Toledo's life took a dramatic turn in 1963 when an American
couple with the Peace Corps arrived in his village and rented a room from the 17-year-old boy's mother. "We became friends and they helped me get a one-year scholarship to the University of San Francisco. It was the 1960s and my hair was very long," Toledo remembers with a smile. People were always asking me if I was from the Navajo reservation."

With money earned from coaching AYSO soccer and playing the pan flute on Union Square, Toledo stayed after his scholarship ended and eventually was accepted to graduate school at Stanford. While studying eco­nomics in Palo Alto, he met his future wife, Eliane Karp, the only daughter of Israeli Jews. Toledo taught her how to speak the Amerindian dialect of Quechua; she taught him to eat his bagels with a schmear. After receiving his PhD in 1974, Toledo taught at Harvard and worked at the UN and World Bank before returning home to enter politics. In 2001, he was elected president, the first ­Quechua Indian to govern Peru since the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

As we begin our descent, the plane swings out over the ocean, which sparkles brilliantly in the sun, as if pieces of crumpled aluminum foil are floating on the sea. "Those are anchovies," Toledo explains. The cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt current surfaces here, attracting anchovies, and the marlin and tuna that follow them. Sport fishing off Peru's Pacific coast is the best in the world. Birders claim Peru is also the best place to spot coastal seabirds.

The region's most accessible attraction, however, is Huanchaco Beach, a strip of sand pounded by waves rolling in off the Pacific. The best surfers in the world migrate annually to Peru in their endless quest for the perfect wave. But Huanchaco is also a favorite of families, who for a few pennies can ride the waves on rented horn-shaped rafts called caballitos.