Article originally published with Travellogue.org
I had no expectations of Lobitos, but I definitely did not expect this.
Imagine a town 50 years after a zombie apocalypse. The ashy red dust swirls in the wind and caresses my legs while the hot desert sun strips away at any exposed skin. It feels as though you’re walking on a red moon. A dilapidated dry earth that has been forgotten, erased off the maps. The only redeeming factor to the lash of the hot sun is the cool ocean water where I seek refuge.
Oil rigs line the horizon where the turquoise of the water melts into the blue sky. Abandoned houses, churches and a military base spots the naked land. They are left in ruins, sprinkled across the dusty plains. There is beauty in the barrenness of the land. It is a ghost town. A beautiful ghost town.
Each abandoned building communicates a story. The buildings are classical Victorian in their appearance, though one could hardly tell now. What remains now are mostly free standing walls, fragmented by neglect and decorated by graffiti.
In the early 1900s Lobitos was occupied by the English. They built a town segregated from the rest of Peru with oil wealth. Built to be a home away from home for the immigrants it boasted South America’s first cinema, a desalination plant and running electricity. This far exceeded the neighboring towns, if not the rest of early 20th century Peru. But as the town grew, so did the interest in oil. A military coup in 1968 took back the oil from BP who had bought the majority of shares only a few years earlier. The English were given six days to leave everything they built or face imprisonment. The oil fields, once again belonged to the Peruvian government.
A small war between Peru and Ecuador meant that Lobitos became a military base crawling with soldiers. Darwin paints a picture with his words and we are transported to another time. His porch holds three hammocks and a couch though we don’t take advantage of it. His stories keep us using only the edge of our seats.
Surfing was an up and coming sport growing in popularity, yet surfers were banned from the best breaks in Lobitos, enduring harassment and persecution at the hands of military guards. Armed with only a surfboard, diehard surfers clashed with a conservative military.
Darwin is paddling around a rock, avoiding the big waves that smash into La Piscina, the swell is good. He has just been liberated from a hot car where he awkwardly juggled his board for the past hour. Arriving at the surf peak he patiently waits. The sound of gunshots shattered the tranquility of the empty beach. He is forced to ditch his board to escape the soldiers. He hides on the beach in the nook of one of the abandoned buildings. The shots reverberate off the walls. He can sense they’re coming closer. Time slows to a heart pounding halt.
Perhaps, his last thoughts before being captured were regret for surfing in a military zone. But judging by his expression, perhaps not. He is arrested and undergoes an arduous process of verifying his identity. He is a soul surfer. Not a guerrilla fighter. Finally he’s discharged, but the last bus to the next closest town has already disbanded. Alone and now board-less he undergoes the arduous walk home through the bandit-ridden desert in the dark. It takes all night.
His story seems like myth now, left in the bricks that make up Lobitos history. Times have clearly changed since then. Today, Darwin’s son learns to surf at the same break his father was arrested. With the ending of the war, the subsequent peace agreement and the decommissioning of the military base, surfing has opened up to the public. This has become great revenue for tourism. Darwin now owns a hospedaje in Lobitos close to the old military base and his favorite break.
In Lobitos, days dwindle idly by. We are excited only by the prospect of fresh fish for lunch and surfing the next day. With ever increasing tourism, locals rebuild the infrastructure once lost. New houses dot the land with foreigners or Peruvians happy to brave the sun for a chance at the surf. The military zone, El Cuartel which once housed thousands of soldiers has one last standing building. It has been turned into a popular hostel right on the beach.
From the tallest mountain, Lobitos surf breaks stretch out like a panorama. Surfing seems to have revived this depleted town. After many years flying under the radar, Lobitos is back on the map.