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Surfing: A Peru way of life as sport debuts at Pan Am Games

July 28, 2019
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A surfer slides off a dying wave as he surfs in front of the BUP Union naval teaching ship, which was carrying the Pan Am Games torch, off the coast of Lima, Peru, Friday, July 26, 2019. In the Peruvian capital, where dozens of schools teach locals and tourists from around the world how to ride the waves at beaches with Hawaiian names, professional surfers from across the Americas are preparing to compete when the sport is featured for the first time in the Pan Am Games.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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A surfer slides off a dying wave as he surfs in front of the BUP Union naval teaching ship, which was carrying the Pan Am Games torch, off the coast of Lima, Peru, Friday, July 26, 2019. In the Peruvian capital, where dozens of schools teach locals and tourists from around the world how to ride the waves at beaches with Hawaiian names, professional surfers from across the Americas are preparing to compete when the sport is featured for the first time in the Pan Am Games.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Every dawn, on every day, surfers in wetsuits paddle out to take on the famed Peruvian waves. Back on rocky beaches bearing Hawaiian names like Makaha and Waikiki, instructors can be seen training students.

Some here speak about the country’s world surfing champions. Others lay claim to being home to the world’s longest waves, offering a top destination for surfers worldwide. That includes professionals from across the Americas who will compete on huge waves on a reef break 38 miles (60 kilometers) south of Lima when the sport is featured Monday for the first time in the Pan American Games.

“As a Peruvian, I’m so proud that the Pan American Games are being held in Lima, and that for the first time, surfing is included as a sporting discipline,” said Alberto Lopez, who runs one of the dozen or so schools at Makaha beach in Lima’s upscale neighborhood of Miraflores. “Peru really is a gem. All Latin Americans know that Peru is the region’s best surfing destination.”

Surfing is a way of life in Peru, which has been called the Hawaii of Latin America. Sure, millions have marveled at the famed Inca citadel of Machu Picchu and tasted the cuisine that fuses indigenous traditions with European, African and Asian influences through fresh ingredients, including an abundance of seafood from the Pacific Ocean’s chilly Humboldt current. But Peru also is synonymous with surfing.

Some Peruvians go as far as claiming that surfing’s origins can be traced to their homeland, with the pre-Inca Chimu civilization, near northwestern Chicama. Fishermen from the beach town of Huanchaco, 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Lima, still ride the waves back to shore with the day’s catch on the same reed boats used by the Chimu, called “caballitos,” or little horses.

Surfing, which also debuts at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was long the preserve of Peru’s wealthiest. But the tides changed. Many credit surfing’s popularity and its ability to transcend Peru’s class lines with easier access to inexpensive boards and a homegrown 2004 world surfing champion, Sofía Mulanovich, who ignited a wave-riding fever.

“We’re considered the Hawaii of Latin America because of the frequency of our waves,” said instructor Fernando Vidal, who on a recent morning arrived at Makaha in a rusty van with boards on top. “With our world champions Felipe Pomar and Sofía Mulanovich ... (and the) internet and Facebook we’ve become well known.”

The first World Championships staged by the International Surfing Federation were held in 1965 on the same Punta Rocas beach where surfers will now compete in the Pan Am Games. They were won by Pomar.

Mulanovich learned to surf when she was a young girl at Waikiki and became the women’s world surfing champion. Her victory brought with it a wave of surf schools that opened on Lima’s coast.

“Surfing in Peru had long been an aristocratic boys-only club. Demographic change had already begun filtering into Latin America’s beaches and lineups, but Mulanovich — compact and sloe-eyed, with a low, fast, tightly coiled wave-riding style — greatly accelerated the process,” the Encyclopedia of Surfing says. “By the late 2000s, roughly half of Peru’s surfers were from the expanding middle class, and among this new generation there was a small but fast-growing number of females.”

These days, teenagers in board shorts, jet-setting surfers, locals and curious tourists share the breaking waves.

In his black wetsuit, a barefooted Hector Vega recently bobbed like a penguin next to a highway carrying his board to a rocky break. Thick fog blanketed the horizon, but he was undaunted.

“It’s very addictive. In a way it’s like flying,” said Vega, a 61-year-old who began surfing at age 15. “In this country we’re lucky that any day of the year, we have one beach, one spot that will yield good waves.”

One big bonus: The breaks along Peru’s 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer) desert coast hit all year long, fed by the Humboldt current and uninterrupted by land masses. That has brought fame to the northern Chicama beach, home to some of the world’s longest waves and a top destination for the most daring surfers — even before the Beach Boys sang about the “shores of Peru” in their 1962 hit “Surfin’ Safari.”

“I consider Peru second only to Hawaii in the evolution of the sport,” former professional surfer and lawmaker Fred Hemmings told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Kailua, Hawaii. In 1968, Honolulu-born Hemmings was the winner of the World Surfing Championships.

Hemmings praised Peruvian surf contest organizer Eduardo Arena who in 1964 founded the International Surfing Federation, and later headed the World Surfing Championships. Like many others, Hemmings also credits Carlos Dogny with popularizing surfing.

Dogny, the son of a sugar cane magnate, fell in love with surfing when he studied in Hawaii in the 1930s, and he escaped Lima’s long winter months in search of his own “Endless Summer” about three decades before the surfing documentary by that name was released. Dogny returned to his home from Hawaii sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s with a huge wooden board, a gift from Duke Kahanamoku, seen as the father of modern surfing.

In 1942, Dogny co-founded the Club Waikiki, at the time a wooden shack bathroom on Costa Verde where they kept their boards. The club swelled to hundreds of members and includes a restaurant, tennis courts and a pool where three gigantic wooden boards are on display.

The white one in the middle was Duke’s gift to Dogny, said Victor Curo, a 79-year-old former potato farmer from the highlands, who has cared for surfboards at the Waikiki for 60 years. “Mamico,” as he is best known, recalled how it took two people to haul the mammoth board. Curo also opened a wooden door to a surfboard room named after him with a plaque commemorating his 50 years of service at Waikiki on the entrance.

“We have more than 1,000 boards here,” he said proudly. “Many have also sent me gifts,” he said, pointing to walls packed with framed pictures by pro surfers, including Hemmings, who first came to the Waikiki in 1964. In Hemmings’ dedication, he thanked Mamico for also helping his grandsons when they visited in 2017.

“Mamico did with my grandchildren what he did with me 50 years ago: He greeted them with open arms,” Hemmings said. “It’s the hospitality and gracefulness that he’s known for. He’s part of my Peruvian family.”

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