IT was high tide on a scorching Tuesday, and the choppy beaches around Lima, Peru, were crawling with surfers. There were teenagers in ratty flip-flops carrying short boards patched with duct tape, and bronzed women in wet suits paddling out into the shimmering blue waves. There was even a businessman in his 30s, who climbed out of a black-tinted S.U.V. in nothing but shorts, as a muscular chauffeur handed him a freshly waxed board, a bottle of water and a dab of sunscreen.
The only thing missing, it seemed, were tourists. Despite having monster swells on par with those that hit Hawaii’s legendary northern shores, Peru isn’t known as a surfing destination, except perhaps by a small band of jet-setting surfers for whom no wave is beyond reach.
That is, unless you happen to be one of the approximately 28 million inhabitants of Peru, South America’s third-largest country in area. Then you know very well that surfing has swept the nation recently in a pop cultural frenzy. On the wide boulevards of Lima, billboards are covered with the fresh-faced ranks of Peruvian surfers endorsing cellphones, beer and soft drinks. Surfing contests are all the rage. And to the south, where the waves are even bigger, physical attributes like pumped-up lungs, buff shoulders and sun-bleached hair seem to be bred into the local DNA.
And now, as Peru rides a tourism wave propelled by a strong economy and favorable exchange rates for bargain-minded Americans, it is poised to become the new “it” spot on the international surfing circuit. After all, Peru has 1,500 miles of rugged coastline dotted with countless breakers, from pristine beaches tucked around Lima to unexplored pockets up north where some waves are said to last more than a mile. And unlike Malibu, Hawaii’s northern shores and other well-known places, many of Peru’s best surfing spots are often nearly empty.
With so much to explore, surfing has muscled in on soccer and the culinary arts to become an unlikely symbol of national hope. Much of the current craze can be traced back to 24-year-old Sofía Mulanovich, a Peruvian who won the World Surfing Championship title in Hawaii in 2004 — a contest dominated by Australians and Americans. And if the ranks of teenagers who frolic their spare hours away in the swell have any say, surfing in Peru will only get bigger.
That’s true up and down Peru’s coast, whether it’s a small town like Chicama in the country’s north, famous for its super-long waves, or around the busy capital of Lima, where the sometimes polluted breaks are teeming with surfers from dusk till dawn. But the epicenter of the neo-surf scene is undoubtedly in Punta Hermosa, a summer beach community about 30 miles south of Lima, where surfing is virtually a religion.
The hourlong drive to Punta Hermosa provides a sobering look at the arid and impoverished landscape in this part of the country: brown hills devoid of vegetation and pocked with sad clusters of wooden shanties. The town itself doesn’t look like much — dusty concrete houses painted in bright greens, blues and reds in the hills below the four-lane Pan-American Highway. But the fuss is clear when you finally arrive at the beach: curling waves fan out in all directions like Neptune’s block party.
Each break point presents a different challenge. There’s Kon Tiki, which offers untamed waves so massive that it takes a strong arm even to paddle out to it; La Isla, where homegrown pros like Ms. Mulanovich and Gabriel Villarán can often be found; and Pico Alto, a brawny break with swells that can range up to 25 feet high.
ON a recent Saturday afternoon, the Copa Barena Professional Circuit surf competition was taking place in Punta Rocas, one of the most popular beaches in the area. The scene at the amateur competition resembled a South American version of Malibu, but wilder. Barena, a Honduran beer being introduced in Peru, had erected giant inflatable bottles that were flapping like Michelin men in the wind.
A stoner reggae band drowned out the announcers. And waiters in baseball hats weaved through an obstacle course of sun chairs with plates of calamari and cans of Inca Kola, a yellow soda spiked with caffeine-laden guaraná fruit.
The surf champ Ms. Mulanovich, who is known as “la gringa” because of her fair skin and blond streaked hair, sat with an entourage near the judge’s perch as she watched her younger brother, Matias, whiz over the lip and down the face of a meaty charging barrel.
“Peru is the best preparation for a pro surfer because there are so many different varieties of breaks and conditions,” said Ms. Mulanovich, who grew up in Punta Hermosa and recently bought a rock-star grade condo nearby with panoramic views of five surf breaks. “It’s much less crowded than in Hawaii and California, and even on the smallest day of the year it’s never flat.”
When her brother paddled in, the group piled into a caravan of S.U.V.’s and drove five minutes down the highway to San Bartolo for a teenage girl competition. It was sponsored by the cellphone company Movistar. “It’s like this all summer,” Ms. Mulanovich said. “Everybody wants to be a surf star now.”
But despite the surf fever, Punta Hermosa remains off the radar for most tourists, probably because there’s little reason to come unless you’re really into surfing. There are no surf shops — boards and gear must be rented or bought in Lima — and only a handful of hotels like Luisfer’s, a no-frills hostel where surfers bunk up, five to a room. Between sessions, guests can be seen doing yoga atop their board bags in the courtyard.
Dining options are limited, too. The sidewalks are lined with cheerful stands that serve ceviche and seafood carpaccios that look amazing, but are far from stomach friendly. Ms. Mulanovich’s boyfriend, a surfer named Scott from Los Angeles, had been holed up in her condo for weeks after getting salmonella poisoning from bad mayonnaise.
The enterprising and friendly locals, however, make up for the lack of infrastructure. The town’s surf museum, for example, is actually the private home of an old-school surfer, José A. Schiaffino. I stumbled upon the 1950s surf shack one afternoon while walking back from the beach. Mr. Schiaffino wasn’t home, which was too bad because I had heard he mixes a mean pisco sour, but his caretaker let me look around.
The living room wall was plastered with archival photos of the Waikiki Surf Club and the ceiling was covered with colorful boards donated by big name riders like Nat Young, Mark Foo and Ms. Mulanovich — a makeshift hall of fame.
Peru’s love affair with surfing actually dates back to the 1940s, when the playboy socialite Carlos Dogny returned from Hawaii with a shiny wooden board given to him by Duke Kahanamoku, considered the godfather of modern surfing. In 1942, Mr. Dogny founded the elite Waikiki Surf Club in Miraflores, a ritzy suburb on the southern outskirts of Lima, where Peru’s ruling families rode the swells and got tipsy in the clubhouse on pisco sours. (The club still employs “board boys” who rush to the water’s edge to carry and wax members’ boards when they’re done with a session.)
The club placed Peru firmly on the international surf map and played host to the World Surfing Championships, which was won by a local big-wave rider, Felipe Pomar, in the 1960s. But by the 1970s, the sport’s reputation sagged as it became associated with dropouts and druggies, and surfing largely lost it cachet.
About the same time, the country became marred by economic woes, political repression and terrorism. Between 1980 and the early ’90s, the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path waged war against Peruvian society, killing tens of thousands of peasants and small-town leaders, and turning Lima into a fiery battleground.
“Back then there was a curfew at 1 a.m.,” said José de Col, a pro surfer who quit the sport in the ’80s to become an architect because there was little sponsorship money in Peru. “We couldn’t have parties. Blackouts and bombs were part of daily life.”
Things began turning around and, in the last few years, Peru seems to have planted a 180-degree aerial. The country has stabilized politically under the new president, Alan García, though soaring food prices have driven his popularity down. Despite high rates of poverty (almost half the nation lives below the poverty line), Peru’s economy has grown steadily, providing a much-needed morale booster and, for surfers, an excuse to get back into the water.
After spending a day playing sand bunny in Punta Hermosa, and watching the competitions from the safety of my towel, I was itching for my own adrenaline rush. So the next morning, I hired a taxi and set out on an hourlong journey to Cerro Azul, a mellow break immortalized in a line from the Beach Boys’ 1962 anthem, “Surfin’ Safari.”
After maneuvering through four police checkpoints (shakedowns are common along the Pan-American Highway), we pulled up on a dirt road to the port town. Cerro Azul felt abandoned, like a Western ghost town, except for a few shiny condos and the lazy sounds of salsa lulling through the hot dusty air. The shoreline, however, buzzed with anticipation. True to its reputation, the break had a mellow but perky wave that rippled around a jagged point as though made in a water-park wave pool. I paddled out, staked my spot among the teens, moms and old timers, and caught a few rides before moving on to the next break down the coast.
As much as I liked paddling along southern Peru, the word on the shore was that any surf safari must also include a visit to Máncora, a small fishing village in northern Peru near Ecuador. It enjoys an almost mythic reputation among surfers for its balmy water, endless sunshine and crowd-free breaks. “Una paradiso!” my new friends would say between sets.
But it didn’t seem that way at first. I flew on Aerocondor, onboard a clunky plane that still had ashtrays in the arm rests, and landed in Talara, an industrial port city whose airport is now temporarily closed. The region, with a brown dirt terrain as monotonous as a broken record, is the center of Peru’s oil industry. Giant rigs scar the landscape like mechanical mosquitoes and perfume the air with the fetid scent of raw petroleum.
After an hourlong taxi ride, I arrived in Máncora, which looked like a blink-of-an-eye frontier town until I wandered out to the beach. Nubile surfers in string bikinis lounged under palm trees sipping coconuts, taking turns paddling out into the crystal blue ocean. It felt like that secret spot in “The Beach,” the 2000 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, except it was not quite a secret.
Máncora has been transformed in recent years from a sleepy fishing village into a busy, international backpacker hub. After dark, the town’s sole street turns into a total party, with flotillas of surfers, weekenders from Ecuador and girls in slinky tank tops getting tipsy at bars like Iguanas and Chill Out. There are also several amazing restaurants in town, serving the nouvelle Asian-Peruvian fusion known as novoandia. La Sirena, run by Juan Seminario Garay, a 28-year-old local surfer who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Lima, serves dishes like causa maki, dollops of mashed potatoes filled with scallops mixed in a red and yellow pepper sauce.
In the morning, the action moved to the beach, especially at the main surf break in front of the Hotel del Wawa, a small hotel and restaurant owned by the hunky surf pro Fernando Paraud, who is known simply as Wawa. “Every day is like a weekend,” said Wawa, who was holding court at his usual table. “Except weekends are more crowded.”
STILL, the restaurant was packed wall-to-wall on a recent Thursday afternoon with surfers waiting out the high-noon sun and low tides. Over delicate plates of smoked carpaccio and seared tuna steaks, they traded gossip on the day’s best swells and near collisions in the lineup. Then, when the tide finally broke around 4 p.m., everyone put down their forks, grabbed their surfboards and headed back to the water in choreographed unison.
It felt like a scene from a Broadway musical, especially when cheers of “Oy!” “Va!” “Ey!” would wash over the crowd like the chorus of a reggaetón song.
I followed them in. The waves were as gentle and as well-formed as the famously friendly breaks at San Onofre or Waikiki. And almost as jammed. Luckily there was a chain of hidden beaches just a hop away.
After bumming around Wawa for a couple of days, I hired a local surf guide nicknamed Pulpo to show me around. He drove me 10 miles in his teal-blue van to Los Organos, an abandoned oil town with a couple of new beachside hostels.
There were no more than a dozen other riders on the surf. I took my board into the water and waited for my wave. It didn’t take long before I caught one that was head high with a defined peak that tapered off to the right into a long shoulder — perfect for cutting and carving long arcs.
Pulpo seemed impressed because he took me 45 minutes farther south to Lobitos, a hard-to-find break tucked at the end of a ragged dirt road. There were oil pumps, rusty pipelines and crumbling military barracks, some of which had been taken over by squatters and turned into surfing hostels decorated with bumper stickers. I poked my head inside one: several blond French girls were having lunch with their dreadlocked Chilean boyfriends.
Eating would have to wait. We pulled up over the dirt and parked alongside the deserted beach. I pulled out my chunky 7-foot-6-inch rental board with trepidation. The beach looked like a small swatch of an industrial wasteland: a couple of oil barrels with flames flickering on top, and a few giant rigs on the horizon. But the waves, it turned out, had a perky, fun shape. Really fun, in fact. And the water was a seductive clear blue. Pulpo smiled. He had promised me a crowd-free break that was off the grid, and here it was.
* By JULIA CHAPLIN (May 4, 2008)