Between the border of Ecuador and Peru’s capital city Lima, there is a vast nothingness of cities cited on the gringo-trail, but just on the cusp of nothingness is a beach town called Mancora. Mancora, Peru, is only two hours from the border. It’s the farthest north recommendation by travelers and it comes highly recommended by guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and Fodor. Because of this, Mancora is a worn-in route— both heading north and going south. But Mancora is struggling with two apparent problems: mass tourism and unresolved crime.
More and more people are flooding Mancora’s beaches prompting bigger and better accommodations and entertainment, but the locals are struggling to reap the benefits and the city is struggling to keep up with increasing rates of crime. The use of counterfeit money is rampant in high-tourist areas, and everyone who has been in Mancora for longer than a week knows that theft is a routine part of the conversation here.
MANCORA: Costal Crossing From Ecuador— Huaquillas Only 2hrs From Mancora
8hrs Bus From Cuenca (Ecuador) $20
20hrs Bus From Lima $22
Most Popular Hostel (party hostel) Loki
Bright side: Fantastic beach
Downside: Super sketchy town
This problem of skyrocketing tourism in spots along the gringo-trail can go one of two ways. One, locals are accustomed or friendly to the uproar of tourism or two, the locals are ruggedly against tourism maybe even bitter towards the invasion of their culture. Crime in areas of high-tourism is not uncommon and this is the fowl tug between people who travel and people who occupy places of travel. It’s a complicated balance between the two worlds and in Mancora neither side is taking the time to delve more into the problem of why crime is so bad here.
The beach, which inevitably everyone heads to Mancora for, is in fact delightful, as the shallows of the water are turquoise and the sand looks like glitter when it mixes with the current just before the waves break—the water is warm. But the beach and the sunsets are the only things Mancora has to offer. When people talk about Mancora they’re specifically referencing the half a mile of coastline and about five blocks of the main road that make Mancora “Peru’s best beach town.”
When our night bus arrived in Mancora, it was 5am. The town was dormant and people were surely dreading the early call of Monday’s demands— it’s a beach town after all. We made it safely to our hostel, The Misfit, on the far end of town by tuk-tuk, long before check-in. We sat in the cold sand right on the beach all bundled up in defense against the mosquitos. The sky was still dark and the stars were boldly entertaining our gaze. We listened to the waves crescendo and watched the sunrise.
It was a perfect morning and a gentle welcome to Peru.
By 6am Rodrigo, the owner of the Misfit, welcomed us and allowed us to keep our luggage safely behind the desk. We couldn’t check-in until 2pm as the hostel was full— it almost always is. We headed into town with pockets full of precious mechanics and plastic to hit the ATM.
We were drawn in to the cadence of the waves, ecstatic to have finally made it to the coast after six weeks of mountains. The few buildings we passed along the shore looked cozy and we eventually took a left turn to head into town. The houses we passed were small square structures without any evidence of life inside. All the shops on our end of town looked like ‘local only’ joints. They just had simple plastic tables and chairs setup with small open kitchens that attached to their living quarters. It all appeared quite humble. The road was dominated by tuk-tuks and the only actual cars we spotted were police trucks patrolling the area.
We spent a few hours strolling the main road and eventually we toured the beach with an overly energetic character from North Carolina named Kevin who was barefoot and wired. He always had a cigarette in his lefthand and kept a bottle of rum in his right. Kevin sought us out on the street where his first question to everybody, whether they made eye-contact with him or not, was “Where are you from?” His favorite answer was America.
He is the only traveler we’ve met that actively and boisterously seeks out other Americans on the road.
Kevin engaged us in stories about his night, four grams of cocaine and lots of sex, as well as stories about his life back home, drug addiction and depression. His brutal honesty was unique and despite his obnoxiousness, we grew accustomed to his presence. We discovered that six months prior he bought a one-way ticket to Peru and set out for adventure only having $350 in his account. He’s been working and bumming every since. This bravery and faith in the unknown represented a small part of America that was actively pursuing their dreams, however wild and full of drugs that dream may be. This pursuit was one thing we had in common with Kevin—people back home thought we were crazy.
Kevin had a bus to catch by noon and by eleven our patience for his slurred speech had dried up. We wanted to head back to our hostel in the opposite direction of Kevin and inevitably a very different route than our way into town.
The houses we passed on our route were very different, dreadful worn down. The homes were skeletons of their original structures, absent of doors and with partial roofs. There was far more trash than any other road we had taken that morning. One plot of land was piled high with trash nearly the same size as the cement building next to it. This road was void of shops, strictly Mancorian. The just needed to find the beach to restore our sense of orientation. The oceans call was just a few blocks away and it felt strangely comfortable as we conquered the middle of the road passing a few kids playing in the neighborhood. We greeted a young man sitting still in his tuk-tuk on the lefthand side. He didn’t smile, which wasn’t uncommon we had noticed, but he simply nodded. After we passed we heard him shouting something we didn’t understand. We looked back to see that he wasn’t shouting in our direction. When we turned around we were surprised to find two men approaching quickly and wielding a gun.
I can’t recall if we even put our hands up or what they said. They used the gun, an old six shooter revolver, to gesture towards our pockets. Each one of them took one of us as their subject, pushing out their hands and waiting eagerly for our pockets to be emptied. The chubbier one with the gun stood directly in front of me and waited for the treasures my pockets would yield. Standing face-to-face, we could see that they were just boys, maybe 16. We knew it was best to give in, whatever they found or wanted, just give it to them, but initially we were hesitant. It’s not that we valued our iPhones or prioritized money over sanity, but it seemed unreal that two boys could have such power over two experienced adult travelers. It was unreal that two boys even had access to a gun or that in this so called paradise we were being robbed. We had just past children playing in the streets, elders occupying open doorways, everything felt normal as we had been walking, but it was obvious that out of all the people on this block, we were the only ones in disbelief. We had apparently brought it upon ourselves.
In the momentary refusal, the gun was held closer to my head. The boy was unsteady with his hand hovering over the trigger and a teenager with a gun seemed more dangerous than an adult. The value of life and the consequences of taking one felt like a lesson learned only with age. If they were willing to use a gun for intimidation, who knew how far that intimidation would go. We didn’t refuse any longer. It was clear that we were helpless to their greed.
They gleefully ran off with our goods: two iPhones, a debit card, and about $150—USD. I could picture them running away, stumbling over their feet as kids often do when they try to run too fast, but as we tried to give a description to the police, Tom and I struggled to come up with a unanimous identity. We’d been so stunned in the moment that details just slipped past unconsciously.
"This was the Wicker", Rodrigo told us later. In five years of being in Mancora he had never been to this part of town. The locals don’t even mess with the Wicker, but we had managed to fall victim to this venus fly trap our first morning in Peru.
In five years of traveling abroad we had never been robbed. We had heard different variations from travelers, but the definitive rhetoric about the aftermath was the same— the police can’t do much. In some cases the police won’t do much. Theft among foreigners is all too common in Peru with little reward for solving the case. This a strange thought considering all we see now when we walk around town is an abundance of officers— officials merely attempting to discourage crime, but more than likely benefiting from it.
This is both a pessimistic thought and an uncomfortable chance when traveling abroad— the police won’t do shit and the criminals know it. We’ve always viewed new places with an open mind and with an almost pathetic loyalty in the kindness of strangers, but sometimes a shitty neighborhood is just a shitty neighborhood and bad people are just bad people despite our best efforts to view them otherwise.
It’s a fact that neither of us ever wanted to admit, especially whilst encouraging others to travel. We wanted this trip to affirm the world as a safe and relatively peaceful place, with people that are caring and proactive. But the unavailing truth is the world is far more complicated than unilateral peace. The world is connected in a technological sense, but it’s a long way from being empathetically connected. The ugly truth about travel is that the good is often coupled with the bad and sometimes the bad is really bad.
We’ve always believed that anyone can travel. We’ve also assumed that everyone wants to travel, but we sharply realized that may not be the case. After being held at gunpoint and robbed in broad daylight, we’ve taken a different approach to the ideology of travel—it’s hard fucking work and it’s not a task that everyone wants to take on.
Everyone that does travel observes a different part of this truth. The struggle is in explaining to others why we keep going even after we’ve been robbed, cheated, thrown from a bus and eaten alive by mosquitos on this trip. We should have left Mancora promptly after the robbery if we had any sense. Instead we extended our stay here by four days. Some may call us crazy, but backpackers recognize this undefinable freedom that comes on difficult terms and not without struggle.
We can explain to others that travel is a valuable opportunity for self growth, an unforgettable education, and an experience that equally respects the journey as well as the destination, but that doesn’t get to the meat of why people backpack. It doesn’t explain how we can cope with robbery on the road, but back home it would have been a whirlwind of paperwork and useless prosecution. There’s something joyfully unexplainable about the dreadful nuances in travel. Perhaps it makes us appreciative of what little we physically have. Or maybe it’s uncovering how little we have to actually worry about. There are far more moments of pure beauty and simplicity that outweigh the difficulties of life on the road.
Travel is not always a vacation despite the days you actually get to unplug and soak in the sun. It takes an almost criminal amount of patience and strength to deal with the bullshit and not everyone can or wants to deal with that. Sometimes we whisper about returning to the safety of home, pondering the familiarity of certain luxuries, and we have every right to retreat. But we won’t. We’ll continue making mistakes and taking chances. We’ll keep moving.
We wanted to feel consumed by pity and anger after getting robbed here, we wanted to hate Mancora. We do hate it, but when we extended our stay we forfeited a little of that hatred. The Misfit was the only reason we stayed. Somehow the ocean and a rotation of foreigners in the hostel restored a minimal amount of faith in the town. We were beached for more than a week and with everyday our worries slowly dissolved. The waves took on our justified anger and instead left us refreshed. We’ve given into the sand and insanity that makes up Mancora. They’ve created a marvelous illusion in this town. It’s a tourist bubble that’s festive, almost artistic, but looking through the metallic surface we saw the unhappiness of the people and the corruption that continues to weave its way through life here. But we all smile. We all abide by the laws of our ego and perpetuate the cycle. Perhaps the beauty of this place is not because of its spot on the map but because everyone’s independent path revolves around one constant factor—the ocean. It’s what brings in the tourism. It’s why this town even exists. If corruption grows, if crime stops, if the town is washed away tomorrow, the ocean will still be here. Mother nature pumps life into this desolate place. And each day as the sun melts with the sea and the waves crawl up the shore it reminds me that a stolen phone is an inland problem for another day and for another trail.