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The concept of surfing may have originated 2,000 years ago with indigenous fishermen in northern Peru.
LIMA, Peru — In the classic 1966 film “The Endless Summer,” two surfing buddies travel to Australia, South Africa and Tahiti in their quest to ride great waves all year long. It turns out they could have just come to Peru.
Though best known among travelers for the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru is now becoming a mecca for surfers. Due to Peru’s location near the equator, currents from the Northern and Southern hemispheres provide non-stop surf-able waves along much of the country’s 1,500 miles of Pacific coast.
Big wave surfers can find imposing 30-footers. Near the port town of Chicama, so-called “point-break” waves running parallel to the shore can carry surfers more than a mile.
“The good thing about this country is that we have waves all year round,” said Alberto Lopez, who runs one of about a dozen surf schools on Miraflores Beach, a stone’s throw from downtown Lima. “Even Hawaii doesn’t have waves all year round.”
Lopez works seven days a week because so many people want to learn the sport. Indeed, Lima — home to 9 million people — is one of the few capital cities in the world with decent waves. After landing at the international airport, surfers can be riding the waves within an hour.
“I surf at lunchtime then go back to work.”~Karin Sierralta
“It’s incredible to have eight or 10 beaches right here in the city,” said Karin Sierralta, president of the Peruvian Surfing Federation. “I surf at lunchtime then go back to work.”
There are some downsides to surfing the capital. The beaches are rocky. Sewage and industrial runoff can make the water a little murky. A few years ago, an American surfer ran into a dead cow.
But within a short drive of Lima sit placid, sun-baked surfing villages like Punta Hermosa, where the water is clean and the waves are massive.
Experts believe that the concept of surfing may have originated some 2,000 years ago with indigenous fishermen in what is now northern Peru. After long days at sea, these fishermen aboard their woven Totora reed boats had to negotiate massive Pacific waves.
“To come back to the shore, they have to paddle and catch a wave,” Lopez said. “So that means they ride waves, right? So it’s proven that they’ve been surfing before Jesus’ time.”
The modern sport took hold here in the 1940s when Peruvians brought back surf boards from Hawaii. The first surfing world championship was held in Peru in 1965.
But surfing suffered under Peru’s military government in the 1970s when import restrictions led to a surf board shortage, Sierralta said. In the 1980s and early 1990s a terror campaign by Shining Path rebels scared away foreign travelers.
Now, Peru is relatively peaceful, the economy is growing, and the sport is making a comeback among both local and international surfers. Several Peruvian companies export surf boards to the United States where they have a reputation for high quality and low price.
Peruvian surfing received another boost in 2004 when Sofia Mulanovich, who grew up in Punta Hermosa, became the first South American to win the Association of Surfing Professionals world title.
Mulanovich’s triumph was especially gratifying to Peruvians because their country has never been an international sporting power. The nation has won a single Olympic gold medal — in the free pistol event way back in 1948 — and its soccer team hasn’t played in the World Cup since 1982.
Mulanovich also helped inspire a new generation of female surfers.
Among the surfers taking classes on the Lima beaches every weekend are throngs of young women, like British tourist Jessica Shaw. She had planned a three-day visit to the city but got hooked on surfing and, months later, has yet to book a flight home.
“On the south coast of England we may get waves a few times a month but the water is really cold,” Shaw said. “Here the waves are really consistent."
The sport is also losing its elitist image. Programs backed by the city government provide surfing lessons to poor kids from Lima’s shantytowns. Though surf boards and wetsuits are expensive, there’s now a thriving business in low-cost secondhand gear.
Edgar Tello, a former bank teller, got his start with used equipment. After riding waves in the morning, he says, “I would change out of my wetsuit into a jacket and tie and go to work with my surfboard on top of my car. People in my office would say: 'Dude! Where are you coming from?'”
When Tello quit his bank job, his friends called him crazy and his girlfriend broke up with him. But Tello, 42, now works as a surf instructor and is living his dream —just like those sun-bleached globetrotters in “The Endless Summer.”