About 30km from the Ecuadorian border and 287km north of Piura, TUMBES is usually considered a mere pit-stop for overland travellers, offering decent restaurants and better money-changing options than at the Ecuadorian frontier. However, the city has a significant history and, unlike most border settlements, is a surprisingly warm and friendly place. On top of that, it’s close to many of Peru’s finest beaches and two very distinct and unique forests and protected areas: the Santuario Nacional los Manglares de Tumbes and the Zona Reservado de Tumbes. The settlement of Zorritos is strung out along the seafront and Panamerican Highway some 28km south of Tumbes; as well as a long beach, this town is the point of access to some ancient, still-working natural mud baths.

The area can get very hot and humid between December and March, while the rest of the year it offers a pleasant heat, compared with much of Peru’s southern coast. The sea is warm and while mosquitoes can be bothersome between September and January, they rarely make their presence felt on the beaches. Locals tend to be laidback and spontaneous, a trait reflected in the local traditions such as las cumananas, an expression in popular verse, often by song with a guitar. The verse is expected to be sparky, romantic, comical and even sad, but most importantly, spur of the moment and rap-like.

Brief history

Pizarro didn’t actually set foot in Tumbes when it was first discovered by the Spanish in 1527. He preferred to cast his eyes along the Inca city’s adobe walls, its carefully irrigated fields and its shining temple, from the comfort and safety of his ship. However, with the help of translators he set about learning as much as he could about Peru and the Incas during this initial contact.

The Spaniards who did go ashore made reports of such grandeur that Pizarro at first refused to believe them, sending instead the more reliable Greek cavalier, Pedro de Candia. Dubious descriptions of the temple, lined with gold and silver sheets, were confirmed by Candia, who also gave the people of Tumbes their first taste of European technological might – firing his musket to smash a wooden board to pieces. Pizarro had all the evidence he needed; he returned to Spain to obtain royal consent and support for his projected conquest.

The Tumbes people hadn’t always been controlled by the Incas. The area was originally inhabited by the Tallanes, related to coastal tribes from Ecuador who are still known for their unusual lip and nose ornaments. In 1450 they were conquered for the first time – by the Chimu. Thirteen years later came the Incas, organized by Tupac Inca, who bulldozed the locals into religious, economic and even architectural conformity in order to create their most northerly coastal terminus. A fortress, temple and sun convent were built, and the town was colonized with loyal subjects from other regions – a typical Inca ploy, which they called the mitimaes system. The valley had an efficient irrigation programme, allowing them to grow, among other things, bananas, corn and squash.

Pizarro longed to add his name to the list of Tumbes’ conquerors, yet after landing on the coast of Ecuador in 1532 with a royal warrant to conquer and convert, and despite the previous friendly contact, some of the Spanish were killed by natives as they tried to beach. Moreover, when they reached the city it was completely deserted with many buildings destroyed, and, more painfully for Pizarro, no sign of gold. It seems likely that Tumbes’ destruction prior to Pizarro’s arrival was the result of inter-tribal warfare directly related to the Inca Civil War. This, a war of succession between Atahualpa and his half-brother, the legitimate heir, Huascar, was to make Pizarro’s role as conqueror a great deal easier, and he took the town of Tumbes without a struggle.