THERE ARE TWO beach towns within a three-hour drive from Arequipa: Mollendo and Camaná. Each costs between 10 and 15 soles to reach, and there are loads of minibuses and regular buses that leave every hour. Neither is better advertised from Arequipa’s bus terminals, and neither is a popular foreign tourist destinations, which might lead a sun-starved off-the-beaten-track backpacker to ask: Which is better?
Camaná is known as a young person’s town, a beachside resort for swimming in the chilly Pacific and drinking Cusqueña lager all weekend long. Unless you specifically head to La Punta, the town’s southern beach strip, the bus will drop you off just north of the Plaza de Armas and a pedestrian strip called 28 de Julio, which strongly resembles a depressing, stripped-down version of downtown Arica, Chile.
The version of La Punta we saw on a Tuesday afternoon, though, was a shadow of its reputation: few restaurants bothered opening, dogs played across the sand, the sky was perennially overcast and only a handful of families spent the night camping on the beach. Over breakfast the next morning, the only party we saw was coming down the street as five twentysomethings blared cumbia from their car, danced under an umbrella and tore through a milk crate of beer.
This is less an indictment of Camaná than a warning advisory: Don’t go on a weekday, and don’t go off-season, or else you’ll find a place that is unavoidably, unshakeably weird. It’s like a post-apocalyptic version of what you’d imagine a cool beach villa to be—vacant, grey and drinking to forget itself.
Locals, however, know Camaná as the youthful counterpart to Mollendo, a more populated oceanside city that also homes numerous rickety wooden colonial buildings and is, to this blogger’s mind, a way better place to visit for two days.
Whereas Camaná feels like an attempt at a modern beach town (and, indeed, you can see the oceanfront resorts under construction along the highway), Mollendo has abandoned old-world charm. Literally, abandoned is the best word for it—the photo below shows a giant mansion on a Mollendo cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, for sale after God-only-knows how many years of vacancy.
And while Mollendo is no less creepy than Camaná, with its cracked lamps and defunct railroads resembling a lost set from High Noon, at least people really live there. Mollendo has a bustling nightlife, a funky market, cafés and juice bars and old churches. It’s fun just to walk around and take photos there. In other words, even if you don’t like the beach, you could still have fun in Mollendo.
I’m told there are other things to do in Camaná besides the beach—the Mirador del Inca, for example, overlooks a valley and the river and leads to a robbed Incan cemetery. But nobody goes there for that. It is singularly a young Peruvian’s destination, and unless you are one, your soles would be better spend elsewhere.