I paddle hard and catch a five-foot wave. The only problem: I’m riding it crouching down, occasionally clinging to my board for dear life. Then I bail hard, scraping my foot on a rock. Okay, so I’m no Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush. But after planning my last six vacations around surfing, I’m definitely improving, so I still feel content and accomplished as I wade out of the water to where my boyfriend, Sean, has laid out our white beach towels. I recline beside him on the sand and dreamily watch the pro wave-riders catching the last of the sunset session. And to think I went from trekking through the cold Andes to sunning myself on one of Peru’s endless beaches in under two hours.

Confused? Many people are when I tell them about Máncora since, for most travellers, Peru is synonymous with Machu Picchu. But I’m a water baby, so even though the city in the clouds had long topped my bucket list, I couldn’t bring myself to fly south solely to hike the Inca Trail. You can imagine my elation when I discovered Máncora, a once-sleepy fishing village below the equator that has turned into a tropical haven with a luxe hippie edge, with everything from stylish restaurants to boutique wellness centres to rickety bars that moonlight as clubs.

In the 1950s, Máncora was a glamorous getaway where Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and John Wayne would sip pisco sours—Peru’s national cocktail, made with a heady brandy—and dance by the pool of the nearby Cabo Blanco Fishing Club (the very place where, legend has it, Ernest Hemingway managed to pull a 300-kilogram marlin from the Pacific). Today, the club is crumbling on its sandy perch, a romantic relic of an It destination that is now having a second act, thanks (in part) to having one of the world’s longest waves. And with the surf crowd come the tourists and the dollars. Máncora is on the cusp of “hot”—think Bali or Thailand 20 years back.

My foot is still sore after my bumpy ride, so I retire my surfboard and put on strappy sandals for dinner. The town’s main street is overflowing with buskers and vendors; between juggling knives and grilling corn, they greet us with a relaxed bienvenido. Sean’s kryptonite is street meat, so he drags me to various barbecue stalls. (They are everywhere.) I prefer my meal on a plate paired with a cocktail, and every smiling face points us to La Sirena d’Juan. It’s the only restaurant in town where you need a reservation, but Sean’s Australian accent wins the host over and we snag a table on the quaint second-floor terrace. The menu is Peruvian-Asian fusion, and chef Juan’s take on ceviche—served with sweet potato and giant corn—is delicious, especially when washed down with a passion-fruit pisco sour.

At night, revellers at Máncora’s dozen bars spill out onto the sand. As much as I love dancing under the moon, waking up to techno isn’t my jam. So we opted to stay a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away from the action at KiChic, a boutique wellness hotel with nine suites, a yoga studio overlooking the ocean and a vegetarian restaurant that uses only local ingredients. The hotelier, Peruvian Cristina Gallo, used furniture and art she collected during her travels to turn her home and manicured garden into an elegant and airy retreat that’s inspired by the Japanese word ki, which means “energy.”

Over our morning smoothie bowls the next day, we meet Gonzalo, who runs Oceanica, a marine-excursion company. Although there are plenty of boats offering snorkelling day trips, Gonzalo’s is one of the originals and his niece is a marine biologist, so they know the water well and pride themselves on environmental conservation. When he offers to take us out to see humpback whales, dolphins and sea turtles, it’s an obvious yes. Twenty minutes and one beer (for us) into the ride, Gonzalo anchors and urges us to jump in. Before long, we’re surrounded by sea turtles. (Fishermen have been tossing chum into the ocean for decades, attracting these gentle creatures.) One swims up to me, giving me a quick once-over before playfully nudging me with its fin. They’re just as curious and eager to swim together as we are, so we do. I may not have tackled a barrel wave, but right now that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.