Mancora, Peru – Not Your Average Beach Town

The beach town of Mancora, Peru is as rowdy and boisterous as nearby Vichayito was quiet and tranquil.  Mancora doesn’t have a particularly pretty beach either, but then again, people don’t flock from all over the world for the picturesque beaches (though there are plenty very nearby) .  They come for the surfing and nightlife.

Mancora... Surf Town

Here, in Mancora surrounded by desert on one side and a beach on the other, it’s easy to feel both cold and hot at the same time, at least this time of year (Peru’s winter). The sun beams down and trust me, will burn you, yet there is always a brisk, cool breeze blowing.  Indeed, after attempting to surf my 1st day here, I never got 100% warm again.

Kon Tiki - Desert on one side


View of beach and town on the other

I stayed at the beautiful if rustic Kon Tiki bungalows, which sits high on the hill with an incredible view of the town and beach below. To get to town and the main beach area from Kona Tiki you must walk down a twisting and turning (and if you happen to be very intoxicated or really clumsy, potentially perilous) path of steps and dirt until you get to the bottom. About a 2 minute hike down.

My bungalow @ the Kon Tiki

Once at the bottom you navigate through a narrow alley, which in the almost pitch black darkness of night, could feel intimidating for 1st time visitors, but is completely safe, as families live all along the alley.

The biggest danger was the unpredictable, small and old dog who couldn’t figure out if he liked me or hated me. Half the time he growled, barked and acted like he wanted to rip my face off and the rest of the time he seemed to forget the previous incident and completely ignored me as if I never existed.  To steady my nerves each time it was time to pass the old guy, I made a game out of it trying to predict what his response would be. Though I had a 50/50 shot of getting it right, I rarely was.  By the end of the trip I had figured out he was harmless.

Loves me? Hates Me?

Of course climbing back up the Kon Tiki is not as much fun as going down and even a seasoned runner like me was a little winded when arriving at the top, but it was good exercise. Sort of like living at the top of a 5 story walk up in New York City, without all those silly handrails to hold on to.

Besides the surf and partying, the locals here are perhaps another draw. While not aggressively friendly, they are not overly pushy either. A simple “no gracias” is all it takes for someone to stop offering to sell you something.

The path to town from the Kon Tiki

I also couldn’t sense any of that awkward tourist vs. local vibe you get in some heavily traveled areas.  The locals are laid back and very non aggressive and the tourist, which consist largely of young backpackers, hippies, surfers and the occasional older tourists from around the world, seemed for the most part respectful in return.

Fresh food in Mancora

Speaking of hippies, I discovered a lovely Vegetarian restaurant called Angela’s and it became my top stop for almost all my meals while in Mancora. They had a good vibe and killer Wi-Fi but the main draw was the food which is healthy and like most things in this town, very reasonably priced.  Their vegan sandwiches were as big as a plate and cost about $3.50. Maybe I’m making up for lost time after so many months of struggling to eat healthy in Latin America but I do believe I’d never eat meat again if I could simply take the chef/cook from Angela’s back to the U.S. with me.

Moto Taxis - Cheap way to get around

On the weekend I was there, I was approached by a trio of Argentine teen girls from Cordoba who were selling “happy cookies” to make some travel money. If you don’t know what makes cookies happy I won’t spoil the surprise. The girls seemed to be traveling with a larger group of gypsy like Argentines who were performing music, comedy, fire dancing and more for tips. A traveling motley crew of Argentine circus performers if you will. The entertainment was actually pretty good and well worth the $2 soles (about 66 cents) I provided as a tip.

Mancora was pretty much in a party mood every night of the week that I was there (Thursday-Monday) and if you’re not, well tough luck. Try though I tried I could not get away from the discos throbbing beats and incredibly annoying music (all music is annoying when you’re trying for some shuteye no?) no matter where I went. The noise traveled so well up the hill to Kon Tiki that some nights I literally felt I was in the disco. Ear plugs, especially purchased for the occasion, did little to stop the assault of cheesy electronica and reggaeton beats vibrating the walls.

Moncora's main beach

Now it may be that most of the townspeople don’t mind this assault on the senses in the middle of the night EVERY night. Maybe they’ve built up a tolerance to the noise by now or maybe they see it as a tradeoff for the tourism dollars that float Mancora’s way. But I couldn’t help but feeling the whole town of a few thousand was held hostage to a few people (maybe a hundred?) who wanted to party the night away listening to God awful music turned up to well beyond necessary volume.  Mancora’s mostly bamboo structures do a poor job of keeping noise out (or in, if you’re the disco in question) and you’d think there would be some kind of town ordinance to control the sound at least a little.

What Mancora has going for it, besides its surf and party vibe is its size. It’s big enough to offer almost anything a traveler can want… a bus station with frequent service, cheap moto taxis to get to surrounding sites (isolated beaches, thermal mud baths, etc), good restaurants, regrettably the aforementioned disco row and even a small gym where I had a decent workout.  Yet it’s small enough that if you stick around for more than a couple of days, you’re going to make friends with some locals for sure and you can get from one side of town to the next by foot.

As a result, Mancora feels really safe and what parts aren’t safe for tourist (isolated beaches on the fringes of town), the police warn you away from. They even have one poor soul who patrols that part of the beach to warn unsuspecting, wandering travelers like me away and back to my assigned beach area.

Yes, Mancora has a lot to offer but quiet and tranquility on the weekends (or possibly any time) isn’t one of them.  But if your easily bored by endless stretches of isolated beaches and crave things like fast Wi-Fi, excellent food choices and a pretty iron clad guarantee of a party going on no matter the time of year, then Mancora is your spot. Just remember to bring your earplugs!

Argentina South America

Day Tripping in Argentina – Tigre & San Antonio

Buenos Aires is one of those cities where you can spend a week, a month or several weeks and never get bored. But like most metropolitan areas, after a few days of hectic city life, you may find yourself itching  for more leisurely and tranquil pursuits.

Some Entertainment in Tigre

Now if you’re like me on many of my trips and don’t plan ahead, it’s really not a problem. You can simply take the train or bus on a plethora of day trips or weekend getaways. But be forewarned, many Porteños (the nickname of Buenos Aires’ residents, which roughly translated means “from the port”) may have the same idea, especially during their summer vacation months of January and February.

We decided to head to the town of Tigre, which sits on network of river streams and deltas just an hour or so away from Buenos Aires by train. When we arrived to the train station, there were rows of TV cameras, police and throngs of people milling about outside of the train station. Turns out our luck had taken a turn for the worse and our flexible nature was to be challenged when we learned that the train workers were on strike and the station closed for the day.

A Summer House in Tigre

As much as this interrupted our plans, I tried to imagine what it was like for average Argentines who rely on train transportation to commute to their jobs, for those fortunate enough to be gainfully employed. Since the days of the Military Rule in the 1980s when dissent carried a much heavier price, strikes and protests have been a big part of Argentine culture.

We quickly changed our shooting strategy and decided to shoot some of the other sites around Buenos Aires. We headed over to the modern barrio of Puerto Madero which is full of upscale apartments and hotels, restaurants, bars and museums. Later we traveled to the outskirts to visit the city’s China Town and Jewish section to get an idea of Buenos Aires’ diversity.

The Delta River Town of Tigre

The next day our trip to Tigre was back on and this time the trains worked like a charm. The train ride was lovely and we were entertained by an elderly harp player on the ride over. Tigre lies on an island created by several rivers and is a popular spot for locals. Some have lovely summer homes on the river while others rent places for a night or two if they need a quick weekend away from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. Others, like us, are simply day trippers.

Tigre is also a town where people work and live and carry on with their daily lives (they have a decent soccer team). There is a pretty good downtown where you’ll find an amusement park, a fruit market that seems to sell everything but fruit, and several other things to do. My favorite was the Yerba Mate Museum which was small but very cool and helped me understand why sipping Mate tea is such an important part of the culture for people in this part of the world.

Yerba Mate Museum - a must see in Tigre

You can travel up and down and around Tigre by boat and the river is a lot like a freeway, with row boats, motorized speed boats and bigger boat taxis like the one we took, all vying for space as they travel up and down the river picking up passengers and dropping them off at various points along the way.

Glass Enclosed House on the Banks of Tigre

After hitting the Mate museum and a few other popular spots we called it a day. We were due to take another day trip to San Antonio de Areco the following day so we took a late afternoon train back to Buenos Aires where we arrived in time for dinner (which in Buenos Aires can be 10 or 11 pm).

The beautiful square in downtown San Antonio de Areco

The next day it was up early to catch the bus to the town of San Antonio de Areco, a small and lovely little gaucho (Argentine Cowboy) town a couple of hours by bus from Buenos Aires. After the bus company inexplicably and unceremoniously dropped me and the crew off at the outskirts of town, we took the long, hot dusty walk to the center of town where the town square and church are located. From here you get a sense of the draw for travelers as San Antonio is a quaint and tranquil little town popular with tourists and locals alike.

There is a gaucho museum on the outskirts of town and in the center of town within spitting distance of the square is the Draghi Silversmith Museum which is not to be missed.  Juan José Draghi was a master Silversmith who founded the shop which later became a museum and features incredible pieces of his family’s work. These days his son and daughter keep the Juan Jose’s legacy alive.

They have produced customized silver pieces for many famous people the world over including former President, George H. Bush. They toured us around and showed us how they are keeping their father’s legacy alive by continuing to create incredible works of art using his time honored techniques.

The Draghi Silversmith Museum

If you decide to stay in San Antonio over night, the Draghis also have a beautiful little bed and breakfast just behind the shop and museum. It looks like a lovely place to stay the night and experience the tranquility of San Antonio.

But most people visit San Antonio to ultimately visit one of the many Estancias or ranches that still operate in the region. We decided to visit El Cencerro, a lovely working estancia about 30 minutes away by taxi from San Antonio. El Cencerro is owned by a friendly couple Eduardo and Liliana Herbstein who personally host travelers during the busy summer months and on weekends.

Taping the local critters at El Cencerro

The ranch takes it’s name, Cencerro, from the bell that is used by Gauchos to tame horses. El Cencerro was recommended to me by Frommer’s  Buenos Aires guidebook writer, Michael Luongo who had helped us plan our itinerary. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had briefly known Eduardo and Liliana’s son, Leondro, who lived in New York City and once handled publicity for the boutique world music label “Putamayo Records”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been traveling and when I tell someone I’m from New York City, we were able to piece together a connection in a similar fashion (thought usually not so direct).  I’m not sure why, but for me it truly makes the world seem like a smaller and somehow friendlier place.

However, for Eduardo and Liliana, no connection is really needed. They could not have been nicer to us or their guests. They arranged for us to have lunch with them and a visiting U.S. family from Miami. The lunch was a typical Argentine meat lovers delight and a menu of what one would expect at a working cattle ranch, plenty of delicious barbeque meat, so vegans beware. There was also some excellent Argentine wine of course!

In full "Gaucho" mode with the crew of El Cencerro

Maybe it was the wine, but after lunch I succumbed to the urgings of the crew and the Herbsteins and dressed up like a typical gaucho. Then I was recruited by the real gauchos who live and work on site to help corral some cattle. I  even tried my hand riding a horse and roping a cow. My Tennessee farm boy background didn’t really help. Too many years of city life had made me soft I suppose.

Later Eduardo took us on a short tour of the nearby town of Capilla del Señor, one of the oldest towns in all of Argentina. From there we saw a couple of big hot air passenger balloons floating in the distance giving some lucky travelers a birds eye view of gaucho territory.

El Cencerro's pony is for kids... and greenhorns like me!

Back at El Cencerro, sipping Yerba Mate at the end of the day with the our new friends from El Cencerro and watching an incredible sunset against the backdrop of cows, horses and windmills gave me an incredible feeling of tranquility and wishing we could stay longer. But alas, we had to say our goodbyes and we took a late night shuttle taxi back to Buenos Aires where we were to regroup before heading out to the lovely Salta Province.

If you are ever in Buenos Aires for more than 3 days at a time, I highly recommend taking a day trip, either to Tigre or to El Cencerro just outside of San Antonio de Areco. It’s a fairly quick, easy and inexpensive way to get a taste of life for the other half of Argentina’s inhabitants who prefer the rural life and the simpler pleasures of life outside the bustling capital city.

Beautiful Summer Sunset at El Cencerro