The last time we spent time on a beach was in Costa Rica. Peru has over 1400 miles of coastline. After over two weeks in the mountains, it was about time to visit some of its numerous beaches.
As we drove from 10000 feet to sea level, green peaks and farmlands were replaced by one big desert. It is tough to be poor in the desert. One can’t even keep a few basic livestock or tend to a small plot of corn. I can’t really say that we liked what we saw but we would find the redeeming factor of the coast very soon.
Our first beach town was Huanchaco, a popular vacation spot for gringos and locals. But the beach was not that nice. And the water was freezing. Still, we spent three days there. First, beaches make kids and dogs happy. Sand, mud, rocks, sticks, sea glass, shells….the possibilities are endless. Second and most importantly, the food was great.
Peruvian dishes have been impressive since we crossed the border. More herbs, spices, influences from around the globe. And now finally we were back on the Pacific Ocean, home to all the seafood dishes we had only read about since before the trip. Honestly I cannot think of one Chinese person I know who is not crazy about seafood. So it was about time to indulge in it every day. There was the classic ceviche with lime juice and onions, tiraditos which are like ceviche in different sauces, octopus in sublime olive sauce, fried seafood bits served with a tomato and onion slaw called jalea. The last country where we ate a lot of seafood was Mexico. Mexico was good. But hands down, in this regard Peru is far superior.
In Huanchaco was also a number of jewelry-making travelers. I don’t know what else to call them….but throughout our travels we have met many long-term travelers who make a living selling handmade accessories. Some of these independent and creative spirits are actually quite good. There was not much else to do so we hung out at the jewelry stands for hours at a time. We bought a couple bracelets from a Bolivian woman who told us that she got her start with just two simple bracelet designs. She was backpacking for the first time and sat next to another traveler on an overnight bus, who taught her how to knit her first two designs. And that was eight years ago. I have learned that traveling can be very very cheap.
Jamie is now one year and eight months old. In the past couple months the brothers have started to really play together, which is the funnest and most heartwarming thing to watch until it all blows up which is probably over half of the time. How well they play generally depends on Ty’s mood.
The next beach town is further down the coast towards Lima called Tortugas. It is a quiet fishing village with a rocky beach and a lot of seafood restaurants. By this time we were in love with Peruvian seafood. It is a losing battle for us to take a picture before we touch the food. Most times we don’t remember until it’s all over. The fried fish we had in Tortugas was called chita. It was THE BEST pescado frito we have had on this trip. The best, not one of the best.
We also had ceviche, very good, and another typical Peruvian dish, the seafood rice, arroz de mariscos. We have had this dish many more times since and still think that this little restaurant with plastic tables and cement floor, Costa Azul, had the best one, better than all the paellas we had before too. Unfortunately there is no picture of it. The picture would not have done it justice anyway. It was the way they infused each grain of rice with the essence of seafood. It’s sad to think we may not have pescado frito or arroz de mariscos like these again.
From the Tortugas fishermen we bought a fresh octopus that we would later make into ceviche ourselves, and a flounder. Very cheap. Maybe US$10 for it all. They also harvest sea cucumber here. Peru exports a lot of it to Asian countries that consider this a delicacy. We ran into a seafood broker from Lima who told us there are factories in Peru that will first cook the sea cucumbers then dehydrate them before exporting them very expensively. In Asian cooking, it is generally re-hydrated and then steamed or braised with strong stock or other meats to infuse the sea cucumbers with flavor. It is a special occasion dish and actually very very good.
By chance we stopped at Cerro Azul for a driving break, a small beach town south of Lima with a decent sandy beach and again lots of seafood restaurants. Unlike Tortugas we got mixed feelings about the safety here. At first glance it seemed like another innocent little fishing town. Then we started noticing a few shady characters mulling about. And then we met a couple traveling on an electric bike who told us about a seedy run-in. In the end, we chose to camp at a spot right next to a couple houses and a restaurant. And that little restaurant, owned by an ex-anchovy fisherman, turned out to be one of the best ones we have dined at.
It is called La Anchoveta Azul, a restaurant that specializes in anchovies, of course. It was so good that we had anchovies for dinner and breakfast here. Fresh ones fried whole, dried ones tossed in a tomato, onion and avocado salad, and raw ones in a tiradito. We also walked away with a couple bags of dried anchovies and jars of marinaded ones, all made in house. It’s not the kind of food you can get anywhere else. We really miss this little restaurant.
And then there was Las Gramitas beach, a very quiet beach town a few hours north of Lima. This beach felt wild and reminded me of the beautiful Maine coast. It was windy so we spent some soles and camped at a hotel, which had good buildings for a wind block. But it was the first hotel where 20 soles ($6) for camping did not include the use of any water or the bathroom. Seriously, it was going to cost us another 15 soles for a 3-use pass for the bathroom. And washing dishes was out of the question. It wasn’t so much the money but the awkwardness. I get that it is the desert but if it is such a big deal, build some compost toilets! I digress. This beach was very nice in a wild, remote, curl-up-with-a-book kind of way. During the day, the colors of the white sand dunes against the blue sea were unreal, and the night turned hypnotic with the sounds of gentle waves rolling over pebbles as the stars filled the night. We chilled out here, flew a kite, cooked the seafood bought from Tortugas. If it wasn’t because of the water issue, we would have happily stayed for a few more days.