Somehow, the conversation had moved onto breasts.
“It’s really horrible!” Jenna said, picking up her beer bottle and looking at her husband’s face. “You’re in the perfect place to sunbathe, and then you can’t wear a bikini because your breasts are burnt!”
Jenna and Dave were in a year into the trip of a lifetime, driving themselves and their giant dog through the Americas, from Oregon in the US to Uruguay, where they hoped to eventually settle down. We’d met them relaxing with a few beers on the roof of our hostel, high above the small beach town of Mancora, and the four of us had got chatting – in part due to the huge plate of prawns on the table in front of us.
Josh and I had bought a kilo of the day’s catch from a smiling Peruvian in a beach shack, then simmered them in white wine, garlic, butter and parsley. And as a prawn obsessive, they were utterly, divinely, indulgently delicious.
My fingers and wrists were dripping with melted butter, but Jenna’s words still made my arms fold involuntarily across my chest. Even that small movement made me wince slightly: the skin of my armpits was stinging.
“I know exactly what you mean,” I said, unhappily. “It’s been almost a week, and I still can’t wear a bra…”
* * *
Too much sun, too little time.
If you’ve ever been sunburnt, you’ll know how painful it can be. But more than that, you’ll know just how frustrating sunburn is – particularly when you only have a finite time in the sun.
I arrived back on the Peruvian coast (my third time in the country, when I assumed I’d only set foot there once on this trip) with the explicit intention of getting a tan. It definitely wasn’t my only interest in being back in South America, but after almost a month in England’s cold, rainy and dreary weather I figured I was overdue for a bit of sun indulgence.
Way too overdue, it turns out.
Wandering along the coastline in Mancora was gorgeous. Once away from the crowds, it was nothing but blue skies, a cool breeze, feet in the waves and the sun at my back. Laying out a sarong on the warm sands, weighing it down with stones, stretching out and getting nice and toasty was a little slice of heaven. I smeared a bit more suncream across my stomach, closed my eyes, and relaxed.
After an hour or so, we headed back to the main strip to get some lunch – and while we were eating, I glanced down at my feet. They looked a tad red.
Over the course of the next few hours, I slowly began to realise the extent of my few hours in the sun.
It wasn’t just my feet, which were now bright red; there were odd red smudge marks on my shoulders too, a confusing pattern below my collarbone, and my stomach was an uninterrupted swathe of salmon pink skin.
Obviously I hoped for the best.
“I was only in the sun for a couple of hours, though. It’ll probably have disappeared by tomorrow,” I said to myself, rubbing moisturiser carefully into the worst of the redness.
But by the next day, I was in agony. Suddenly, that sun I’d been so keen to spend time in became an enemy; each stretch of road without shade was now a gauntlet to be faced.
Within a few hours I’d ruined my plan of spending a couple weeks on the beach, soaking up the sun: now it was all about covering up and avoiding it as much as possible. And it was infuriating.
But I still wanted to find somewhere suitably chilled where I could relax – ease myself back into the South American ways again. So we headed out of hedonistic Mancora and took a shared taxi to Punta Sal, a small beach nearby.
Lazy beach days… or not.
A tried and tested traveller technique is to turn up in a strange place with nowhere to stay and trust that you’ll end up with a bed by nightfall. I’ve done it plenty of times around the world, and finding accommodation is usually no more difficult than asking a few taxi drivers for suggestions and spending half an hour checking places out.
But in Punta Sal, on the day before Valentine’s Day, it wasn’t working.
We headed straight to the beach in search of accommodation. We’d assumed there would be places dotted along the shoreline, charging a pittance for a room with a view, but there was nothing of the sort. In fifteen minutes, we passed just one hostel with a room free for that night only. The Peruvian woman dispensing this information looked totally unimpressed when we balked at her suggested price.
Back on the beach again, I looked down my shirt, and winced at the angry reddened skin underneath. Walking under the early afternoon sun was definitely not helping the burn…
Over the next two hours, we walked the length of Punta Sal’s beach, cut through a building site to discover a few hotels way out of a backpacker’s price range, and a single hostel with one horribly cramped and overheated room available. He said there were no other hostels charging his prices in Punta Sal either.
We walked despondently back towards the main road again, past rentable bungalows and Peruvian families in their swimming gear, discussing where we should try to find a room in Mancora for that night.
Why was the coast of Peru proving so difficult?
I didn’t want to leave this tiny beachside town without having experienced it, but there really didn’t seem to be another option. Something that should have been stupidly easy – finding a relaxed place on the beach that didn’t charge extortionate amounts for a bed – was somehow absolutely impossible.
By the time we reached the main road, it was decided. Ask in some random hospedajes while we waited for a collectivo back to Mancora, but assume that the fight was over.
Of course, we then asked at a place with hippies lounging at a juice bar who mentioned a small place, right on the beach, that should have some space. We backtracked towards the beach again and eventually located a smiling man named Jerry, sitting in a deckchair with his toes in the sand.
And within a few hours, our bags were sat on a cheap mattress and I was stretched out on Jerry’s fold out massage table while this Peruvian hostel owner rubbed chilled, chopped up cactus all over my tender and burnt skin.
“Breathe,” Jerry said, while I tried my best to relax. Not just from the sunburn; not just from the shock of the cold aloe vera dripping down the sides of my ribcage, but from the day’s stress, and the realisation that I was most definitely back in South America again.
Nothing but the sunset
That evening in Punta Sal, we walked along the shore into the sunset ahead of us. The waves rolled lazily up the sand, a faint breeze blew around our feet, and it was utterly beautiful. Exactly what I’d hoped to find as a result of my beach hunting.
“Excuse me, can i show you something?”
We turned at the phrase, assuming it was someone trying to sell bracelets or dreadlocks or coconuts. But instead we saw a tanned girl in a headscarf, awash with earrings and jewellery, and flicking through the photos on her camera as she came towards us.
‘This is you walking,’ she said, and we saw dozens of photos of the simmering orange sunset, our tiny figures hand in hand, mere silhouettes in front of the blazing horizon. Just another couple walking along the beach.
“See? If there’s anything I’ve learnt from travelling in South America, it’s that things do eventually work out.”
Spending a week on the beach with the worst sunburn of my life wasn’t what I had planned of my return to Peru. But often you don’t get what you wanted from a trip. You get something entirely different, and maybe that ends up being even more memorable.
After three weeks in the relative luxuries of England, I was straight back into the South American stresses I’ve come to know so well. And with that comes the constant realisation that you simply have to see the positive of whatever situation you find yourself in.
And though I may not have left the Peruvian coast with the bronzed body I wanted, I did go away with aloe vera soothed skin, a stomach full of fresh prawns and memories of some rather stunning sunsets.