Surfing is big deal in Peru, what with the Pacific Ocean defining its entire western border. The origins of the now-sport but once-likely utility-activity can apparently can be traced back at least 2,000 years ago to the pre-Incan Moche civilization/people, which existed in the north of Peru.
Famously, one Moche pottery artifact shows a man tackling an epic wave on a totora reed boat. It’s really gnarly. Relying primarily on fishing for food and using the flat reed boats to do so, the Moche would “surf” back to shore after a long day on the water, fish-filled nets in hand. So while surfing is most often associated with Polynesia, it’s just possible it could have been born on the Pacific Peruvian north coast. And it’s likely existence has led to fascinating hypotheses about whether centuries ago there could have been a more direct link between ancient Peru and Polynesia.
Modern surfing was introduced to the country after Carlos Dogny, a Peruvian, made a trip to Hawaii in the 1930s and learned from some of Hawaii’s best enthusiasts, including Duke Kahanamoku, the founder of modern surfing. On his return to Peru, Dogny became known as the father of Peruvian surfing after he established Club Waikiki in Lima—the first organization dedicated to the skill, art or sport, depending on your preference.
Peru’s massive coastal waves are now world-famous, attracting some of the best of the sport. But there are also swells quite friendly to beginners, and overall, just plenty of waves to go around—Peru’s ample coastline provides a variety of spots that never get too crowded, but can challenge both pros and newbies alike.
Best time to come to Peru for surfing is March to December, with the peak season in May. In north Peru, you should check out the beaches at Mancora (the world’s largest left-hand point break, for surfer aficionados), the beaches south of Mancora (Lobitos, Cabo Blanco and Organos), and the ones closer to Trujillo, including Pacasmayo, Huanchaco and Chicama (the longest left-handed surf break on earth). The north also has the most organized surf scene, with shops and hostels catering to surfers, and offering lots of rentals and know-how.
Around Lima, you can surf in the tourist district of Miraflores, where gentler waves are found, and also in the neighbourhoods of Barranco and La Herradura. On the south coast, the best spots are Punta Hermosa, Cerro Azul, Punta Rocas and Pico Alto (with a name literally translating to “big peak,” you know what to expect—some of the largest waves in South America, which can reach up to seven meters high). Further down near Paracas, you can visit Isla San Gallan—funnily enough, you’ll need to hop on a boat to get this famous right-hand point break.
On the world stage, Felipe Pomar won the World Surfing Championships in 1965. In recent years, the country has made it onto the international spotlight, with athletes like Peru’s sweetheart Sofia Mulanovich taking the female world championship title. As for kite-surfing, windsurfing and paddleboarding, they’re also picking up wind—you’ll want to check out Mancora and Paracas for the best scenes.
Swimming and Diving: Where Hot and Cold Collide
Let me start this off by telling you about one place you won’t want to swim: the Amazon River. I know, it’s tempting, but there are just way too many potentially harmful critters in there to keep you company, including parasites and bacteria.
On the other hand, you have my blessing to swim in the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Peru. The beach-side south of Lima is a descent spot in the summer (January to March) and surprisingly, doesn’t get too warm. That’s because of the Humboldt current, a cold current that flows along the west side of South America, keeping ocean temperatures relatively cool along the coast, except for the north.
The north of Peru has warm weather and swim-friendly vacation beach towns and resorts at Mancora, Huanchaco (north of Trujillo) and Chiclayo, where you take a break from swimming with a pisco sour in hand. In the Pacific, you’re free of animals that might eat you, but keep an eye for the rip currents and be sure to find out from an expert (or expert organization) how to handle yourself if you’re ever caught in one.
Peru is not yet a big destination for recreational diving, but it should be! The Humboldt current results in cold-water diving on most of the coast— between 14 to 19 degrees Celsius year-round, and limited visibility (normally no more than 10 meters).
A great spot is just south of Lima at Pucusana. It’s home to marine biodiversity with hundreds of species of fish and sea lions. An interesting dive site is in the north near Tumbes, where the warm north current actually mixes with the cold current from the south, resulting in two distinct underwater ecosystems.
On the north coast, more tropical waters mean more tropical fish, seahorses, turtles, sea lions and even whales. There’s excellent diving in the stretch of beaches just north and south of Mancora. Just stay clear of the surfers.
- Carla Bragagnini is associate editor of www.infromtheoutpost.com