We sat on our boards waiting for another set to come in, with the sun bouncing into our eyes off the cold Pacific water as a lone Pelican skimmed the surface just meters from us, pausing momentarily in mid-air like time had stopped, shaking the water from its feathers before beating its giant wings and gliding away again toward the distant fishing boats in search of food. In this exact moment I smiled and thought to myself, ‘I love my life!’
Ilo is a sleepy port town on the South Pacific coast of southern Peru with a thriving local community, amazing seafood cuisine and even a cool little night life. It’s a prime, yet almost deserted surf spot – a true rarity these days – with a variety of breaks, from smooth left-hand beach breaks to viscous tunnels over shallow reefs. Being only a three and a half hour journey by car, it’s the most easily accessible coastal city from Arequipa; Peru’s second largest and southernmost city. It’s also quite easily accessible by several of the larger coach companies operating in the south of the country.
The landscape between Arequipa and the coast is a beautifully desolate moonscape of sand and rocks, with solitary cacti standing calm and defiant against the intense heat and dryness. Even once you reach the coast and the desert meets the sea, there is no release. In fact, being only slightly north of the Atacama Desert, rain here is practically unheard of.
Ilo’s local fresh market
The town is supported primarily by the fishing industry and the sea port, although the mining industry has had its impact here too, with a large copper smelting plant placed just outside of town. In the old part of town you can find a local market and a variety of local restaurants and Cevicherias selling awesome local Peruvian dishes like Adobo and Camarones.
When it comes to night life in Ilo, the best things come in small packages. Blue Bar is one of the coolest places you’ll find, not just in town, but in the whole country. With a laid back vibe, American license plate wall, crazy décor and random traditional carvings dotted around the place it has what you could describe as something of a unique style about it!
‘Unique’ décor in Blue Bar
If you’re looking for somewhere a little more upmarket with a fancy restaurant and a sea view, then head down to the beach and check out the Monkey Beach Club. There’s not a monkey in site, but you do get an amazing menu of seafood and other local and international dishes with a fresh sea breeze in your face. Upstairs is more of a late-night club come live music venue.
The best and probably least know highlight of Ilo though, is the surfing, but we’re not going to tell you about that ourselves. Instead we took a trip down to Ilo with Michael Tcheyan – expat teacher and self-confessed surf addict living in Arequipa Peru – so he could show us in person. Here’s what he has to say about his favourite Peruvian surf town…
Michael Tcheyan: “I moved to Peru in June, 2013 to work as a teacher at an International school in Arequipa. My best friend is a fellow surf addict and introduced me to Ilo about two months after I got here. Since then, we’ve been making the trek about two weekends a month and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to learn from the locals about the waves and all their hazards.
Like any spot, you’ve got to respect the locals and make sure that you are aware of the many hazards of the spot like hidden rocks and strong currents; and there’s plenty of those here! The waves can get up to about two and a half meters, depending on the swell.
My favourite spot is Piedras Negras about 20 minutes north of Ilo on the Costanera. It’s a steep barrelling left that breaks over a shallow reef – not for the faint-hearted! For beginners, or anyone wanting to avoid the rocks, it’s best to stick to the sandy beach in town right next to the Monkey Beach Club.
Despite being on the edge of a desert, this is still the Pacific Ocean, so you’ll need a good wetsuit if you don’t want to freeze out there. Also, you’ll need your own board and any other gear you want, because Ilo isn’t on the tourist map and has no rental shops. If you’re looking for pure beach time and sunbathing, then head to Pozo de Lizas about a 10 min drive south of town.
Ilo’s got everything you could ask for, from awesome surf for all levels to incredible seafood, not to mention the coolest bar in Peru – Blue Bar. Man, I love that place!”
So there you have it; take a break from the Gringo Trail and experience some true Peruvian culture with untouched surf spots and some of the best food in Peru, with not a single tour bus or fancy-dress alpaca in site!
How to get there
Head to the local bus terminal (Terminal Terrestre) and ask around at the various companies for a bus to Ilo. Or you can go by car. The journey could take anywhere from three and a half to 4 four and a half hours depending on traffic and who’s driving!
Where to stay
There are a few local hotels and hostels around the town, used mostly by people visiting on business and contractors working for the mine, but in our opinion you should just head for Hotel Chiribaya. They’ve got clean, comfortable rooms, hot water showers, breakfast included and it’s within easy walking distance to everything. Single rooms – 110 Soles. Double room – 140 Soles
Hotel Chiribaya – Our hotel of choice in Ilo
Hotel Chiribaya – Impressive lounge area
Where to eat and drink
Monkey Beach Club down at the seafront has a great selection of seafood, or head into town to check out one of the many local restaurants and Cevicherias
For drinking and music there’s only one place you need to know and that’s Blue Bar. They’re hard to find before they open at around 9pm, but just ask the locals and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Good times in Blue Bar – Ilo
You can either head straight back to Arequipa the same way you got here, or if you’re done with Peru you can continue South by local bus to the Chilean border to get to Arica.
This Article Was Written By:
South America Backpacker Ambassadors, Jon and Kach Howe, of Two Monkeys Travel. The adventurous couple, from the Philippines and the UK, have been traveling and working for 18 months; starting in South East Asia, via India to South America! They decided to make traveling a lifestyle, something truly sustainable. To support this choice, they work, volunteer, work exchange and even have their very own Yoga and Healing Massage business: www.omyogamassage.com. At the moment they are living in Arequipa, Peru where they are working on their project, www.whatsonarequipa.com. You can follow the inspirational ‘Two Monkeys’ on Facebook here!