from town reveals a beach totally covered in garbage. It’s a pity.

Surf’s Up!

What Huanchaco really has going for it is its fabulous surf conditions.  There is a wave for every level – beginners, intermediates, and advanced – and I planned to cross off learning to surf from my bucket list. Upon the recommendation of Jim Cantrell, a 68-year-old American ex-pat who learned to surf and now lives in Huanchaco, I signed up for 28 hours of instruction at Surf School Muchik.

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Chicho and Omar, the brothers who run the school, are experienced and really care about getting you up on your feet. In fact, Chicho got me up on my first try!  I did fall on my face quite a lot after that, but little by little I got better.

Here’s the “beginners area” just beside the pier. The waves here are mellow and consistent.

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Picture this: It’s just you, a board, and mother nature out there. You rise and fall to a primordial rhythm. Beyond the break, sitting up on your board, you can just relax. The sun sparkles on the water. Suddenly a pelican, gliding low over the breakers, lands just out of arm’s reach and gazes at you with curious eyes.  You both bob in the water, you enjoying the slow burn in your arms from the paddle out, the feeling of self-sufficiency and strength coursing through your system. The ocean churns beneath you benevolently, but you feel its awesome power. It’s exhilarating. The pelican, in three flaps of its wings, has taken off and you begin to eye the oncoming waves.

Leaning forward and paddling while looking back, you’re pretty sure you’ve got this one. Suddenly, the board pitches forward angling down – push up! front foot thrust forward! The board stabilizes beneath you like a table and you’re flying – flying! Let me say it again, you’re flying above the water – speeding with the momentum of tons of water behind you.  You’ve harnessed the great power of an oceanic wave and through concentration, balance, and coordination you’ve become one with nature – a drop of human being on the surging wave of life under the shining sun with the biggest smile on your face, ever.

It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. Sit on the beach, look at the surfers out there. They’re smiling. I get such a kick out of just looking at their faces loving every minute of what they do. When you emerge from the water after a good session you feel powerful, energized, exhilarated.  Tired shoulders and arms and smile fatigue are a fair price to pay for such a natural high. Not to mention that your next meal never tasted more delicious nor the beer colder or better earned.

And here it is, Yours truly;  the culmination of a month’s worth of lessons!

Sharks? Nah. Jellyfish. Yep.

Several weeks into our stay, large swell conditions promised great surf-watching on the far side of the pier where the advanced surfers shred and do awesome tricks. But this swell also brought in something unexpected. A huge jellyfish bloom!

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And they were big! The water was packed with jellyfish. Nobody  quite knew what do except, well, stay out of the water. What would have been a day of the best surfers in Huanchaco showing off their best stunts turned out to be just five of the bravest souls paddling out in a jellyfish minefield.

That includes Casa Amelia’s very own Paul, who shrugged his shoulders at the mention of the stinging menaces and went out into the water without a bother.  I gotta give the guy some serious credit. That takes dedication!

Apparently, according to locals, a jellyfish bloom such as this one is exceedingly rare. Additionally, sharks and riptides are absent from Huanchaco’s beach. All the more reason why surfing here is a breeze.

Since that day, the vast majority of jellyfish have drifted elsewhere. But every day I still saw one or two. Thank goodness for wearing full body wetsuits! My first surf out, after the jellyfish bloom, I was terrified and whenever I saw one I kinda freaked out.  I kept imagining the horror of face-planting into one of these dinner-plate sized jellies.  I hauled up out of the water in bad humor: My fear had ruined my session. So I “hardened up” and focused on losing my fear. After that, I didn’t let them get to me.

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A smidgeon of history

Huanchaco was originally a small fishing community and for thousands, (that’s right, I said thousands) of years, the fishermen here have used these reed watercrafts, called caballitos de totora  to bring in their livelihood. They still use these boats to fish, but some of the fishermen have turned to giving rides to tourists instead.

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Huanchaco is also home to the second oldest church in Peru, which was built, according to Lonely Planet, between 1535 and 1540. The Santuario de la Virgen del Socorro is hard to miss. With a commanding view from the top of the big hill behind the town, on a sunny day you can see the whole sweep of Huanchaco. The sanctuary, cool and dark, is a fine place for reflection and meditation.

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Huanchaco also claims the (somewhat dubious) honor of claiming to be the birthplace of ceviche. True or not, this town has no shortage of places to find the delicious, pseudo-raw seafood dish. My general rule while traveling is never to eat seafood unless I can see the sea. Therefore, Huanchaco is the perfect place to chow down!

The ceviche here is pretty good, but I’ve noticed that no one serves shrimp ceviche, which is my favorite. However, I confess to being a fiend for onions, and as you can see, I was quite satisfied by the ratio of onions to fish.

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Canchitas are served in most restaurants before a meal. They’re like popped yet unpopped popcorn kernels.  Crunchy, salty, and seriously addictive.

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There are a few more surprises in store for you in Huanchaco. You’re in for a treat! Go ahead and sign up for email notifications so you don’t miss any of the thrifty drifter action. Don’t worry, we’ll never spam ya! And leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

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