Lance Cherry

Perfection in desolation. Where sea and sand, cliff and clime combine sublime.

Where the lithe and lissome come out to play. Bodies most tanned and toned, taut of torso, beach boys, babes, bums, combers and drifters. Some grizzled, with parched shoulders and bleached locks, the old-timers.

Chicama, north Peru, surfing nirvana. The longest ‘left’ wave on the planet. Up to 2.2km, on the rare occasions when the gods oblige and stars absolutely align. Set just beyond the southern fringe of scrubby little dust town Puerto Malabrigo (pop. 5,000), at the edge of what seems a never-ending ugly, stony desert.

A fleet of big, ocean-going fishing trawlers anchors off a long, spindly tressle-dock. Smoke belches 24/7 from 10 processing plants set at the northern, rough end of town. Fish-meal factories.

But it is outside the large headland 2km south of town that the magic happens. Swells from the deep-south Pacific Ocean push northwards, until wrapping around a perfectly formed and positioned set of cliffs, bending into perfect, near endless waves along a very wide, relatively shallow, sandy-bottomed bay.
Anywhere between 20 and 50 lines at the same time.
Chicama, north Peru, surfing nirvana.  Picture by Lance Cherry

A peek at local doyen hotel El Hombre’s register columns reveals visitors from around the world.

Some come simply to say they once rode Chicama. The best, with some strut and pomp, come to challenge the swell, and themselves – jelly-legged after a two-minute ride. Testosterone zone extreme.

They bring a variety of toys, surfboards (from short snappers to loaned, much-used longboards), hydrofoils, winged hydrofoils, crash helmets, head and wing cams, and de rigeur wetsuits … the water measures somewhere between 14-16 degrees Celsius in winter, when the swell is at its best, and highly favourable, constant offshore winds lower the water temperature. It blows light at sunrise, building up to 30 knot howlers by eve. Choose your poison.
Regular grommet (beginner) rides are between 10 and 20 seconds. A lifetime in many other surf spots. The good ones might get up to a minute, that’s 500m! The very good ones … ?
One hydrofoil surfer seems to fly, without a wing. Count … 131 seconds. Estimate maybe 1.5km!
That is 131 x Mississipi. 131 M’s, 131 P’s, 524 I’s, 524 S’s. ….. Say all of those. That’s how long the ride is.
Another wave is so long and clean that two riders duel and dance. One finds the rail, speeds ahead, then cuts and cutes and turns as his friend hits the speed line, passing the playful surfer. Next it is his turn to flick and flack as surfer one rips past again. Repeat, repeat …
I hear the groans at home. “Faaaahk, he’s there, and he doesn’t even surf.” (I didn’t build Machu Picchu either, but I went there too, once, just to take look. Chuckles.)
And buzzing in between, and lurking in the background are the rubber-duck surfer taxis.
There is a strong northward current. After a ride of 1km it is near impossible to paddle back. Many just hit the beach and take the long, slow walk back to ground zero. Others wave to one of the small motor boats, to be picked up, and driven back to position-A. Thirty, 40, 50 surfers. Five-10 taxis towed on to the beach each morning on trailers behind three-wheeled tuk-tuks.
Time reveals a commercial convergence of swells, rising and falling. Cash and current.
The wave works best when the sea is big, every two or three weeks. Passerby travellers take what they can get. The pros hang out in nearby prettier surf towns like Pacasmayo, an hour or two away, keenly watching online swell indicators.
At the right moment, they swarm in.
Hostel and hotel managers watch the same indicators. Bed-night prices swell to near double for the big wave period, subsiding as the sea drops.
Modern visceral interludes combine with a backdrop of thousands of years of history only a few kilometres inland, or up and down the local coast.
Chimor kingdoms, conquered by Incan empires, conquered by Spanish empires. Ruins, relics and antiquities litter the country’s northern shoreline. Inland, old history is even more in evidence.
Chan Chan, the biggest ancient city of South America. Caral, recognised as the oldest city of the Americas.
Caral is thousands of years old. Picture: Lance Cherry

Not too far north of Lima, 25km inland from the town of Barranca, stands the evidence of Caral, estimated at 5,000 years old. Plazas, pyramids, administrative centres and public housing areas reveal an organised, centralised society of approximately 3,000 inhabitants. A pre-ceramic era: clay figurines discovered are sun-dried, not baked in a fire or kiln.

Ceremonial-style pyramids dominate the town, the largest 150m high.
The curious quipu was used as a counting and measuring instrument. A local-style abacus, sets of threads of different lengths, with knots tied at different intervals. How many corn cobs for the market? How big is my land?
No evidence of any weaponry in the archaeological sites. Peaceful folk.
Theory has it that floods and earthquakes forced the fisher-farmer citizens from their haven, to villages closer to the coast.
No graveyards have been unearthed. Local belief is that the dead were fed to the sharks.
When the residents abandoned the town, they covered all their buildings and pyramids with mud. Modern excavations are slow and laborious, slowly revealing boulders, construction stones, steps, rooms, chambers, hearths, homes. Unanswered questions as to whether the protection was to allow later return, or purely for posterity.
After months of fairly consistent moving, bussing, testing dozens of foreign beds and bathrooms, quickly learning the local layouts of town after town, tiring of repeatedly answering “donde estas” (where are you from), decide it is time for a breather. Opt for a dalliance in quaint seaside resort Huanchaco, jump-off point to visit ancient Chan Chan, and home to the famed caballito de totora (reed horses) used by local fishermen.
The remnants of the old city lie between Huanchaco (a surf destination in its own right) and Trujillo, 20km away.
Chan Chan: the largest city in pre-Columbian (pre-Spanish) South America, population of around 50,000, existed between 900AD and around 1500, when the Inca decided to conquer and allow it to decline.
The old coastal city was watered by streams and aqueducts up to 20km long from nearby mountains.
Sneaky Incans. No need for battle. They just camped outside the town and choked the waterways. No water, no crops, no food.
The conquerors embarked, as usual after their victories, on their “Mitma system of ethnic dispersion”, moving the majority of civilians from newly conquered areas to small towns in the far-flung reaches of their empire. Early, structural ethnic cleansing. Divide and rule, plus forcing a large amount of restrictions on the ‘new’ outlier settlers, extracting their teeth, or forcing them to always wear their traditional clothes, marking them as different, and beaten.
Not long after the Incans took control, the Spanish arrived, in turn vanquished all around, built a new neighbouring town, Trujillo, and Chan Chan slowly fell into disrepair and disuse.
Only a small section of the old city is open to visitors, much of it refurbished between 15m high boundary walls.
But driving from Huanchaco to Trujillo, a main road, with dozens of buses a day, and many vehicles, is to drive through the centre of the old city. On either side of the road, for 10km, are obvious tumbledown mounds of different shapes, which would once have been buildings of varying natures. It is an antiquity that still mostly exists under centuries of sand and mud, largely, it seems, not cared for, bar large white and blue signs proclaiming “Chan Chan: archaeological site”.
Perhaps the ‘clevers’ have already identified the most important zones, and are concentrating on those. There is much work, digs, protective coverings …. yet it looks as if 80 percent is deserted. Like driving through ghost towns of old Western US, or Namibia’s coast. Just that here the ghosts are a lot older.
Walk along Huanchaco’s beachfront, and stumble upon the real life version of the fabled postcard shot. The reed canoes stand upright against the retaining wall with fishermen alongside tending to nets or sorting out piles of fish.
Each morning, at first light, they mount their ‘steeds’ and paddle out to their nets set the day before. An hour or two later the flotilla returns, each fisherman carrying between 10-20kg of fish. Some speedily hop off and run their catch up to the nearby market. Others deliver to restaurant owners who flock to the beach each morning to ensure their fresh ceviche for the day.
An hour’s work. Picture by Lance Cherry

The one-man canoes have been used similarly for 1000’s of years. Antique clay ornaments of craft and rider stand as testimony.

The ‘reed canoes’ are slightly misnamed. They are actually built from sedges that grow in local marshes.
Two ‘tubes’ of plant stems are tied tightly, then bound together, with a small box, or ‘hold’ at the back to carry the nets and catch. Fat polystyrene plugs inserted into the tubes give great buoyancy. Naturally begs the question of pre-polystyrene days.
In rudimentary fashion, they ramp the waves going out, and ride the swells back to the beach. Earliest surfers?
One-man fishing canoes. Picture by Lance Cherry

Oars are 12cm-wide bamboo stems split in half. The perfect, full-purchase paddle. The boats are 50kg dry, and 80kg when sodden. Local rule is ‘if you can’t carry the craft up and down the beach, you are not allowed to be one of the local fishermen’.

Wet and dry every day, they have short life-spans, around two months before the sedge stems lose their structure and need to be replaced. Approximately $80 a pop. Thin margins.
Visit a 16th century church, and stumble into the local graveyard.
It is filled with groups of people. Yet there seems no solemnity.
Friends and family gather around tombs and graves. There is jollity in the air. Music, song, even some dance. Glasses and bottles are raised high. Toasts and tears. Celebrations of life rather than death.
The perfect moment to spend an hour quietly in a corner, watching, musing on mortality.