I’ve been to a lot of backpacker havens. You know, those small little towns otherwise unheard of on the tourist trail but for some reason, extremely popular among backpackers. Pai in Thailand, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and now Huanchaco, Peru. Huanchaco is the epitome of a backpacker haven. A little town along the ocean, away from the chaos of the big city, with endless surf and yoga to fill up the days, Huanchaco is a backpacker heaven.
Is Huanchaco Worth Visiting?
The answer to this really depends on the circumstances that you’re currently traveling in. Got a lot of time to kill and need to kick back and relax? Then absolutely. Are you on a whirlwind rampage through South America hoping only to hit the must-do activities? Then maybe not. I stayed in Huanchaco for a week, and although most of those days were filled with idyllic relaxation, I enjoyed my entire week there.
If you’re looking for adventure, culture, and history, Huanchaco and neighboring Trujillo have no shortage of that. The Chan Chan Ruins, the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, Huaca de Bruja, and other smaller archaeological sites near the area are good adventures nearby. For surfers, there’s no question to whether or not Huanchaco is worth visiting. It has some of the best surf I’ve experienced as a beginner, both challenging and rewarding. It is also regarded to be the birthplace of surf due to the caballitos de totora, small reed boats that fishermen of old used to surf back onto land after a day out fishing. That history alone makes a surf trip to Huanchaco worth it.
How To Get To Huanchaco
If you are planning to stay in Huanchaco, the first thing you’ll need to do is get to Trujillo. Trujillo is about 30-45 minutes away from Huanchaco, depending on the traffic and where you are staying. Most buses to Trujillo will drop off at the Terminal Terrestre, from where you’ll ever need to walk 2 kilometers to Ovalo Grau, where buses and colectivos pick up to go to Huanchaco or pay a taxi. A taxi will typically be 20-25 soles, although I haggled it down to 18. I’m a businessman, what can I say?
Should You Stay in Huanchaco or Trujillo?
This was my main concern arriving into Trujillo. I’m not much of a surfer. Although I love fumbling around on a board, I’m not the type to wake up at 5 AM to catch the ideal waves. I opted to stay in Huanchaco, although that came with both good and bad. There are arguments for both and I’ll outline those here.
Trujillo vs. Huanchaco: An Argument for Trujillo
Trujillo is cheaper. By a lot. In Huanchaco, if you are looking to eat out, expect to pay a minimum of 20 soles ($6) per meal. At lunch, they’ll often offer combos for 15 soles ($4.50) of ceviche and an entree. However, if you go to Trujillo, you can get that same thing for 6 soles (<$2). One of my favorite meals in Trujillo was called the Trio Marinero, which came with arroz con mariscos, ceviche, and chicharron de pescado for 10 soles ($3). I could’ve eaten that every day.
The proximity to everything also makes Trujillo a good choice. It is close to the bus station and is a much more central location if you are looking to sightsee. The Huacas del Sol y de la Luna are easier to reach from Trujillo compared to Huanchaco. You’ll also be more likely to find fairly-priced combo tours if you don’t want to go on your own.
Trujillo is a beautiful city, and its Plaza de Armas is among the most beautiful in Peru. The walking street is filled with amazing restaurants and shops with affordable meals and items. The central market is also only a 2-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas and you can get all the fruits and veggies your heart desires. A kilo of strawberries is only 5 soles ($1.50)!!
In short, stay in Trujillo if the beach isn’t a necessity and you want to experience the hustle and bustle of a big Peruvian city.
Trujillo vs. Huanchaco: An Argument for Huanchaco
I decided to stay in Huanchaco. I felt awful after the long bus ride from Cajamarca and wanted nothing more than just to lay down and relax. But I pushed myself to figure out how to get to Huanchaco. I’ll admit I took the easy way out and just got a taxi instead of trying to figure out the colectivo situation. The drive through traffic was not pleasant but as soon as we turned the corner towards Huanchaco and the ocean came into view, I felt I had made the right choice.
I was getting my first ocean sunset in weeks and the ocean air immediately made me feel better. Although I am fond of the chaos of big cities, a small surf village like Huanchaco can be an amazing place to relax and lay low for a bit. My hostel was right along the ocean, so if I ever needed fresh air, I could just hop on over and enjoy the views and the breeze.
Although Huanchaco’s beach isn’t great for swimming, it is ideal for surfers. For surfers, it’s a no-brainer whether or not to stay in Huanchaco. I really enjoyed my time surfing in Huanchaco although I am quite awful at it.
Although Huanchaco is a bit more expensive than Trujillo, the local market can be a good spot for people who like to cook their own food. I am as awful at cooking as I am at surfing so I had to rely mostly on sandwiches to help me budget. The hostel kitchen felt like an episode of Chopped with all of the guests making Michelin Star worthy meals while I was waiting for my toast to pop up.
Compared to the chaos of Trujillo, Huanchaco is as idyllic as it gets. Although I loved going into Trujillo to get food and engage in the hustle of a big city, I dreaded the 45 minute ride back through traffic to get to Huanchaco. Life is much more slow-paced and relaxed at Huanchaco. My final verdict is to stay in Huanchaco, but all travelers are different.
Where To Stay in Huanchaco
Huanchaco has no shortage of hostels to choose from, ranging from all sorts of budgets. I ended up staying at ATMA because it seemed to be the perfect spot to take it slow for a while before I began a few weeks of trekking in Huaraz. It was far enough away from the busier parts of Huanchaco so that you could relax and have a little stretch of beach mostly to yourself. It also offered yoga classes at only 7 soles for guests, something that I desperately needed to take advantage of as I prepared my body and mind for some treacherous treks in Huaraz.
I stayed in a four-bed dorm which was quite spacious and cost only 25 soles ($7). It had lockers, extra blankets, and chargers right next to your bed. Private rooms were a bit more expensive at 65 soles ($20) but still a great deal when shared between two people.
The fully-equipped hostel kitchen made it possible to save money even further by cooking your own meals. Huanchaco can feel like a pretty quiet town so when there isn’t much to do at night, you and the hostel mates can squeeze in a Netflix session before bed in the living room. P.S., if you haven’t watched Unbelievable, you totally need to. For three nights, that was the main event at the hostel.
Oh, and ATMA had bunnies. They have three bunnies in the outside common area that just hop around. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you snuggle with them. There’s also a tortoise that makes periodic appearances. He doesn’t get as much love so make sure to give him a snuggle or two when you see him.
The Best Things To Do In Huanchaco, Peru
Huanchaco is widely believed to be the birthplace of surf. The caballitos de totoro are reed boats that fishermen used to ride the waves back in thousands of years ago. That history alone makes Huanchaco a popular mecca for surfers. However, the waves in Huanchaco are pretty much constant year-round.
The waves get pretty big too, and I’m not experienced enough to know all the surf lingo but I was told that Huanchaco has “among the best lefts I’ve ever surfed”. So take that how you will. I had a lot of fun surfing in Huanchaco, even though I was a bit reluctant to go at first. The waves were perfect for people of all skill levels and even though I’m still very much a beginner, I was able to catch a few good waves before my arms gave out from all the paddling.
You can rent a board for 25 soles ($7) and a wetsuit for another 10 soles ($3). You’ll need a wetsuit because it gets cold out there. Like, really cold. If you want lessons, they’ll be about 70 soles ($20). Considering you get all the equipment as well, that’s definitely worth it if you just want to get some experience with an instructor.
Chan Chan Ruins
The ruins of Chan Chan are a massive city from the Chimu civilization that existed from 1000-1470 AD. These ruins were unlike anything I have ever seen before in Peru. It almost felt like I was walking through Egypt. And the site is massive. If you go to Chan Chan, you can only explore a fraction of the ruins because there is so much left to be excavated. The city housed around 50,000 people and was able to resist the Inca for years due to their advanced methods of water and food storage.
You wouldn’t believe something like this could be found in Peru. It felt otherworldly walking through something that had been covered by the sands of time until just about 50 years ago. It only costs 10 soles to enter the site, and that includes entrance to the museum just down the road as well as two other sites in the city of Trujillo itself. If you want a guide, which I highly recommend, you can get a private English-speaking guide for 50 soles for the entire group. We shared that cost between 4 of us which was a very fair price to get some context to what we were seeing.
Huacas de la Luna y del Sol
These two temples were built by the Moche people of Peru. This civilization existed from 100 to 800 A.D., further showing just how diverse and widespread the different cultures of Peru are. Like Chan Chan, these impressive structure were made of adobe. Unfortunately, through Spanish colonization, erosion, and El Niño, the adobe buildings of old do not persist as well as the more recognizable Inca structures.
There are efforts to excavate, preserve, and rebuild these structures, but as our guide told us, archaeologists do not get the funding they need from the government.
El Brujo Archaeological Complex
This is another archaeological site located about 45 kilometers from Trujillo. They are also from the Moche civilization and built in pre-ceramic times. If you want to visit something a little more off the beaten path, El Brujo Archaeological Complex is a good choice because of its harder to reach location.
Go Fishing In A Caballito de Totora
These reed boats are among the first-known surfing vessels, yet their initial purpose was for fishing. Although only a few, very traditional fishermen still use them today, it is possible to tag along with one of them for a few hours. They’ll show you the process of making the boat, and then paddle you out to see where you can fish with them for about two hours before surfing the reed boat back in. This will cost you about 120 soles for the 4 hour experience. It is a bit steep but for those who are interested in this one-of-a-kind experience, it will be absolutely worth it.
Of course, you can’t visit Huanchaco without exploring Trujillo as well. Trujillo boasts among the best food I’ve ever had in the world, as well as a beautiful colonial city center. Although the rest of the city can be very chaotic with not much to see from a tourist standpoint, the colonial center is beautiful to walk through.
Take A Surf Trip To Chicama
Famous for having the longest ridable wave in the world, Chicama is another hotspot for surfers. A lot of tour agencies or surf schools will offer trips to Chicama where if you are lucky, you can try and catch a wave and ride it for nearly two kilometers.
How Much Time Should You Spend in Huanchaco?
Huanchaco is one of those places that sucks you in after you spend a few days there. I told myself that five days would be more than enough time. As I should have expected, I ended up extending my stay. There is enough to do that you can fill up your days pretty well. Between trips to the archaeological sites and spending time in Trujillo, you can diversify your routine enough so that you never get bored.
However, it won’t be the activities of Huanchaco that lure you in. It is the idyllic nature of the small village. There is really no need to do anything all day, and reading by the beach and catching a cool sunset might be all you need to call it a good day. Throw in some surf, yoga, and ceviche and you can enjoy your time without the need or urge to chase down some grand adventure. Considering that Huanchaco is one of the last coastal stops along Peru’s tourist trail, it might be necessary to spend a week here before buckling down for the more strenuous adventures like trekking in Huaraz, Arequipa, Cusco, and more.
If you’re short on time, then three days should be enough to do everything at a fast pace. If you’ve got time to kill, then take all the time in the world.
Where To Go After Huanchaco
For those heading north from Huanchaco:
One of northern Peru’s most historic cities. Located in the mountains, you can do a lot of hiking or chasing down ancient ruins in Cajamarca. Highlights include Cumbemayo, Las Ventanillas de Otuzco, and el Cuarto del Rescate, where the last Incan Emperor Atahualpa was held ransom by Pizarro as he began his conquest of Peru.
In the Amazonas region of Peru, Chachapoyas is a gateway to adventure. The small city itself isn’t much, but with Gocta Falls, Kuelap, Yumbilla Falls, Karajia, Revash, and Caverna del Quiocta just a short trip away, there is plenty of exciting adventures to fill your time.
Just a bit further up the coast, Chiclayo isn’t typically a popular spot for backpackers. It is very local but it offers some of the best food in Peru. It is a good spot to break up a longer journey between Trujillo and Mancora.
Peru’s party capital in the north, Mancora is a hugely popular spot among backpackers looking to have a good time. Most of the hostels there revolve around partying. Although Mancora is a nice beach town as well, it doesn’t offer the surf, culture, or history of Huanchaco.
If you’re looking to hightail it to the criminally overlooked country of Ecuador, you can book it to Mancora before crossing over. Your first stop will likely be Cuenca, Guayaquil, or Montañita. Check out my backpacker’s crash course guide to Ecuador here.
For those heading south from Huanchaco:
The trekker’s paradise. Despite having never been to Huaraz myself, it has long been on my list as an avid trekker.
Peru’s capital and gateway to everything else. While the city itself can feel too big and too busy, Lima’s food scene and more backpacker-friendly neighborhoods of Miraflores or Barranco can be excellent places to stop over before exploring southern Peru’s treasures.