4am in Máncora

The bus arrives at a dusty stretch of road at the loneliest and most hallowed of hours, long after most decent folks have gone to sleep and well before most will wake in the morning. A flash of unwelcome light spreads throughout the bus as the fluorescent overheads come to life, rousing any passengers from the last meagre remnants of their slumber. After eight hours and two stops at the border crossing between Ecuador and Peru, we’ve arrived in Máncora, home to endless waves and a popular stop for travellers making their way through South America. A friend of mine had been here months before and told me I had to visit.

The timing wasn’t my choice, but then again, there are only so many buses running between Ecuador and Peru. It’s either a day wasted on the bus or else a night spent in discomfort. This time, it comes with a 4am wake-up call.

Much has been made of four o’clock in the morning in our culture. It’s referenced in the songs we listen to, the movies we watch, the books we read — a universal shorthand for the hour at which no-one wants to be awake, an hour which I vowed never to see again after working early mornings in the past. And yet, here I am, brain half-functioning, stepping off a bus into the dark and quiet streets of Northern Peru at four in the morning.

The tuk-tuk drivers descend on our bus instantly. As far as I can tell, they’re the only other people awake at this hour. They hold laminated leaflets with hotel options in town, promising to drive us anywhere we need for $5 USD — a bit of an oddity, as Peruvian soles are the default currency here. It’s close enough to walk, but the drivers are telling us it’s not possible — either for safety or accessibility, I’m not sure — and it’s too late to argue at this hour. I confer with the other backpackers on my bus and agree to share a ride with a German girl headed to the same hostel as me.

The ride leaves the main road for dirt laneways moments later, and we shuttle past stuccoed homes where dogs roam the streets and glass shards form deterrents atop fences made of brick and mortar. A right turn takes us to a longer dirt road, where fences morph to wooden walls too tall to scale. We ride for another minute or two, until our driver announces our arrival — he points to a door ajar in the wall. I collect my bags in a daze as the tuk-tuk speeds away, off to collect another fare. The German girl and I look at each other and shrug.

The hostel grounds are quiet, except for the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. A trail of footprints leads through the sand to a building that would likely serve as reception during reasonable hours of the day. A pile of beer bottles is clustered at a round table by the open-air kitchen. Nearby, a row of hammocks sit empty.

I’ve come to this hostel because of the dogs. Back in Cuenca, a pair of Australian sisters raved about the place, telling me there was a litter of puppies to spend time with. They’re nowhere to be seen at this hour, but I spy my first pair of dogs on my tour of the grounds, blocking the path to reception. I worry about the greeting I might receive, but they yawn and let me past without so much as a murmur.

My newly-made German friend tells me she’s heard we can sleep in the hammocks until morning, when check-in begins. We come across a staff member cleaning up in the kitchen, and he confirms what she’s heard. We let our bags drop to the floor and collapse into the hammocks, too tired for words.

I look up at the sky for the first time and see a thousand constellations, my first starry night after nearly two weeks of cloudy weather. Four o’clock in the morning, and all is well.

Things I’ve seen:
1. Laguna de Quilotoa

2. Waterfalls in Baños

3. Sunsets in Máncora

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