Seafood, Soul and Surf: Is Máncora “the New Tulum”?

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It’s All About Isla Holbox, Mexico

Blanco in northern Peru is a dramatic spot to
behold a sunset. The Pacific stretches beyond the shore; vast,
awesome, tossing fishing boats on its surf as hundreds of frigates
and gulls rise and fall in Mexican-wave formation above the

This is where Ernest Hemingway came to film the Old Man and the
Sea and word has it he caught a 700-pound marlin during his month
stay at the fishing club where Marilyn Monroe was rumoured to have
joined him for pisco sours. Hemingway may be long gone but the
no-frills restaurant that served him still remains, where I sit
now, devouring a mouth-watering mero picante, raw spiced sea

While Peruvian ceviche is the buzzword in gourmet circles from
to Noho, people aren’t just drawn to this coastline for the
freshest catch; Cabo Blanco is fast becoming a surf mecca. “We’ve
nicknamed it the “Peruvian Pipeline” after the Banzai Pipeline in
Hawaii,” explains Enrique who runs the local surf and kite surf
school. Every January up to 100 surfers
compete for the Billabong Cabo Blanco Tube Riders Trophy. It’s a
risky business chasing that 3.5 metre wave; hit the rocks near the
shore at breakneck speed and you’re dead. For now the waves are
relatively calm and the winds too low for Enrique and fellow kiting
enthusiasts to set sail and paint a rainbow in the sky.

Thirty minutes along the coast from Cabo Blanco, over sand dunes
and past dramatic luna-rock formations you reach the town of
Máncora, fast gaining a reputation as “the new Tulum”. When I came
trekking to Machu Picchu in 1998, Máncora was a tumbleweed in the
desert, nothing more than fishermen shacks – palm-thatched cabañas
with running water only if you were lucky. Twenty years later
boutique hotels here are welcoming the likes of Alicia Vikander and
Michael Fassbender. The most exclusive oasis of all is KiChic. So-called because owner
Cristina Gallo goes by the nickname of Ki and “also because it
means soul in Japanese,” she explains. It’s also undeniably

Gallo bought a plot of land here in 1989 with the intention of
building a family home. “But then I realised that I had come back
from my travels in India, Australia and Central America with
all this amazing furniture, precious trinkets and so much life
experience that I decided I wanted to make it into unique hotel
which would bring like-minded people together.” Gallo seeks to
create a holistic experience (mind, body and soul) for guests to
savour a deliciously balanced menu, practise yoga and indulge in
massages, meditation and personal reflection.

Every detail in the hotel – from the entrance sign beckoning you
into “a life of balance” and the Thai cymbals atop the reception
desk to get staff’s attention – ooze decorum and wellbeing. A
courtyard of foliage leads to a living room open to the sea filled
with inviting leather sofas, tables adorned with beautiful Asian
vases and art books, glass bottles filled with seashells,
dreamcatchers swinging in the breeze. Grassy verges planted with
mature trees cherry-picked by Gallo offer plenty of shady chill-out
areas and slope down to a lap pool overhanging the beach. Once
through the little gate by the pool I spent an afternoon roaming
the golden beaches, reminiscent of Malibu and Montauk of old and
present-day Tarifa.

Returning from a 40-minute barefoot walk to Máncora with only
scuttling crabs and wild horses for company, KiChic laid on the most decadent
of sunset massages. By night the trees were festooned with lanterns
twinkling like fireflies. I gorged on the best organic food
provided by the hotel’s vegetable garden, along with
catch-of-the-day on a bed of saffron risotto, all served to a
perfectly pitched bossa-nova soundtrack.

Each of KiChic‘s stand-alone suites is
made of stones, locally sourced wood and mud, compiled in
traditional artisanal techniques with intricately woven sugar-cane
ceilings. All have a sea view and are furnished with antique
chandeliers and the finest linens, with expansive French windows
opening onto a private outside living space with loungers and a
plunge pool. I slept with my windows open and awoke to a symphony
of birdsong in the surrounding trees. Keen for a morning excursion
but too late for Máncora’s whale-watching season and too jet-lagged
for a yoga class, I decided to throw caution to the wind and brave
my first surf lesson. Thanks to the patience and encouragement of
my instructor, Maria, I managed to take at least a couple of waves
standing alongside the Máncora youngsters frolicking in the shallow

With a wedding descending for the weekend I bade a reluctant
farewell to the magical Kichi and took a short tuk-tuk ride to
check in to Villas del Mar. This rustic-chic
hotel, a short uphill stroll along a private track from the beach,
is more of a family-friendly affair; oceanside white sun loungers
face the Pacific blue below, while an open-plan bar-cum-restaurant
curves around a large decked swimming pool at the centre of the
hotel. Villas del Mar‘s eight rooms are
on two terraces leading from the pool, burrowed among vibrant
fuchsia bougainvillea and laurel trees hung with hammocks and a
vegetable garden, the latter a nod to the focus on home-grown

In the evening, the hotel summoned a tuk-tuk to deliver me to
Máncora’s main drag to meet Juanchi, Máncora’s most-famous
resident. This charming, smiling, softly spoken son of a fisherman
returned from his Cordon Bleu training in Lima to open the eponymous La Sirena
d’Juan restaurant. An international crowd descend on his
Florida-Keys-style eatery to devour Juanchi’s potent cocktails as
much as his celebrated food. When I tell Juanchi that his tuna
ceviche, dressed in black sesame and nori algae, literally melted
in my mouth he laughs and says that there is a reason for that.
“You have to understand the culture of fishing here, there is a
respect for the sea and the trade. It’s not about using massive
nets. We catch them, one fish at a time. They aren’t all tossed
together and damaged. That’s why my tuna tastes the best!” How
could any desert eclipse the ceviche? “Try this: cherimoya
surprise.” Mark Twain wasn’t wrong when he described the tropical
cherimoya, beloved of the Incas, as “the most delicious fruit known
to man”. A spoonful of custard apple fruit with the crunch of
pavlova and a twist of dulce de leche; totally divine. After a
whisky nightcap a tuk-tuk speeds me home, dodging foxes through the
undercliff up to Villas del Mar.

I wake to the waves and take my last breakfast overlooking the
Pacific in the company of four zoñas, mischievous chirping little
birds intent on stealing bread from my table. To describe this
charming Peruvian surf haven as “the new Tulum” seems a bit of a
shallow comparison, but 365 days of sunshine a year paired with
plenty of soul and buena onda means Máncora is no doubt headed for
similar levels of popularity.