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Despite its nearly 2,500 km (1,500 miles) of coastline, Peru hasn't been widely celebrated for its beaches. Peru's northern desert coast, inaccessible and poorly developed for decades, possesses the finest long, sandy beaches in the country, which have been prized by pioneering locals, travelers on their way down the coast by land from Ecuador, and especially surfers drawn to the Pacific Ocean's extraordinary swells and breaks. Only recently has the region really begun to take off with a more diverse crowd; moneyed Limeños are building chic beachside homes, and small hotel groups and entrepreneurs are descending on the region to put a stake in the market before it's too late. Accommodations previously were largely limited to thatched-roof bungalows that had the benefit of being, like the area, authentic, cool and cheap, but they weren't ideal for a wider population of national and international travelers. That has quickly changed in just the past few years, and the area is experiencing a boom.

Piura and Tumbes are the two northern departments that share the finest of Peru's beaches. Máncora (in Piura), 120km (75 miles) south of the Ecuadoran border and 1165km (722 miles) north of Lima, is the epicenter of the surfer and beach craze, exceedingly popular with young travelers and hippies, even if to some newcomers it may still seem rather rough around the edges. Máncora is essentially one main drag, lined end-to-end with open-air casual bars and restaurants, with the craggy desert to one side and the open sea the other. The long, sandy beaches in Máncora and extending about 25km (15 miles) north and south are excellent, even if they can't quite compete with the best sparkling white sands of Brazil or the Caribbean. But the water is warm, the sun shines virtually all year (as opposed to further south, in and around Lima, where it seems rarely to peek through the gray haze), the seafood and ceviche are supreme, and the waves are, well, killer. The area gets a bit crazed during the Peruvian summer and during other holiday periods, but the rest of the year is charmingly low-key.

Two currents, the cold Humboldt from the south and Ecuatorial from the north, meet just south of Cabo Blanco, creating vastly different water temperatures (the north being considerably warmer year-round). For surfing fanatics, this section of the Pacific is renowned for its excellent swells, long waves, perfect barrels, superb point breaks and awesome lefts. The tourist zone stretches from Órganos in the south to Punta Sal and Zorritos (part of Tumbes) north of Máncora. The top beaches for swimming and sunning are Vichayito, Pocitas, Punta Sal, and Zorritos. To the south, Cabo Blanco, a fisherman's village (off of which the largest black marlin on record was caught) is said by many locals to have been the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway did spend time in the area in 1956 deep-sea fishing and carousing, but I'm sure a good many Cubans would argue the point). Top spots for surfing, some of which are for advanced boarders only, include Cabo Blanco, Punta Ballenas, Órganos, Panic Point, Lobitos and El Golf.