The Pan-American highway hugs the contours of the Pacific coast like a giant black serpent, before darting suddenly inland behind a hundred sandy miles of desert, leaving you anticipating from the seat of your Collectivo – wedged between the old lady’s bag of live chickens and the farmer’s bucket of freshly slaughtered meat – the next glimpse of what can only be called a forsaken surfer’s paradise.
During the cramped drive from the Ecuadorian border in the company of a decent swell, each bend in the road reveals a lunar landscape against which a long string of endless left-hand point breaks reels off unridden.
Surfing folklore holds that somewhere along the empty stretches of Peru’s northern desert coast, the longest waves in the world wind past the arid shores, blessed by a constant state of offshore perfection almost completely unnoticed by the handful of local fishermen that ply the waters. Like some surfing Indiana Jones, I’m on a hunt for treasure.
As you travel south, the water becomes colder and the landscape appears more desolate. It seems as though nothing could survive here, yet in this inhospitable terrain farmers try to scratch a life for their families out of the dust and sand. The hot winds of the seemingly infinite stretches of parched, lifeless desert – some parts of which haven’t seen rain since the last Ice Age – meet the cold waters of the Humboldt Current, creating an eerie perma-fog. The mist blankets the coast from dawn ’til dusk like the haze of an all-day hangover. Happily for me, these phenomena also create a perpetually offshore convection current, grooming the waves to a state of glossy blown glass and forming perfect almond-shaped barrels in which to hide from the harsh desert wind.
It’s a white-knuckle, 45-minute taxi ride through the mist from Peru’s second largest city, Trujillo, to the surfing world’s special jewel. Puerto Chicama is an isolated, dusty little port town, and the namesake of the epic wave that rolls with clock-like precision past its shores. Looking like a real-life ghost town and with modern conveniences few and far between, there’s absolutely nothing to do here apart from surf – but it’s a good enough reason. On its leg-melting 4km journey from start to finish, the continuous face of a Chicama wave peels tirelessly for an eternity along the cliffs on the razor’s edge between the Pacific and the barren windswept landscape.
In a shabby dorm room teetering on the cliff-face overlooking the point, I exist on beans and rice, but gorge myself on the longest waves of my life. In a small head-high swell, I sit on the cliff resting my burning leg muscles and watch people ride a wave for minutes before they disappear out of sight, throwing countless different turns along the way. If this was what happened on a small day, I could only imagine this place during one of the frequent bigger swells. Yes, this is definitely the place to fine-tune your surfing.
Yet, unbelievably, a crowd at Puerto Chicama consists at most of around 10 travellers and local surfers spread over the 4kms. You can go all day without seeing another person in the water. I had found surfing’s holy grail.
While the surf proved fantastic, you can’t spend every waking hour in the ocean, and it’s the local people that make this country really special. Far from slowing either party down, the language barrier creates a mood of enthusiasm. It’s hard not to get caught up by their zeal, sharing a wave and a laugh, or generosity. They really will go out of their way to help you in any way they can. When it came time to leave Chicama we did so with handmade parting gifts from several of our new friends.
Having surfed the longest waves of my life over a dozen times at any number of places in Peru, its reputation for the world’s longest, most isolated waves is definitely founded in reality – but I had discovered so much more than I set out to find. I was constantly overwhelmed by the most open, genuine people I’d ever met. As the myriad individual jelly-leg-inducing waves I rode blur into one, the feeling from those faces – resiliently smiling despite their hard existence – burns crisp and clear. And it will probably remain, long after I’ve trimmed my last wave.
The (other) top guns of Latin America’s Pacific Coast
PUERTO ESCONDIDO, Mexico: Infamous board-breaker Escondido is the world’s best and heaviest beach break. Surfers have flocked to this area for decades to witness some of the biggest, fastest, most perfectly formed barrels you’ll ever see.
WITCHES ROCK, Costa Rica: The 1994 release of Endless Summer 2 exposed this remote, unspoilt surfers’ paradise, located in the middle of a huge National Park, accessible most of the year only by boat.
PAVONES, Costa Rica: Bending around the big black rocks of its southernmost tip is Costa Rica’s longest wave. Over 2km of left-hand point breaks offer fast mechanical lefts of real size and extreme length during the frequent big S/SW swells.
SANTA CATALINA, Panama: Located at the end of a remote peninsula the waves reputedly never fall below 4ft but are often over 15, thanks to Antarctic south swells that are filtered and focused by a series of small offshore islands onto a huge roaring right hand reef.
PACASMAYO, Peru: Just a short drive from better known Puerto Chicama, but receives more swell, is more consistent and is just as long, if not longer.