Jeff McAllister visited Peru’s Sechura desert during one of his portrait projects. Read his story below.
This post is part of the series called ‘Sleep less, dream more’ in which we share uncommon sleeping places and circumstances travelers encountered during their trip.
Written by Jeff McAllister.
The froth of the Pacific laps at my knees as I dash toward distant light-beams.
“I told you, you can’t get through that way,” Nicola’s voice echoes off the tunnel walls as I hoist my bag above my head to avoid the rising sea.
I’ve been in Peru for two weeks now but have yet to visit the coast outside of Lima. Even as it does its best to batter me again the rocky sea-cave, I welcome the ocean’s familiar swell. Behind me, Nicola barks in Spanish to a group of nervous villagers—despite growing up beside the ocean most residents of La Tortuga never learn to swim. I hear the scrape of fishermen hauling their rafts ashore. The screech of sea-birds. Stained red with particles of clay shorn off the cliff-side, the ocean bubbles up to my waste like blood.
Before meeting Nicola, I’d never heard of Peru’s Sechura desert. Yet here I was, glaring out at it through the chattering windows of a northbound bus. Beside me sat the same spunky Couchsurfer I’d met a year earlier in Kathmandu—now midway through her thesis on the spatial mapping of fishermen in the industry towns of Peru’s Northern Coast. It was her invitation to visit the area—her vivid description of marzipan deserts and saline skies—that convinced me to forgo the traditional images of Amazonia and the Andes and embark on a portrait projects somewhere more unique.
On my lap sat a ink-bruised Moleskin:
Yacila -> Fishermen.
La Isla -> Ship Building.
La Tortuga -> the Galapagos of Peru.
“You know there are no guesthouses, where we’re going,” Nicola warns me. We chase an ambivalent sun west across the desert sky.
Despite Peru’s rapid modernization over the past few decades, life in the Sechura remains lost in time. Gazes come paired with toothless scowls. Hairless dogs nip at my heals the first time I emerge from the dunes on the outskirts of town. Here, boys begin to work the seas at 12 and marry at 14. It’s taken Nicola—a single women in her early 20’s—months to gain the trust of her subjects and even now their answers are curt. I don’t even let her try to invite me to into her host family’s house and make up a story about being a supervisor visiting from the university. How well my strangled Spanish will fit into this alibi, I’m unsure. I turn down an invitation to spend the night in town’s two-room schoolhouse and inquire about spending the night on the beach.
“Is that legal in Peru?” I ask in English.
“Yes,” she says. “But some of the out-of-town fishermen are also thieves.”
Nicola suggests we return to the dirt highway that led us into town and backtrack until we find a more abandoned beachfront. But then I notice a current flowing through a hole in one of the cliffs that fences in La Tortuga’s port.
“What about through there?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t risk it. Here even the fishermen fear the sea.”
I’ve shot portraits in foreign nations for almost two years now. I cut my teeth in South Asia. East Africa taught me the language of light. Yet leading up to Peru, countless individuals warned me that in South America my project might not be so well received. The Incan heartland is saturated with suspicion and superstition—people use eggs to ward off witchcraft; dragonflies zip off with pieces of the soul. The fact that Nicola, an ethnic Peruvian whose been living in the Sechura for months, has still to shake her outsider status only confirms what I fear to be true. The largest joy I derive from photography is the act of collaborating with my subjects. What if I wasn’t welcomed here? I hadn’t taken out my camera yet and already my presence seemed stressed.
Being a tourist is an inescapably political act. It makes two bold statements: I have the means to leave my own country and, out of all the places I could have visited I chose yours. In a tourist hotbed like Cusco, your intentions are obvious. But in somewhere so lopped off from the outside world, your purpose becomes less clear. I’m reminded of a horror story most travel photographers are familiar with: how iconic photojournalist Steve McCurry was nearly drown on Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach by a hostile subject during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival of 1993. My project’s success would depend on my acceptance. I would have to proceed with caution. All I could do is take my time.
Golden light splits open the cliff-side. The tide sucks sharply outward, revealing three hundred kilometers of red-sand beach along an otherwise impassible coast.
I take a minute to feel the openness. Then, punch my tent-poles into the tacky sand and wait for Nicola to slosh her way through the tunnel. For the first time in days I’m alone, minus a dozen scattered seal-bones. I breathe and wait – proceed with caution. I allow my anxiety to fade with the setting sun.
About the author
Jeff McAllister is a writer, photographer, and masters of engineering student interested in stories that explore our relationship with the planet. In May, he embarked on a portrait project in Peru’s Sechura Desert as the recipient of Passion Passports The Bucket List Initiative grant. He keeps a blog of his travels at Keyboardandcompass.com and shares images regularly on Instagram at @McAllisterJeff.
Recommended further reading Peru
Review of the Pariwana hostel in Cusco
How much does it cost to backpack Peru and Bolivia?
How much money do you need to backpack in Peru?
Polaroid portraits in Peru
What are the experiences with airlines in Peru?