New Year at the Beach

HUANCHACO, PERU — What better way to celebrate the New Year than at the beach? After spending the better part of two months in the mountains I was ready for some warm weather, so along with my new friends Cedd and Emma from the U.K. I decided to head for the oceanfront town of Huanchaco, along Peru's north coast, where sun, sand, and surf awaited us. (Hopefully...)

Huanchaco is famous for the tortora reed boats used by local fishermen. These boats have been employed here for generations, and if you arrive at the beach before dawn you can watch fishermen head out to sea much as they would have done hundreds of years ago. Built of tightly packed tortora reeds, the boats are flat in the rear, with a bow that tapers and bends upward. Fishermen battle through the surf with nothing more than a wide paddle made from split bamboo.

Shortly after sunrise the tortora boats begin returning to the beach, met by groups of kids in bright clothing and the occasional fish buyer. You can usually tell which boats have made a good catch by the number of kids gathered around them. Fish are sorted into reed baskets where they make a short trip up the street to the local market.

Sorting fish...

On New Year's Eve the beach lit up with hundreds of campfires surrounded by thousands of people. We found ourselves sharing a fire with a group of young Peruvians and some tourists from Mexico. The Peruvians provided beer, the Mexicans provided rum, and we provided fireworks. A riotous combination, I assure you. By 3:00 AM I couldn't stay awake any longer and went to bed, but was impressed that when I woke up at 8:00 AM the entire town was still in full party mode, complete with live music and dancing. Partying is never done half-heartedly in South America.

Sunset on New Year's Eve: The party is about to begin...

A day later I rendezvoused with my friend Marielle, a Dutch woman I met when I was in the jungle for the Great Amazon River Raft Race. Marielle is volunteering at a great home for children in Iquitos, Peru called Hogar Arco Iris; she also happens to be one of my favorite people in South America. Taking a well-deserved vacation from her work, she couldn't pass up the chance to lie on the beach en route to a holiday in the Galapagos Islands.

Not wanting to pass up nearby cultural opportunities, we visited the mud pyramid of Huaca del Luna (Temple of the Moon) and the mud-brick city of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. It's pretty amazing what these early civilizations were able to build out of mud. Covering 20 square km, Chan Chan is so big that even today you can clearly see its outlines from aerial photos - for example, here on Google Maps. You may also notice that the Peruvian government had no qualms about building a highway right through the middle of it.

Back a the beach we had mixed luck on the weather, but managed to get enough sun one afternoon for me to get a nice sunburn. And we did luck out with a couple of really spectacular sunsets.

The last night before leaving town I surprised Marielle with a box(!) of sangria and plastic cups on the beach at sunset. I'm sure she would tell you that I 'forced' it on her, but I'll let you look at the picture below and decide for yourself!