I have an admission to make. Despite the fact that the equinox came and went six weeks ago, for the past month I have continued to check the north Pacific swell models multiple times per day.
Maybe it’s habit, or maybe I am just hoping for one last excuse to run to Micronesia. But whatever the reason, as of May 1, I have cut myself off. The fantasy is over, and the north Pacific model is no longer my home page. Winter is coming for those below the equator, south swell season is well and truly here, and it’s time for our focus to reflect that fact.
The thing is, the southern hemisphere is a pretty big place, so deciding where to go in the month of May isn’t as easy as simply setting your compass bearing to 180. As always, a lot of factors have to be taken into account. Swell consistency, wind and weather, crowds, and sand all play a part when it comes to choosing the zone with the best potential for scoring waves. But while there are a dozen regions that could light up this month, South America is the obvious call, for a number of reasons.
First of all, it’s huge! Chile alone has more than 4,000 kilometers of coastline facing into one of the most active swell windows on the planet, with wave-rich Peru to the north enjoying the same fetch. And on the opposite side of the continent, Brazil has nearly twice as much coastline (although half of it faces north). Even Argentina can pump, although you are less likely to hear about it in the media. And with the temperatures dropping and the Antarctic storm machine kicking into overdrive, the entire continent historically enjoys consistent swell all month.
The second major factor to consider is local weather and wind, which can be an issue in these southern reaches. While there will certainly be a number of big swells later in the season, they are likely to come with rain and onshore flow, while the autumn tends to be the kindest season when it comes to local conditions.
Consistent medium and occasional large swells with good wind and sunny skies—it’s hard to think of a better combination, especially if the sand is good. And in general, that’s something you can expect in the early season. While the waves have been pumping over the past month, there haven’t been enough massive swells yet to wipe out the perfectly sculpted sandbars that have built up over the summer, and Peru is coming off of a record-breaking wet season, which means there has been more sediment runoff than usual.
So where to go in South America? That’s the hardest question to answer, since the continent is so expansive. As always, it sort of depends what you are looking for. If you want to surf warm, rippable lefthand points such as Lobitos and Chicama, then northern Peru is the go—plus, you’ll have the opportunity to help local standout Gabriel Villeran and non-profit Waves For Water as they provide much-needed water filters to families displaced by the recent flooding.
On the other hand, if you like your lefthand points without the hype, and don’t mind the cold, then central and southern Chile might be the call. The country is littered with epic setups that pump unmolested by crowds—all you need is a map, a 4x4, and a good wetsuit. Throw in an epic snowboard scene in the Andes, and Chile might just be the best all-around country in the world to chase adrenaline this month—especially if you like big waves and want to try your hand at the notorious Punta Lobos with chargers like Ramon Navarro.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Brazil is holding far more than samba, Sao Paulo, and scantily cut swim gear. Beach breaks abound, ranging from rippable to downright dredging, and despite the popularity of surfing (if there is a country that loves surfing and surfers more than Brazil, we’ve yet to find it) you can still find a corner to yourself if you are willing to search.
Or you can join the masses at the dozens of surf contests that will run over the next month, ogling locals as they ogle their local heroes, guys like Gabriel Medina, Adriano De Souza, Jadson Andre, and Caio Ibelli. And for the intrepid hell-charger, Rio has a handful of slabs that will make you rethink any preconceived notions you might have about the strength of Brazilian waves.
For a completely different change of pace, head south to Argentina, South America’s lessor-known surf region. Not a lot has been published about this area, but for those willing to do some exploration (such as local brothers Julian and Joaquin Azulay), the potential still exists to discover world-class waves that are only surfed by a handful of die-hards, or no one at all.
And what about Uruguay? Are there even waves there? The country has nearly as much coastline as California, so why not go and find out?
Whether you are looking for waves that are small or large, long or slabby, metropolitan or completely isolated, South America is holding—and perhaps, more than anything else, that is the best reason to head to the continent this month. Nowhere else in the world can you find such wide-ranging diversity, Latin American hospitality, and consistent swell. If you wander down in May, there’s a good chance you won’t look north until the winter is over.
Cover shot, remote Peru by Alexa Poppe