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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 3:13 a.m., Saturday, May 5, 2007

Surfing in Peru no longer just for the elite

Associated Press Writer

LIMA, Peru — For decades, Lima's wealthy elite has been ditching the three-pisco-sour lunch to surf the long, perfect waves as high as 10 feet along the Pacific coast.

But now the tides are changing, with the sport's popularity transcending class lines due to a greater availability of cheap boards and a homegrown 2004 world surfing champion who has sparked a wave-riding fever.

Unemployed Web designer Christian Escobar paid $80 for a used board — a fraction of the $350 pricetag for a new one — and stores it with fishermen near the pebbled Costa Verde beach instead of hauling it back to his poor neighborhood in Lima, more than an hour away by a rickety city bus.

"I've seen people from money, people who are poor," said Escobar, fresh from catching some late afternoon waves. "But whatever, the thing is to have fun."

Unlike surfing hotspots such as Australia, Hawaii and Costa Rica, whose waves depend on the season, the breaks along Peru's 1,500-mile desert coast hit all year long, fed by the mighty Humboldt Current and uninterrupted by any land masses. That has brought fame to the northern Chicama beach, home to the world's longest waves and a top destination for die-hard surfers worldwide — even before the Beach Boys harmonized about the "shores of Peru" in their 1962 hit "Surfin' Safari."

Many rich board-toting Limenos stick to the exclusive beach clubs south of the capital, or the thatched-roof resorts on the northern coast near Ecuador, where the waves are bigger and the water warmer.

The gritty Costa Verde beach, running below five Lima neighborhoods, has become more popular with middle- and lower-class surfers who take advantage of its small but powerful waves to learn the sport.

"Everyone wants to have fun, you know? Rich people and poor people," said Joseph Silva, a 22-year-old night cook from a poor district in eastern Lima who has been surfing the Costa Verde for three years on a used board. "It's an expensive sport, but there is something for everyone."

Some Peruvians insist surfing was born in this Andean country with the pre-Inca Chimu civilization, which lived near Chicama. In fact, fishermen from the beach town of Huanchaco, 300 miles north of Lima, still ride the waves back to shore with the day's catch on the same long reed kayaks called "caballitos," or "little horses," used by the Chimu.

Yet it is one of Peru's wealthier citizens who is credited with making the sport a national pastime.

Carlos Dogny, the son of a sugar magnate, became enamored with surfing while studying in Hawaii in the 1930s, and religiously escaped Lima's dreary seven-month winter in search of his own "Endless Summer" — some 30 years before the famed Bruce Brown surfing documentary was released.

Dogny and a good friend took to the waves during Peru's December-April summer on two heavy longboards he had shipped to Lima from San Francisco.

In 1942, they founded the Waikiki Club, at the time a wooden shack bathroom on Costa Verde where they kept their boards.

Today, the club has 600 members and includes a restaurant, two swimming pools and squash and tennis courts. But it's not open to everyone: new members must be recommended by a current member, pay a $5,000 initiation fee and be male, although a member's wife and daughters become automatic members.

Victor Curo, a 66-year-old former potato farmer from the highlands who has cared for surfboards at the Waikiki since he was 20, said that when he took the job, "People from poor neighborhoods didn't even know about the Costa Verde."

Now, "the whole world rides," Curo said, as he tapped a 10-pound fiberglass board and recalled the Herculean task of hauling 130-pound wooden longboards out beyond the waves for members. "It's changed a lot."

Mostly, he said, surfing here changed because of Sofia Mulanovich, who learned to surf at Waikiki when she was 9 and went on to become the 2004 women's world surfing champion. Following her win, dozens of informal surf schools opened up along Lima's coast, charging as little as $10 for a one-hour lesson.

"It's more fashionable now," said Rocio Larranaga, who has taught surfing at Waikiki for 12 years. She says her students now come from all over Lima — a sprawling metropolis whose only border not surrounded by slums is the Pacific Ocean.

Pedro Gomez, a textile industry student from the middle-class Barranco district who has been surfing the Costa Verde for a year on a used $20 board, said he prefers to go to his neighborhood beach, even if it's only steps away from where the Waikiki was founded.

"Near the Waikiki you can see people like me, people from the 'barrio,"' said Gomez. "But in the water we're all equal."