BAG en Peru
As the speeding and swaying double-decker bus hurtled head-on toward us in our lane, forcing us onto the shoulder of the Pan American Norte highway, I began to rethink our decision to rent a car in Lima and make the two-day drive up the coast to Chicama and Pacasmayo, two of Peru’s most famous and longest pointbreaks.
[Editor’s note: Today’s post is courtesy of Patagonia rock climbing ambassador Brittany Anne Griffith. All photos © Jonathan Thesenga]
Why didn’t we just book one of those San Diego Dentist Surfari Specials that have become so popular where everything is taken care of – food, flight, transportation, lodging, surf guide, masseuse – maximizing your vacation luxury and minimizing your interaction with all local people except the gated resort’s English speaking staff? Those package surf tours are everywhere now, even Chicama has one: a short 50-minute flight from Lima to Trujillo (skipping the hairball drive we were trying to survive), then a cheerful driver from the American owned and run resort (where, of course, everyone speaks perfect English) picks you up, delivering to the doorstep of the resort in time for an afternoon surf (complete with private Zodiac shuttles back to the point), then the servants rinse off your wetsuit for you as you enjoy a cool down swim in the infinity pool and a deluxe Gringo-friendly dinner (“Extra breadsticks with your lobster bisque soup, ma’am?”), before some evening cocktails and unwind time (“I’ll have the single-malt, and bring it down to me at the jacuzzi”), a quick check of your email and the surf forecast on the resort’s high-speed Wi-Fi, maybe catch the latest episode of House on the flat screen and then a pleasant slumber in your deluxe suite with cushy beds, Egyptian cotton sheets and tempurpedic pillows. Sure it costs $1,500 per person per day, but this was supposed to be a vacation, right?
Instead we had everything packed into a rental mini car, boards strapped on top, getting blown off the road by the barreling busses. Though the two-lane road that hugs the country’s coast was in great condition, the driving was as sketchy as anything I’d experienced in all my years of traveling throughout the world. No traffic laws were obeyed (standard in South America, yes) but the countless white crosses on the right of the road bore testament to the death toll of all the high-speed merging, veering, swerving and passing on blind corners, tight turns and rising hills of every single bus that speed up and down the road at all hours of the day and night. Just a couple of horn blasts and these buses would rally through towns, boldly plow into on-coming traffic, triple pass on the wrong side of the road to get around a slow moving farm truck or barrel off the road to pick up some random guy on some random stretch of road all without as much as a tap of the brake pedal.
It was terrifying. And it was exactly what we wanted. We came to Peru to experience Peru not some Gringo-fied version of the country. We wanted more than just surf; we wanted the freedom to stop and explore the country. While Dr. Robertson was getting pampered with Zodiac rides and Swedish massages, we were playing soccer with the kids, eating sketch food and lukewarm Nescafé from street carts, getting shook down by cops and paying them propinas (including a twenty and JT’s sunglasses), missing turns and getting lost in random towns, exploring Moche and Chimu ruins that are millennia upon millennia old, miming our way through conversations with farmers who had been growing the same four crops, in the same fertile valleys, for more than 3,000 years.
So maybe we “lost” a couple days of surf by exploring the country on our way up the coast, but what was the big rush? We ended up getting there with plenty of time for a nice southern swell to come roaring in. Chicama and Pacasmayo were lit up as advertised: long, clean epic waves with burly currents requiring near-constant paddling. It was awesome and exciting but I really could’ve done without the pack of German aggro surfers zipping around me (and the other “paddling” surfers) on the resort’s Zodiacs, getting dropped off above the lineup for an easy snake of the next big set.
On day three of the swell, in an effort to follow my overly enthusiastic boyfriend – who has on more than one occasion underestimated my duck-diving ability – I tried to paddle in at a higher spot in the hopes of getting above the whistling and waving Zodiac-ers. This resolve almost cost me my life. I got hit on the head one too many times, and although I was only 20 feet behind JT, I was swept by the strong current into rocks. He made it out, I, however, was positioned in a spot that I knew, even as a gumby surfer, was bad, very bad. A peek over my shoulder revealed a mass of boiling water and black rock. The next wave broke on top of me and I was stripped off my board and then held and pushed under water. There was a second of silence before I hit the rock, shoulder blade first and then my head. There was the familiar (I’ve crashed my down hill bike and snowboard hundreds of times) crack of my head against the rock. But instead of spitting dirt or snow out of my mouth, this time, I couldn’t breathe. I was pinned in this weird “lazy boy”-esque position by my leash and now half a board being sucked over the rock. I managed to rip the leash, freeing me from the rock. However, now I was in the mix, without a board. I suck at surfing, but I can swim. Thank god, or maybe the masochistic swim instructor I had when I was four years old, I made it to shore after a fierce battle with more rocks and whitewater.
Sure it was frustrating at times; independent international travel always is (and surfing for me always is!). But everywhere I’ve traveled from Argentina to Siberia to Vietnam to Mali, I’ve made it a point to immerse myself in the culture, the people, the pace of the country. Is it easy and comfortable? No. But, hell, if it was easy, dentists from San Diego would do it. For me, the old cliché rings true: it’s always about the journey and not just the destination.
Infinity pool vs. lukewarm Nescafé? I’ll take the Nescafé.
Author’s note: I have nothing against San Diego or dentists, despite having paid over $6,000 in dental bills over the past year.
For more from Brittany and JT, check out their video Stolby Style about a central Siberian nature reserve where the locals (of all ages) have a 150-year tradition of free soloing rock formations up to 400 feet tall.