Pico Alto: the queen of all Peruvian big waves
Pico Alto is one of the biggest waves in South America. The Peruvian right-hand point break can produce massive 50-foot walls of moving water.
Its Spanish name says it all. In English, Pico Alto means high peak.
It is located at Punta Hermosa, 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Lima, the capital of Peru.
The offshore bombora peak breaks one mile (1.5 kilometers) out to sea off the point at Playa Norte.
When you look at it for the first time, the Peruvian surf spot will perhaps remind you of Hawaii's most powerful waves.
Actually, it is frequently compared to Oahu's Sunset Beach, although Pico Alto's ride is usually much longer.
The Story of the Peruvian Gem
On June 29, 1965, Peruvian pioneers Joaquin Mirá-Quesada, Francisco Aramburu, and Miguel Plaza became the first surfers to ride Pico Alto.
"We parked the car, took the boards out, and went all the way down the hill until we reached the sand to enter the water," Plaza later revealed.
"We decided to enter on the left side of the surf to avoid being surprised by some sets. At that time, there were still no reference points - like today's houses - to position ourselves well in the lineup."
"But our desire to catch the first wave was so strong that we just saw something rising towards us and paddled with all our strength."
"And so it happened that the three of us rode the first ever wave at the spot. When we returned to Lima, we already had a name for it - Pico Alto, due to the wave's shape," concluded Miguel Plaza.
Mirá-Quesada, who said that "the magnificence of the place was overwhelming," died surfing Pipeline two years later after hitting the reef with his head.
"In 1966, reigning world champion Felipe Pomar wrote 'Pico Alto is Better Than Sunset,' a short Surfer magazine feature that introduced the break to the world outside of Peru," recalls Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."
"Pomar, along with big-wave specialist Ivo Hunza and a few other Peruvians, occasionally surfed here over the next 12 years."
"From 1979 to 1986, as big-wave surfing fell out of fashion, the churning Pico Alto peaks went unridden."
According to Miguel Plaza, the sessions in Pico Alto were very long because nobody used a leash and, if you lost your board, it could take between half an hour and 45 minutes to get back out the back.
"Not to mention when the whitewater ripped the board off, and we had to swim in again," recalls Miguel Plaza.
"I remember one day when I went in four times and even had to get another board because the current had taken the first one to Caballeros or Señoritas or thrown it on the rocks."
The Big Wave Contest Era
The Peruvian gem was kept relatively under the surf media radar until the late 1980s when big wave explorers started exploring new latitudes and destinations.
In 1987, local surfers Titi de Cole, Max and Magoo de la Rosa, Tony Maldi, and Felipe Pomar rode Pico Alto when a 15-foot swell arrived during Easter week.
A few days later, the surf hit 20 feet, and American big-wave riders Mark Foo, James Jones, and Richard Schmidt joined the local crew.
Photographer Robert Beck traveled along and became the first lensman to shoot Pico Alto from the water.
Hawaiian surfing legend Mark Foo was ecstatic after riding the wave for the first time.
"The overriding impression from my first ride was speed - sustained speed, maintained for fantastic lengths," Foo wrote.
The first contest at Pico Alto was the 1993 Jose Rizo Patron Invitational, won by local surfer Fernando Paraud.
Later, the famed Peruvian right-hand point break was home to the Billabong Pico Alto, a Big Wave World tour event held since 2009.
"My mentor, Richard Schmidt, came to Peru in the early 1980s and told me about this great big wave. I have dreamed about surfing Pico Alto," said Peter Mel, who won the contest in 2011.
The big wave competition became a spectacle for visitors and fans to witness the world's best big wave riders on the tall open walls of Punta Hermosa in the Lima region.
Peruvian surfing legends like Gabriel Villaran, Jose Gomez, Kodiak Semsch, Rafael Otero, Sebastian de Romana, and Tamil Martino are some athletes who tamed Pico Alto flawlessly.
A Challenging Drop
The South American monster wave is known for its challenging drop at the exploding peak and for providing a long, rideable, full-throttle wave face.
So, the ultimate Pico Alto wave-riding experience requires advanced skills and probably an accomplished jet ski professional to tow you into the abyss.
Access to the Peruvian big wave arena is tricky.
"It's a 30-minute paddle just to get in position, and it is only rideable when the wave face is very clean and smooth," notes Antony Colas, author of "The World Stormrider Surf Guide."
"The left has far less wall but is just as intense on the drop as the right - then it fades into deeper water. It needs a good 8-foot swell to feel the reef, and it will hold as big as you like."
Pico Alto is a wave of consequence that has already broken bones and left proficient athletes bleeding after wiping out in overhead surf.
"It may look doable from the headland, but it is a different story out there," underlines Colas.
Consequently, safety equipment and skillful wave reading are mandatory.
If you really want to take a closer look at this freak of Nature, paddle out from Playa Norte, dodging the closeouts when it's pumping.
The spectacular waves of Pico Alto are seldom accompanied by foggy weather, which only adds a dramatic scenario to pristine swell conditions.
Because of the constant peak changes, surfers often have problems fine-tuning the take-off spot and dropping into the fast-breaking mountains of water.
The Mechanics of Pico Alto
Peru's ultimate offshore big wave breaks in an area of headlands, cliffs, rocks, reefs, and coves.
These coastal landforms tend to channel swell energy and create ideal surfing conditions.
The wind in Peru is normally very light, creating glassy waves year round.
Pico Alto begins to take shape at 8-10 feet and can hold virtually any size. It has been seen maintaining quality and form at 35 feet.
Although it is known worldwide as a right-hand wave, the Peruvian surfing dream can also provide a few good left-handers.
The largest waves break over a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from shore, and rides can last up to 300 yards.
Pico Alto delivers around ten days of 15-foot or larger surf per year, and it generally gets XXL from March to August.
Can you get barreled at Punta Hermosa's fame thick-lipped wave?
Yes, but only occasionally. Most of the time, it's all about the drop and the ability to work on the broad and clean wave faces.
Two and three-wave hold-downs will test your lung capacity, but you don't have to worry about the reef, as you've got enough water to keep you safe.
The air temperatures range from 63 °F (17 °C) in winter to 75 °F (24 °F) in summer.
The water temperature is comfortable all year round, meaning that in the warm season (December-March), you can wear boardshorts or a spring suit.
In wintertime (May-September), a full wetsuit is recommended.
Pico Alto, Punta Hermosa, Peru | ID and X-Ray
Location: Lima, El Salvador
Type of Wave: Point/Reef Break
Best Swell Direction: S-SW
Best Wave Size: Triple Overhead + (18+ feet)
Best Wind Direction: Light E
Best Tide: Any
Best Time to Surf: April-August
Best Board: Shortboard, Gun
Skill Level: Advanced and Professional
Water Quality: Good
Hazards: Wave Hold-Downs
Water Temperature: 63-78 °F (17-25 °C)
Getting There: Paddling