When people think of South America, surfing isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind, and yet all up and down both the east and west coast are excellent hubs, for both world professionals and beginners alike. So, if the only beach that you can think of in South America is Rio’s Copacabana Beach, then get ready to expand your horizons.
Ecuador has become a major hotspot in recent years, owing to the dollarization of their economy to the American currency, and its influx of foreigners. Montanita, several hours west of Guayaquil and pictured above, feels more like an Australian beach town with its many cheap hostels, tanned long-haired surfer dudes, and rampant night life. Montanita’s main beach is very popular for its consistent left-bearing waves, and as a result has a number of schools and private companies offering surfing lessons. Occasionally, tours will also take adventurous surfers further north, where some of the local beaches are some of the most beautiful undiscovered surf havens in the world.
Further south in Peru, another excellent stop is Huanchaco – the waves here are so good they’ve actually hosted a number of national and world competitions, and the surrounding town, though still poor, is a bit more built up in terms of infrastructure. This doesn’t mean it’s loaded down with tourists however, and feels very much like an authentic Peruvian town. Like Montanita, a consistent left-hand point break means it’s surf-able for all skill levels, and the waves can reach anywhere from 2 to 12 feet depending on the season. The one drawback to Huanchaco is the cleanliness. Unlike Montanita, the beach here is not particularly sandy, and is often clogged with plastic flotsam and trash – as a result the water is not particularly clean either, but as long as you keep your mouth closed and focus on the waves it’s worth it.
Although more expensive in terms of the cost of living, the beach town of Arica in Chile is perhaps the most luxurious center for surfing. The waters here are cleaner than Peru, but not quite as pristine as Montanita – still the Chilean mentality is more laidback, and the sandy bottom and lack of any precipitous rip currents make this another excellent choice for beginners. Further north the waves get larger and more intense, and draw both intermediate and expert surfers – the notoriously named El Gringo is one of these, with waves exceeding 12 feet in some cases, and should only be attempted by experts. And while there are no immediate dangers to swimmers or surfers such as sharks, don’t be surprised if you catch sight of sea lions barking at you from beyond the breakers. All in all, the vibe here is more locally oriented, and a destination for Chileanos on vacation as well as travelers making the push north to Peru – the small town isn’t really built up for tourism, which can actually be a relief coming from some of the bigger cities to the north like Lima and Arequipa in Peru.
In each of the locations listed above, as well as other surf towns you’ll find in South America, you can usually rent yourself a surfboard for the day or afternoon. Or, if you prefer catching some waves on a paddle board, you can travel their with your iSUP and skip standing in line for a rental board.