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Around Lima, surfing is very much a part of its culture. The city hosted the World Championships in 1965 when local Felipe Pomar was crowned champion. Lima is also home to 2004 Women’s World Champion Sofia Mulanovich. There is a daily surfing show on TV, Peru has its own surf industry and around Lima line-ups are packed with talented surfers. There is evidence that Peruvians were taking to the waves as early as 1909 on rudimentary boards. However, it was Carlos Dogney, a globetrotting playboy who learnt to surf in Hawaii that introduced modern surfboards in 1937.
Peru is still a developing country and surfing among Peruvians outside of Lima is still very much at a fledgling stage. There is over 2500 km of desert coastline to explore. Most of which is sparsely populated. Empty lineups are common and with large areas of almost inaccessible coastline, discoveries are still waiting to be surfed. The north of the country is the area most frequented by surfers and for a good reason, the climate is pleasant and the waves are regularly perfect. So, that is where we went in search of Peruvian long lined-up lefts.
After hours of negotiating Lima's hair raising city traffic, we found ourselves travelling through Peru's desert coast. Large sand dunes roll inland until they reach the green Andes Mountains which rise up only a short distance from the coast. Rivers flowing down from the mountains create oasis like valleys that intermittently cut there way across the desert to the Pacific Ocean. These valleys create rich agricultural land so Peruvian markets are packed full of amazing fruit and vegetables.
To get to this spot Alberto pulled off the Pan American highway straight into a dried out river bed that lead down to a series of dirt tracks before we arrived at a basic fishing camp in a remote bay. The spot is called Bermejo, which in Spanish means reddish and this name comes from the reddish sand here. Even though it was only head high, the waves were fun. Like a California pointbreak going the wrong way and with no one out.
Bermejo desert backdrop
A few fishermen live in some run down shacks on the beach at Bermejo. They have a couple of boats but also go fishing in blown up HGV tyre inner tubes wearing diving wetsuits and propel themselves along with diving fins. It seems that they can fish nearer to the rocks around the headland this way without risking the boats. They then fin back around the headland before catching a wave to the beach from the point. The fishing is good as the ocean teams with sea life that is fed by the cold but nutrient rich Humboldt Current. It’s not just the fishermen who like to live from the ocean here, but also huge Pelicans and other seabirds that swoop down across the bay all day long.
Bermejo is a well known spot in Peru and sucks in a lot of swell but crowds seem rare due to its remote location. We were lucky to surf here just the three of us with fun head high conditions. You can’t tell in this photo but you actually take off behind the rocks at the end of the point and it is easier to run around the beach than paddle against the typical Peruvian pointbreak current.
In-between the Northern region of pointbreaks and Lima there are a couple of known waves like Bermejo which break virtually daily with no one out. There are also many other areas of Peru where a sense of adventure, a 4wd and some camping equipment could lead to finding lonesome waves.
A local fisherman in Punta Huanchaco paddles out on his caballito de totora. These wave riding reed boats have been used in Peru for over three thousand years for fishing. Being able to ride waves back to shore was a necessity for the early fisherman due to size and consistency of waves on the coast here. Some historians argue these are were the world's first surf craft. In 2012, Save the Waves Coalition approved Punta Huanchaco as a World Surfing Reserve due to its ancient wave riding culture.
Punta Huanchaco is one of those beach resorts that wears many hats. It is also one of the only places on the North Coast that has more going on than just surfing. It is a holiday and weekend getaway place for Peruvians from Trujillo and further a field. A stop-off spot for backpackers wanting a bit of beach time or try out surfing and it has some pretty fun waves on its long consistent but sectioning left point. There’s good accommodation, and plenty of nice places to eat and drink. So, it is good place to stop when the swell isn’t quite lighting up other spots. It is also the home to the Peruvian leg of the Longboard World Tour Qualifying Series and a strong surfing community. In addition there are a lot of historical sites to visit nearby. Like the remains of the ancient Chimu city of Chan Chan or the Moches temples of Huaca de la Luna Y Sol.
Punta Huanchaco left.
Early morning glass at Chicama...
The story goes that Hawaiian surfer Chuck Shipman was the first surfer to spot the waves of Chicama from the window of a plane as he flew home from the 1965 World Surfing Championships that had just held at Punta Rocas, Lima. Shipman identified three possible locations and he encouraged his Peruvian friends to explore the Northern region of Peru for the wave he had spotted. After a few attempts to find the spot, Peruvians Miro Quesada, Oscar “Chino” Malpartida and Carlos Barreda eventually found it a couple of years later.
There is evidence though that other surfers may have ridden the surf at Chicama long before. Casa Grande is Peru’s largest sugar plantation and is located in the Chicama River Valley. A Peruvian surfer recently visiting old warehouses in Casa Grande found several wooden surfboards that appear to date from the 1930s or earlier. This suggests that sugar plantation managers or researchers from Hawaii had visited or worked at Casa Grande during the 1920s or 1930s, and built the surfboards to ride Chicama.
Chicama racetrack at the start of the section called El Pointe.
The afternoon mist approaches over the cliffs.
A lucky surfer heads towards the hollow El Hombre section.
Chicama actually is made up of three separate point breaks but this section, El Pointe, is consistently the best shaped and when working properly will give rides of over one km; even when only head high. When conditions are right El Pointe can connect with the faster hollower El Hombre section before a final run to the pier. That would give a ride of 2.6 km. We had good overhead conditions and it was possible to make it into the El Hombre section on the right wave but the wave would close out long before the pier but still giving rides over a km. Is it the longest wave in the world? I don’t know the answer but they were longest waves I have ever surfed and they turned my legs to jelly
Chicama can be crowded but the wave is so long it can absorb many surfers. There were a couple of boats driving people back up the point, which was at times annoying, but it was always possible to catch waves. The current constantly pulled people down the point, long rides spread people out further and it’s possible to take off in a number of places and catch multiple waves down the point. All easing pressure in the lineup. The debate about boats at the point will go on for years. At the end of the day Puerto Chicama is a poor town and the locals have to exploit whatever resources they have, even the waves.
After a good ride walking up the point is the only option. Due not only the length of ride but also the strength of the current. Once in the lineup you can never stop paddling otherwise you will just be swept down the point.
Empty barrel in the El Hombre section.
Pacasmayo town was an important seaport when its pier was built circa 1860, with fishing and agriculture its main economy. Today, it is a tired old town of decaying colonial buildings that give it a rustic charm. People are friendly; it has a nice square and a nostalgic promenade. Most importantly it has a long and powerful left point that is always bigger than Chicama and often referred to as Chicama’s big brother.
Many locals live a simple life among the skeletons of Pacasmayo’s prosperous past.
Photography wise Pacasmayo drove Alexa crazy. As the beach is pretty bleak and good surf always came with bad light. The point did deliver the goods though and we had long strong waves measured in hundreds of metres. The quality of the wave is comparable to world class points like Lennox Head or Jeffery’s Bay but far less crowded. It is said that Pacasmayo can hold huge double overhead plus waves. Under these conditions huge walls of white water will chase you across the points long walls in a down the line race from the El Faro lighthouse to the pier in town, a distance over two kilometres.
Business as usual at Pacasmayo Pier.
Every night a crew of local kids came and surfed a beach break peak next to the pier. Anything went with these groms. With or without wetsuit, bodyboard, shortboard or even half a broken board. They dropped in each other, crashed into each other and frothed over every wave. A few were starting to get quite good and rest assured these kids will one day inherit El Faro point and it’s long grinding walls.
Pacasmayo is pretty rough around the edges and this side street seems the most unlikely place to find a good surf camp, but there is. The camp is called Los Faroles and is run by a local family who go out of their way to make sure everyone who stays there is well looked after.
Religion and tradition is very important to many Peruvians and the countryside is dotted with similar monuments.
PERU is a country rich in culture, history and waves. The Incas created one of the greatest and complex empires the world has ever seen, leaving the world one of its greatest archeological sites, Machu Picchu. It was in Peru at Cabo Blanco where Hemmingway found inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Old Man and the Sea. There is evidence that the world’s first wave riding was in Peru and in surfing, Peru, is most famous for having the longest wave in the world at Puerto Chicama.
Yet, Chicama is just the tip of the iceberg. The whole coastline of Peru is littered with an uncountable number of long left hand point breaks. Besides all these point breaks the geography of the coast also creates a multitude of rock shelf reefs. All these perfect setups are fed a constant supply of swell, which travel uninterrupted from Antarctica, arriving on the shores of Peru with size and power comparable to anywhere. Big waves, big barrels or long walls, Peru seems to have it all, but a combination of barren scenery and poor photography light seems to have kept Peru off the surf travel “A-list”.
Our guide for the trip was Alberto from surfperutravel.com, a Lima local and lifelong Peruvian surfer. His local knowledge ensured we had a smooth trip, scored great waves and always had what we needed. When you are measuring your trip in weeks, local knowledge is priceless.
Words by Mark Sankey
Photography by Alexa Poppe
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