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Beaches, Coves and Ports

By Walter Wust

Although very few people know this, the department of Arequipa has the longest stretch of coastline—little-explored, with a desert climate–of any department in Peru. Here, visitors can find over 600 km (373 mi.) of sandy beaches that never seem to end: rocky promontories and cliffs that suddenly reveal beautiful hidden coves popular with artisanal fishermen, fertile valleys that run almost to the waves, and the remains of pre-Hispanic cultures sitting just a few meters from the cold, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.



Lomas to Chala: Let’s take an imaginary trip along this mysterious and astonishing coastline, beginning our journey at the northernmost point, at the edge of one of the planet’s driest deserts. The adventure begins in Lomas, very close to the boundary with the department of Ica. Lomas is a small cove, cheerful and sunny, that has maintained much of the traditional air characteristic of old ports. It is also a great place for recreational fishing and diving. Further south is the sandy expanse of Sacaco, one of the largest prehistoric whale “graveyards” in the world, discovered by the Italian researcher and geographer Antonio Raimondi. The desert’s dry climate and the particular geological changes in this awe-inspiring area have conserved the skeletons of enormous creatures that swam the oceans fourteen million years ago, in a bay that once teemed with life during the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene. The Nazca plate raised this zone out of the sea, uncovering a number of species, including enormous sharks, colossal whales, giant oysters, and clumsy giant ground sloths whose remains now lie at surface level.

Continuing south across an immense sandy area, the towns of Acarí and Bella Unión sit like brief green oases, two peaceful localities famous for their olives and beans, as well as their residents’ hospitality.

Back on the road, the desert envelops the traveler, providing him or her with a striking view of the Yauca olive grove. The grove was created from a single olive tree stolen from a garden in the San Isidro district of Lima. Suddenly, the valley gives way to the sand dunes of Tanaka, a ghost town erected between the dunes and the sea. Sandstorms are so frequent here that the houses’ windows are boarded up. Afterwards comes a chain of mountains made of polished rock that reaches its highest point at Morro Chala, one of the few remaining traces of the ancient coastal cordillera that seems to have managed not to sink into the sea. A bit further south, there is a series of ravines with vegetation nourished by the fog water captured in the nearby hills. Here, the lomas ecosystem of Atiquipa flourishes. It is the largest of its kind in the country by area and has been providing humans with an abundance of resources since ancient times.

Next comes a string of spectacular hidden beaches. Located at the bottom of a narrow ravine adorned by twisted huarango trees, Jiway stands out for its blue water and white sands. Further on is Puerto Inca, also known as Quebrada de la Vaca, whose stone constructions are vestiges of what was once an ancient fishermen’s cove. It was supposedly one of the capes selected by the Incas to supply fresh fish to the sovereign in Cusco. This was also the Inca emperor’s preferred seaside locale to visit and an inexhaustible source of marine products. Today, visitors can still observe the nearby remains of the stone-paved royal road known as the Qhapac Ñan, which once joined the coast and the highlands, running from the district of Bella Unión to Cusco.

From Chala to Camaná: Just minutes from Puerto Inca is the port of Chala, once a major site of exchange and commerce. In the late nineteenth (En español dice XX pero creo que debe ser XIX, no?) century, steamships from England and Denmark would dock here. Few people have actually visited the stretch of beaches that come afterwards, but many have been astonished to catch a glimpse of them from the highway as it runs high above the sea. Continuing on our way, the coast becomes rocky as we reach the peaceful inlet of Puerto Viejo, followed by several gorgeous pebble beaches. If we look carefully, we can see curious shapes in the rocks that stand along the highway, including a silhouette known as “Our Lady” or “The Virgin.” Shortly thereafter, we reach the port of Atico, with its fishmeal factory and a cape popular with guano birds. The road along the coastline reveals a series of beautiful beaches with endless capes and islets frequented by shellfish catchers.

At Ocoña, the route shifts inland through the La Yesera pampa before returning to the coast near La Chira. From there, it continues through the pampa of El Huevo, an area of cliffs bordered by the desert, before finally reaching the fertile soil of Camaná. Here, as if by magic, the desert turns into green rice paddies.

South of Camaná and the port of Quilca—a cozy, sheltered inlet which the Peruvian Navy used as a base during the War of the Pacific—runs an almost virgin stretch of coastline, dotted with natural coves with calm, clear water. The granite rocks and hills of volcanic sand give this region an even more unique charm. It is one of the best-kept secrets on Arequipa’s coast: a fantastic rosary of “dream beaches” which could only be reached by sea until just a year ago. Notable among them are Honoratos Bay and the islet of Hornillos. The first is known for the two small sand beaches that sit at the back of a deep-water inlet, which offers excellent shelter from the wind. The second, to the south, is an enormous promontory of round rocks colored white by guano, used as a shelter by sealions, Humboldt penguins, guano birds, and sea otters. Further to the south are the coves of San José and La Francesa, which are part of a fortunate private initiative that fuses shellfish farming with ecotourism. There are few places that combine peace, isolation, and excellent amenities in the middle of a natural setting that leaves visitors captivated by its charms.

As the Panamericana highway leaves Camaná, it climbs eastward through a narrow valley known as Cuesta del Toro before heading into the pampa of Siguas. This is the traditional route to the city of Arequipa. After the junction known as El Cruce, the road once again descends to the coastline before reaching the ports of Islay and Mollendo. The latter is a traditional seaside resort whose long, gorgeous sand beach is lapped by waters as welcoming as they are chilly (especially in winter). Its history is filled with disasters: terrible fires (at least three of them) and the ravages of the War of the Pacific left this lovely coastal town destroyed. Today, however, Mollendo is an active, orderly locale whose traditional steep streets, with their view of the sea and the old pier (once reachable by rail from Arequipa), seem to be reborn each summer with the arrival of summer vacationers. Even during Peru’s early years as an independent republic, it is said that visitors of all different nationalities would disembark in Mollendo—by being lowered in baskets due to the hazards of getting too close to the coast—bringing with them news from different parts of the United States and Europe. Today, the city receives vessels from other continents and continues to consolidate its position as an alternative for cruise ships operating along the coasts of the South Pacific, bringing travelers to visit Arequipa’s most popular tourist attractions. The port of Mollendo, Matarani, is southern Peru’s largest port. Along with Marcona and Ilo, the Interoceanic Highway connects it to other towns across southern Peru and the neighboring countries of Brazil and Bolivia, forming a bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is an important economic hub, not only playing a key role in the export of ore concentrate, grains, soybean, and a whole range of products from the southern part of the country, but also acting as the port of arrival and departure for Bolivian cargo. All these factors make Matarani the country’s second most important port. Special note should be made of Mejía, the seaside resort par excellence among Arequipa’s most famous family names. Famed for its wild Carnival festivities, it is a pleasant, exclusive locale with many a wooden mansion worth seeing, as well as modern residences with all the amenities, seasonal summer restaurants offering excellent cebiches and shrimp dishes, and a number of no-frills lodging options. The beaches of Mejía—Chirisuya and three smaller sites nearby—all have cold, rough waters, although they are good for fishing sole and corvina. The area’s main attraction is undoubtedly its friendly, hospitable residents. All this and much more can be found on the coast of Arequipa, an ancient land of sand and wind, rich and generous seas, imbued with a volcanic heritage that gives it its strange and ever-changing character.