The Groms of Punta Hermosa

They had a week to pull together $1,000, a daunting sum for two Peruvian teenagers of such modest means. It seemed impossible, but if they could get it, the payoff would be big: The Peruvian junior national surf team would pay the remaining four grand for a trip to the 2010 ISA World Junior Surfing Championships in Piha, New Zealand. If they couldn’t get the money, they would stay home, heartbroken.

 Ricardo and Joaquin bussing it home from a competition.

Ricardo and Joaquin bussing it home from a competition.

Fourteen-year-old Joaquin del Castillo and 16-year-old Ricardo “Rica Rica” Cruzado had earned their spots on the team. Ricardo was the U-16 national champion in 2009. Joaquin had taken out some of the top pros on his way to winning a men’s open category contest. They both posted consistent results throughout the year. But unlike most other members of the team, their families didn’t have the money. Not willing to give up, they begged, borrowed and scavenged for cash while they continued to pack their boards between the seats of cramped buses to make the enervating, hour-long trip from the dusty town of Punta Hermosa to Lima to train with the team three days a week. They spent nearly every other daylight hour in the water. Finally, just days before the scheduled departure, they both came up with the $1,000 they needed. Sadly, it was too late. By necessity, plans had already been made without them. Ricardo and Joaquin stayed home in Punta Hermosa while their wealthy teammates went to New Zealand.

Surfing has long been a rich man’s sport in Peru. But after then-21-year-old Sofia Mulanovich became a national hero by winning the women’s ASP world title in 2004—a first for any Latin American man or woman—the doors of opportunity were supposed to open for Peruvian surfers, including kids who aren’t part of what could be characterized as Lima’s light-skinned surf aristocracy. Progress of any kind in Peru runs on its own clock and after six years those doors had started to crack open—to a point.

After solid results at the 2009 World Surfing Games in Costa Rica, including three bronze medals and sixth place overall, the Peruvian government finally took notice and started helping its professional surfers in ways it never had before, including everything from salaries to access to nutritionists. Trips to events are covered, though long, expensive ones, like the one New Zealand for the juniors, are only partially paid for.

Gabriel Aramburú, one of Peru’s top pros and coach of the junior national team, paid for most of his career. It’s the same story for other Peruvian pros, Mulanovich included. Today, their deep pockets are benefiting the less fortunate.

“I think in some way we’ve helped open some doors for the younger surfers and that they’ll have it a little bit easier now,” says Aramburú, who has only recently started to receive the benefits of the government’s newfound interest in the sport.

Ricardo and Joaquin will tell you it’s still not enough.

I first traveled to Punta Hermosa in 1997. But I didn’t formally meet Ricardo or Joaquin until January of 2010, at the beginning of a six-month stay. I met Joaquin through my 22-year-old nephew, who also grew up poor and surfing in Punta Hermosa. Ricardo and I were neighbors.

Located 44 kilometers south of Lima, Punta Hermosa is ground zero for surfing in Peru. Chicama and Cabo Blanco may be the marquee waves, but nowhere else along the South American country’s 1,500-mile coastline is there a denser concentration of breaks than in Punta Hermosa. A dozen spots are within a 15-minute walk from any part of town—everything from a playful shore break to Pico Alto, a thunderous outer reef that’s the continent’s biggest wave.

 Pico Alto doing its thing.

Pico Alto doing its thing.

Aside from the Pacific, the only other natural feature of note in Punta Hermosa is the sandy dirt that blankets it and nearly the entire Peruvian coast. Mulanovich and other wealthy Limeños continue to build luxurious beachfront mansions, but the majority of Punta Hermoseños live in modest brick homes in various stages of completion. And, as you would expect to find in Peru, there are neighborhoods of crudely built shanties made of sheets of rotting Masonite and tarps, with no running water and dodgy illegal power hook-ups.

During the summer, Limeños flock to Punta Hermosa. On Sundays the beaches are towel-to-towel. Some come by bus for the day, others spend weeks or months. Ceviche stands line the beaches. Discos along the Old Pan American Highway are still thumping as the first surfers paddle out at dawn. Town is loud and crowded day and night.

In winter, Punta Hermosa is grim. The sun hides for weeks at a time. Beach rentals sit empty. Seasonal businesses close and the local economy grinds to a near halt. The town is, by local standards, quiet. But no matter what time of year, there is swell.

On any given day, an overwhelming percentage of surfers in the water in Punta Hermosa are from Lima. It may be more than a 45-minute drive from their home, but as the cradle of Peruvian surfing, all surfers in the area have, in a sense, been raised here. However, there’s a big difference between being a local who surfs here and local who was born and raised here.

By all criteria, Joaquin is a local. He’s a Punta Hermosa poster child of sorts. In a public ceremony in April 2010, the town awarded him a civic medal for his contributions to the community. Joaquin’s father, Paco, a fisherman, has been living and surfing in Punta Hermosa his entire life. His mother, Cecilia, sells ceviche on the beach in the summer and from their home in the winter. Every time I saw Joaquin over the six months I was there, he treated me with a mix of respectful politeness and warm familiarity rarely seen from any teenager, particularly one who’s spent most of his life at the beach.

 Joaquin pulling into a  northern Peru tube.

Joaquin pulling into a  northern Peru tube.

It’s doubtful the ebullient, energetic Ricardo will win any medals for his out-of-the water accomplishments. He played hooky for an entire year, a stunt that cost him a $1,200 International Surfing Association scholarship in 2009. Attempts to get him to return to school failed until Aramburú stepped in and helped get Ricardo into an accelerated program to make up what he had missed. Aramburú checks Ricardo’s grades and his attendance. He hooked him up with a small clothing sponsorship and occasionally gives him a little traveling money—but only if he stays in school. So far, it’s working. But it could easily go the other way.

Ricardo lives with his mother, who is a cook in a private home in Lima and is rarely in Punta Hermosa; his older brother, who cuts hair; his sister, her husband and their baby. They support Ricardo any way they can, but they know next to nothing about surfing. His father, I was told, is in prison and had a leg amputated after being shot in a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. When I ask Ricardo if he would be willing to talk about his father, his mood sinks noticeably and he gives me an assertive no.

Twenty houses situated around a sandlot roughly half the size of a football field make up Ricardo’s—and my—neighborhood. A drug dealer lives a few doors down and two more live across the lot, where at any time there are a dozen loitering dogs. Every morning, sixty roosters, bred for cockfighting, perform an off-key symphony. Nearly every night there are parties cranking out bone-rattling reggaeton until 5:00 A.M. The open-air discos a block away aren’t subject to any subwoofer ordinances. The neighborhood is, without a doubt, the noisiest in Punta Hermosa, if not the entire country.

Truthfully, despite the calamity and occasional gunshot, it’s not a bad neighborhood. It’s full of playful little children, and some of Punta Hermosa’s best footballers come here for pickup games every evening. For Ricardo, it’s the only home he’s ever known. Whenever I see him, he’s grinning. If he doesn’t have a surfboard under his arm, he has headphones over his ears. More often than not, he’s running, as if no matter what he has to do, he’s eager to get there and do it.

There are several other young surfers in Peru who have great potential: Martin Jerí Jr., Miguel Tudela, Juninho Urcia, Carlos Mario Zapata, Nicolas Nugent, to name a few. The talent runs deep for a country whose competitive surfing community is miniscule compared to the U.S. or Australia. The most well known young Peruvian surfer is 17-year-old Cristóbal de Col, whom Surfer magazine listed as one of the best young surfers in the world.

Son of former national champion Titi de Col, Cristóbal was bred to surf. His natural abilities are substantial and he has clearly benefited from affluence and opportunity. His family owns a second home in the far north of Peru, where he has spent much time surfing Cabo Blanco, a machine-like wave that spits out tube after tube. In addition to the recent national team trip to New Zealand, he has traveled to and competed in Tahiti, Hawaii, Indonesia and Australia. Like Joaquin and Ricardo, Cristóbal is polite and congenial every time I speak with or see him in the water, but he has a mature worldliness that Joaquin and Ricardo don’t yet or might never have.

 After taking the nose of the surfboard to his eye, Ricardo applies a Peruvian remedy: a slice of potato.

After taking the nose of the surfboard to his eye, Ricardo applies a Peruvian remedy: a slice of potato.

On talent alone, little separates Peru’s top young surfers. Talent, however, is only part of the formula. A kid from the poorest barrio of Lima or the darkest corner of the Amazon can make serious money playing soccer. But, as Aramburú tells me, there are no agents or scouts for surfers in Peru. In the Peruvian surf world, family money does most of the talking. Ricardo and Joaquin don’t have it.

Naturally, I’m sympathetic when Ricardo tells me he feels resentful when he watches Youtube videos of Cristóbal de Col pulling into translucent tubes in Tahiti with Hawaiian superstar Clay Marzo and Gabriél Villarán, the most successful male surfer Peru has ever produced. I get it when he admits he wonders how far he could take himself if only he had the same advantages as the rich kids from Lima, many of who learned to surf at the exclusive Club Waikiki in Miraflores, one of Lima’s swankest districts.

Mulanovich is a perfect example of wealth buying opportunity. In order to compete at the top-tier events, surfers must earn enough points at qualifying events around the world. Very few of these precious points are available at contests in Peru, particularly for women. Before qualifying for the elite ASP World Tour for the top 17 women surfers in the world, Mulanovich earned her biggest haul of points at contests in Hawaii and South Africa, trips she was able to make because of her most generous sponsor: her family. The investment has paid off. In the five seasons since she won it all in only her second year on the world tour, she’s been runner-up twice and hasn’t finished lower than fifth.

Mulanovich has never had to think about anything but her surfing. “She doesn’t even pack her own bags,” says Aramburú, a close friend of Mulanovich. Once, when I ask Mulanovich, what exotic locale is next on her itinerary, she tells me she doesn’t know, as if there had been no need to even think about it.

Ten or 15 years ago, kids like Ricardo and Joaquin would have been, for the most part, ignored by sponsors. But it is, undeniably, getting easier. “Times have changed a lot in Peru. We have kids of ice cream peddlers, police officers and security guards. It’s not like the days when the only kids who competed were the ones who had money,” says Karin Sierralta, executive director of FENTA, surfing’s governing body in Peru, and a vice-president of the International Surfing Association. Sierralta is optimistic things will continue to get better for kids like Joaquin and Ricardo.

Last year Joaquin got a big break when Javier Swayne, one of the top Peruvian pros, recommended him to Dunkelvolk, the biggest Latin American-owned surfwear company. Dunkelvolk, which is headquartered in Lima, is remarkably generous with its money and attention. The company pays Joaquin a small monthly salary and features him in the magazine-style catalogs and all the promotional materials.

Dunkelvolk’s Micky Zuñiga and Javier Sayán are well aware of the acute disparity that exists between the well-heeled surfers from Lima and the less fortunate kids from Punta Hermosa, When Sayán and Zuñiga were considering sponsoring Joaquin, they looked at how he surfed, but they also evaluated the strength of his character. They wanted a good surfer who was also a good student. They wanted a kid they could believe in, no matter what side of the tracks he was from. Joaquin seemed to fit the bill. When a rep from another company told Zuñiga he had passed on Joaquin because of the way he looks, Zuñiga took it to mean that Joaquin’s skin is too dark. “When the other brands said he wasn’t going to sell for us, we said ‘okay, we’re taking this guy,’” says Sayán.

Although Joaquin and Ricardo don’t appear to harbor any ill will, and wouldn’t tell you if they did, they’ve heard the past accusations of classism, favoritism, even racism, made by some members of the previous generation of poor surfers. Some of those same surfers have given up on their dreams and succumbed to lives of manual labor, drugs or hopeless idleness.

At 22, Anali Gomez is on the cusp of the two generations. Over the years, no surfer from Punta Hermosa has been more successful than Gomez. She finished second at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Narrabeen, Australia, taking out future three-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the semifinals. In El Salvador in December 2009, Gomez locked up her fourth straight Latin American Championship and she’s made it through to the third round at the ASP Tour’s stop in northern Peru three times. As the 11th child of a fisherman and a housewife and with the nickname “La Negra,” Gomez is as far removed from the sport’s ruling class as anyone can get. Though she admits that being a girl helped her get ahead because there simply weren’t many others competing.

A number of people have told me that Gomez has the natural talent to join Mulanovich in the ASP Top 17, but she no longer has the time. When I tell her several of those same people say she doesn’t really want it anyway, that she’d rather hang out in Punta Hermosa, Gomez is defensive. “People think these things, but they don’t know because they don’t live here.”

Risking financial heartbreak for the entire family, Joaquin and his 26-year-old brother, Roberto, went on an under-financed, overly-ambitious trip to Southern California in May so Joaquin could get some international experience at a contest in Newport Beach (He was pinched in the quarterfinals.) and then surf some other spots in Orange and San Diego Counties. They planned to crash at the houses of a few Californians they had met in Punta Hermosa. They didn’t know how they were going to get around or how much they would be able to eat. Four days into their three-week trip they had spent half of their money.

Aramburú has noticed a change in Joaquin in the past year and says he doesn’t appear to be enjoying competing as much as he used to. It could be part of growing older or it could be the double-edged sword of familial support. Despite their best intentions, Roberto and Paco, both accomplished surfers, have placed pressure on Joaquin to practice and compete more.

Unfettered by outside and familial pressure, Ricardo’s love of surfing is unquestionably pure. His sponsors provide little more than some boards, a wetsuit, trunks and wax. His travel budget rarely gets him farther than the planning stage. While Joaquin was in California, Ricardo mentioned more than once that he was going to Brazil in June. The trip never happened. He and I spent the cold, gray month in Punta Hermosa. For Ricardo, July was much better than June. Going into the final two events of the U-18 national championship series, Ricardo trailed leader Martin Jerí Jr. by 790 points, a gap nearly impossible to close. No one gave him a chance of even coming close. Ricardo won the final two events, but fell short by a mere 15 points. His performances this year will certainly get him picked for the national team’s trip to the world championships in 2011. There’s no doubt he’ll be able to make the trip—he only has to go as far as his own backyard.

 

by Ross Burns