Was Surfing Actually Invented in Peru?

Surfing is Peruvian. That’s what prominent Peruvian surfers have maintained since the 1980s, when 1965 world champion surfer Felipe Pomar espoused a simple theory in California’s Surfer magazine: the ancient seafaring peoples of Peru’s North Coast—the Virú, Moche, and Chimú—were the first cultures in the world to ride waves for fun. Suggesting that North Coast cultures employed the ancient reed kayaks known as caballitos de totora—still used across Peruvian beaches to this day for subsistence fishing—to ride waves for sheer pleasure between fishing expeditions, Pomar’s theory resonated with an affluent Peruvian surfing population who sought to chart their place in global surfing history.

Unlike Peruvian insistence that pisco and ceviche are national inventions, Peru’s claims to surfing’s origins speak nothing of rivalries with Latin American neighbors. Instead, as no shortage of journalists, academics, and tourism officials have argued over the last three decades, surfing’s alleged Peruvian origins contest the sport’s genesis in Hawaii, maturation in California, and the practice’s cultural association with the global north. Suggesting that surfing is an ancient local tradition demands that Peru is the historic and geographic epicenter of the surfing universe, a sport long associated with leisure, modernity, and colonizing impulses. If surfing began in pre-Incan Peru, expanding to Polynesia through transpacific navigation and only later arriving to California beaches after European colonization of Hawaii (as Pomar’s theory would be interpreted locally), then Peru constitutes not only the birthplace of surfing, but a full-fledged sporting empire born of the ancient world.

Peru is the historic and geographic epicenter of the surfing universe.

The accuracy of Pomar’s claim is, in many ways, less significant than the social impacts that his theory has had on Peruvian and Latin American perceptions of surfing more broadly. You see, surfing began as an almost exclusively elite practice in Peru, as it did in many countries where the sport arrived prior to World War II. Surfing was introduced to Peru by Carlos Dogny Larco in 1937. The descendant of powerful French and Italian agriculturalists and industrialists—and notably the cousin of famed Peruvian folk singer Chabuca Granda and distinguished archaeologist Rafael Larco Hoyle—Dogny brought the sport from Hawaii, where he had built a friendship with Duke Kahanamoku, the Waikiki beach boy responsible for surfing’s debut in California and Australia in the 1920s. Upon returning to Lima, Dogny’s friends and associates, already enthralled with beach recreation, quickly picked up the hobby, leading to the foundation of the exclusive Club Waikiki in Miraflores. Pomar would emerge from this elite seat of South American surfing, as would most competitive surfers through Peru’s 2004 Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP; now the World Surfing League, WSL) women’s world champion, Sofia Mulanovich. For over half a century, surfing was long the pastime of the affluent, associated with the urban, coastal crème de la crème of Peruvian social, economic, and political life, from Dogny’s first surfing forays in Lima in the 1930s to Pomar’s 1965 crown and 1987 Surfer article, to Mulanovich’s 2004 title.

Sofia Mulanovich.
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Surfing’s longtime association with limeño elites comes down to simple economics. Boards, wetsuits, and requisite accessories were expensive, especially in a country that sustained a poverty rate upward of 50% through 2005. The fact that prior to the year 2000 most surf goods were imported from abroad—primarily from California, Hawaii, and Brazil—made waveriding equipment notoriously expensive relative to other countries, providing an additional barrier to participation in the sport for the average Peruvian. When manufactured locally, prohibitive government tariffs restricted importation of surfboard-grade composites, forcing surfboard shapers in coastal Peru to employ non-surf specific materials that yielded feeble, expensive surf gear.

Peruvians of all ethnicities and social classes are surfing now more than ever.

Yet today the Peruvian surfing landscape looks very different, and Peruvians of all ethnicities and social classes are surfing now more than ever. Surfing’s arrival to the Peruvian masses was not easy though, and it depended on the emergence of the country’s growing middle class. Surfing’s popular rise could only take place upon the eradication of hyperinflation (1987-1990), extirpation of the Shining Path guerrilla movement (1980-1992), and political stabilization in the wake of the Fujimori government’s (1990-2000) autocratic rule and embezzlement of an estimated $6 billion. Overcoming such unfavorable odds gave way to the precipitous rise of Peru’s GDP from $14.84 billion (1987) to over $200 billion (2013-2015), and with the last two decades of growth coastal residents of all demographics have embraced surfing. In the twenty-eight years since Pomar’s theory, brown Peruvians surf more—and better—than ever.

Juninho Urcia
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In such a climate, the citizenry has had ever-greater occasion to embrace surfing as a national pastime. Punta Hermosa local Mulanovich’s 2004 world title resulted in the “Sofia Effect,” the general population identifying surfing as a national pastime in the wake of the nation’s then-biggest professional sporting achievement. National surf brands craft exceptional products rivaling the world’s best. Numerous international competitions take place on Peruvian beaches each year. Peruvian squads have garnered amateur world championships in the International Surfing Association’s (ISA) Open (2010 and 2014) and Junior (2011) divisions, also winning the 2014 China Cup, each time over a strong global field.

The caballito existed at least 700 years before Hawaiians settled their islands.

And these national victories come in the wake of strong performances by dark-skinned, working class surfers, most notably Miluska Tello, Analí Gómez and her elder brother José ‘Jarita’ Gómez, and Huanchaco’s Juninho Urcia. With dozens of national, regional, and world competitive victories between the four surfers, each the children of fishermen, being a sponsored competitive surfer within the global surfing industrial complex and considering oneself a descendent of Peru’s pre-Columbian cultures are not mutually exclusive. And as the emergence of mestizo professional surfers who self-identify with Peru’s indigenous cultures indicates, Pomar’s nearly three-decade-old theory has found traction among the country’s diverse new surfing community.

Miluska Tello
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Embracing indigenous identities, each has surfed atop caballitos de totora for national media, beginning with Jarita, who first caballito-surfed the massive waves of Pico Alto with the support of Pomar and Mulanovich in 2009. After the feat, Gómez reiterated that the caballito existed “at least 700 years before Hawaiians settled their islands,” announcing his hope to promote the sport as Peruvian practice with a “limitless multicultural vibe.” Urcia, who refers to himself as “a descendant of the Mochica-Chimú culture,” has expressed his connection to indigeneity, stating that he “feels proud and happy to be part of the ocean culture of the Mochica-Chimú” and to be “recognized for the two things,” modern surfing and indigenous connections to the ocean.

And this, much more than in 1987, is where Pomar’s theory gets interesting. In addition to challenging Hawaiian surfing origins and the positioning of surfing’s deep history in California, the theory of Peruvian surfing origins unifies white Peruvians—many of European or North American parentage—and their coastal indigenous and mestizo counterparts. Claims to Peruvian surfing origins function to at least rhetorically unite the likes of Peruvian elites such as Pomar, Dogny, and Mulanovich with figures such as Gómez and Urcia, and beyond that, with the community of working-class and poor fishermen from whom recent pro surfers have emerged. United by a shared affinity for the ocean, surfing has morphed into a gesture of national unification, riding waves linking twentieth- and twenty-first century European elites with pre-Columbian fishermen and their modern day descendants.