Piura was magically described in Casa Verde, Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterful novel that divides this city into two main barrios: the Mangachería, a sprawling den north of the city center, known for beautiful women, gambling, and the novel’s namesake brothel, and Gallinacera, south of present-day Sánchez Cerro Street, the respectable side of the city known for singers, guitaristas, and players of the cajón.
The north–south boundary remains today. The farther south you walk toward Piura’s laid-back and pleasant Plaza de Armas, the gentler the town becomes. Narrow colonial streets and classic, old homes conjure up what life was like in the 19th century when this town’s population was only 5,000.
Historically, Piura had a tough time establishing its roots. Up until 1588, the year the cathedral was established, every attempt to build up a city was frustrated by the vagaries of pirate attacks and torrential flooding. The first Piura city, named San Miguel de Piura, was founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1532 before the conquest of the Inca. But that site, on the Río Chira near the present-day site of Sullana, was so hot and disease ridden that the settlers had to move.
But the second city did not last either, so Piurans shifted to Paita. But in 1577—a decade before the English navy delivered a body blow to the Spanish empire by wiping out its armada—an English pirate by the name of Sir Thomas Cavendish pillaged and burned the city, including the convent of La Merced. That was the last straw for Piurans, who packed up their things and headed inland to the city’s present-day location.
Piura is safe, but being so far inland, it is the hottest of Peru’s northern cities. Unfortunately, even its new location hasn’t completely protected Piura. El Niño floods hit the city hard in 1983, 1992, and 1998.
Outside the city is the town of Catacaos, one of Peru’s major arts and crafts markets, and the pleasant beach of Colán. Among Peruvians, Piura is famous as a center for brujería, or witchcraft. The heart and soul of this tradition is centered on the lakes region near the mountainous Huancabamba, seven hours from Piura.
Getting to Piura
Most major carriers have daily flights into Piura’s airport (tel. 073/32-7733), which is two kilometers out of town. A taxi costs US$2–3. LAN Peru (Grau 540, tel. 073/305-727, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.) has an office near the Plaza de Armas.
Most bus companies are located on Sánchez Cerro, blocks 11–13. The best bus lines for getting back and forth to Lima are Oltursa (Bolognesi 801, tel. 073/33-5303) and Cruz del Sur (Libertad 1176, tel. 073/33-7094, www.cruzdelsur.com.pe).
Sertur (Sánchez Cerro 1123, tel. 073/30-7317, four daily departures, US$8) drives upscale minivans directly to Máncora and Tumbes, but these vans are only worth their high price if they aren’t crowded.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition