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“Isn’t that Mario Testino?”

My New York girlfriend tilts her head toward a smartly dressed gentleman sitting in the front row of our two-hour flight from Lima to Tumbes, an old port town on Peru’s North Coast. The fashion photographer is the country’s most celebrated ex-pat and we’d spent the previous afternoon wandering his gallery – an elegantly restored heritage villa in Barranco, Lima’s colonial quarter turned artsy-bohemian district.

I squint; it isn’t Testino. Though it easily could have been, given where we’re headed: a stretch of Pacific coast near the Ecuadorian border that’s home to the surf town of Mancora and, just beyond that, Las Pocitas, a more exclusive enclave peppered with stylish places to stay. Always balmy, with miles of beige sand and warm, rolling Pacific waves, it’s a welcome getaway for Limenos keen to escape the chronically overcast capital (Spanish conquistadores having oddly erected Lima on an expanse of shoreline that sees the sun just 100 days a year).

Photos by Viia Beaumanis for The Globe and Mail

We land and head south, two hours by car along a two-lane slice of the Pan-American Highway, cutting through acres of farmland lush with avocado, corn and asparagus, and a succession of ramshackle towns. Mutts and children gambol among roadside shacks hawking fresh produce, cheap pisco and live chickens. Farther south, the countryside turns arid, a cactus-spiked desertscape edged by the foothills of the Andes, where protected dry forest teeming with deer, mountain lions, condor and monkeys attracts adventurous travellers keen on exploring one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems.

But having just done Machu Picchu and spent a week exploring the Amazon, what the two of us want now is a chic hotel on a deserted beach that serves fresh ceviche and stiff, frothy pisco sours, the national cocktail of grape brandy, egg white, cane sugar and lime juice.

Pulling into Mancora, we find a bar-and-restaurant-lined main drag running parallel to a bar-and-restaurant-lined beach one block over. A funky, sun-bleached town of 10,000 that swells during the December through March high season, its streets are scattered with inexpensive lodging, candy-coloured moto-taxis and shops flogging surfboards, handmade candy, crochet tunics and fruit.

We wander down to the shore, grab a table on the second-floor veranda of a rustic wooden shack, order cold cervezas and peruse the menu. Equipped with heaping plates of plump, citrus-cured dorado, we linger long enough to exploit happy hour: Peruvian barmen shaking two-for-one pisco sours, seemingly nationwide, between 5 and 7 each evening.

Horses trot by on the beach below – bikini-clad foreign girls in the saddle – as teenage boys skim the Pacific crests; locals lounging shore-side to cheer them on. The uncrowded coast is known for its point breaks, year-round surfing and shark-free waters; the big waves are found just south in Los Organos, or farther on in Lobitos. (Arrive early fall and you’ll catch the humpback whales that gather here to breed.)

After waving down the check (just $20 thanks to Peru’s nearly 3-to-1 exchange rate), we head for the tonier Las Pocitas, a 10-minute drive from town. We navigate the bumpy, sand road that runs the backside of beach properties and arrive at Ki Chic, where a thick wooden door opens onto a leafy, flowering courtyard, gorgeously lit at twilight, lanterns swaying in the trees.

The decor of Ki Chic in Mancora is a design lesson in elegant bohemian.

Launched this January by Christina (Kiki) Gallo, a globetrotting Peruvian artist who transformed her private residence into a small hotel, Ki Chic is a design lesson in elegant bohemia, filled with eclectic furnishings, art and objets.

“That’s from Zimbabwe,” says Helen, following my eye to a large sconce crafted out of white feathers and black twigs, “but most of the pieces are South American.” The transplanted twentysomething Montreal beauty instructs twice daily classes in an airy yoga studio tucked into the property’s forest of neem trees.

Out in the garden, she leads me to a cabana where a chandelier hangs above a slip-covered sofa, a pair of Peruvian poufs and an antique cabinet filled with teapots. Around the corner is a workshop where they “make little projects”; pressing leaves between panes of glass for light fixtures or wrapping fan blades in jute .

“We make our own jam, too,” Helen says as the barman whips up vegan pisco sours for a pair of topless women lolling by the pool. “Fig is my favourite. … Oh, and try this,” she says, reaching behind the counter and handing me a spray bottle. “Homemade mosquito spray!” I take a whiff; it smells like Christmas.

“Cloves and turmeric,” Helen informs me with a radiant smile.

Our days become a cycle of ocean dips, morning yoga, sunning ourselves poolside and working our way through the pescatarian menu. It’s two days before we bother to see what else is going in the area, finally wandering up the beach for lunch at nearby Arennas, a small resort relaunched in December, 2013, after an elegant multimillion-dollar facelift. Couples and families come and go from its palm-shaded tables as our long, lazy lunch morphs into sunset cocktails, the horizon deepening from soft pink to blazing orange.

A few days on and we’ve checked into Villas del Mar, a little hotel perched on a hillside just up the coast where the reception desk is a nook off the pool bar and it’s not five minutes before someone hands us chilled flutes of champagne. In the shaded dining lounge, a groovy playlist hums in the background while I parry, in menu sign language, with a waiter whose English is as good as my Spanish (not very). A little pointing lands me a plate of ceviche and I’m happily tucking into yet another plate of raw fish when owner Eduardo Fiol stops by and introduces himself. He’s so handsome that I nearly drop my fork. When he pulls out a chair to join me, I barely register what he’s saying – except that I’m invited to a dinner at his place that evening.

We arrive at Fiol’s villa above the hotel at sundown to find him grilling lomo steak and tossing fresh salad greens grown in his greenhouse. A dozen friends and cousins are getting giggly on his signature powerhouse pisco sours: “4 to 1” he explains, handing me a glass. In other words, almost entirely alcohol. (Most locals go with a 2 to 3 ratio.) Rounding out his skills as a fabulous host, Fiol also turns out to be a great DJ. By midnight, we’ve all kicked off our shoes and are dancing around his pool.

On our last night, My friend and I wind up back in Mancora, dining at La Sirena d’Juan. With its refined dishes and wine list (owner Juan Seminario studied at Lima’s Le Cordon Bleu), this is the finest restaurant in town, and a stylish treat among the main drag’s eateries where typical Peruvian fare is washed down with beer. Here, tables are crowded with platters of raw yellowfin tuna, knots of tender purple octopus and bottles of Argentine sauvignon blanc.

Leaning in the doorway, two pretty local girls type into their iPhones by a large table in the front room that’s been commandeered by a Peruvian family. But the chatty Saturday night crowd is noticeably scattered with foreigners – a trio of brawny California surfer dudes map out their road trip to Cusco at the next table as the handsome British gay couple across from us laughs through a third round of drinks.

My girlfriend lifts a forkful of tiradito, ceviche in a chili-garlic-ginger sauce, and says, “Looks like Peru’s little North Coast secret is out. Expect to see all this on Hotel Insider by next year.”

Deserted beaches, fresh seafood, chic hotels, killer surfing and an advantageous exchange rate. … I doubt it will take even that long.


Air Canada flies to Lima from Toronto three times a week.

Where to stay

Ki Chic: The six rooms and suites of this Las Pocitas property (three bungalows will be added by winter) are sheltered by mature gardens, edged with a sleek seaside pool and drenched in feminine energy. Across the back road, they harvest produce and organic eggs. With just a few months under their belt, service can be a little lax (you may have to remind a waiter that you ordered fruit with your coconut granola), but with an atmosphere this sublime it seems petty to quibble while they iron out the kinks. From $190;

Arennas: This is Las Pocitas’s sleek luxury stay, with 30 beachfront suites fanning out on either side of a glam, multilevel lounge, dining and pool terrace. It’s a tasteful expanse of tan and black accented with artful accessories. Rooms from $300;

Hotel DCO: Las Pocitas’s first design hotel remains a high-season hub. This eight-room hotel’s lounge-y scene is underscored by a no-kids policy and all-white interiors. Bleached wood, dashes of turquoise and a long, lit-from-within bar complete the South Beach pastiche. From $170;