Punta de Lobos: the iconic Chilean big wave
Punta de Lobos is one of South America's most spectacular surf breaks. The Chilean wave roars to life near the city of Pichilemu.
Pichilemu is a small town and beach resort of around 12,000 inhabitants located 128 miles (207 kilometers) away from the country's capital, Santiago.
It is known as Chile's ultimate surf city and attracts wave riders from Santiago on a yearly basis - weekends, holidays, and summer.
The left-hand point break of Punta de Lobos is the most famous beach in the greater O'Higgins Region.
It is also a cold water goofy-footer paradise.
"I don't know if this is a spot for all surfers because it's big, cold, and far from anywhere, but it's still a really nice and mystical place for surf," underlines veteran Chilean surfer and photographer Alfredo Escobar.
"My advice would be don't think these waves are empty because we have a lot of surfers around."
"It is a really calm place with a lot of waves, and it is super consistent. If you come to Chile, you'll need to pack a 4/3 wetsuit and booties."
The large coastal cities of Valparaiso and San Antonio are the closest to the landlocked capital, Santiago, and get very busy during holidays, but are blessed with plenty of strong beaches and reefs.
South of San Antonio, there is a shift in the topography that favors left points and river mouths in the southern corners of the bays, and none are better than the ultimate South American point break, Punta de Lobos.
Small and fun or large and life-threatening are both on offer here, and the boom to bust seasonal variation is being conquered as Pichilemu establishes itself as Chile's surf city.
Pichilemu: A Rich Surf Zone
The zone finishes at Lobos, but the waves don't.
A hatful of southern corner river mouths connected to sensitive strands of hard-pack grey sand with rocky fringes extends for over 62 miles (100 kilometers), beckoning the inquisitive to the rolling green countryside.
The surf spot provides 875 yards (800 meters) of rideable wave sections that often link together, depending on weather conditions, swells, and sandbank movements and formation.
The iconic Chilean big wave breaks near Los Morros, in front of the sea stacks that punctuate the area and the line-up, making it a picturesque and unique arena.
Punta de Lobos delivers waves that can go from one to 32 feet (10 meters) at the western tip of the coastal point near Los Morros.
Wave riding in Pichilemu started in the early 1970s, and the surfing population has consistently grown since then.
Many Chilean and ex-pat surfers have made Pichilemu home, including the famous Chilean surfers Ramón Navarro, Diego Medina, Cristian Merello, Tristan Aicardi, and Fernando Zegers.
The spot has hosted the Ceremonial Punta de Lobos, a big wave surfing event that welcomes world-class athletes and contributes to the tourist economy of Pichilemu.
To the north of the village lies the long, reeling left count point, and although it doesn't pick up as much swell as Lobos, in the right conditions, it's a longer wave and less life-threatening as it breaks over sand and there aren't the rock jump-offs to deal with.
Punta de Lobos: A Natural Sanctuary
The surfing venue is also an important geological site, and the famous wave breaks off a 300 million-year-old reef.
"Upwelling from the Humboldt Current and the divergence of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current provides a nutrient-rich feeding ground to several species, often sighted in the area," note Save the Waves.
"Among these oceanic species are right, fin and sperm whales, orcas, sea lions, sea turtles, Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, oystercatchers, cormorants, pelicans, and boobies."
"An endangered endemic cactus species, Echinopsis bolligeriana, known in Spanish as 'el quisco de acantilado,' inhabits the point of Los Morros."
On November 16, 2017, Punta de Lobos was dedicated as the seventh World Surfing Reserve to mitigate coastal threats along the coastline.
The menaces are:
- Coastal development on private property holdings;
- The pressure of industries to develop businesses on sensitive ecological habitats;
- Waste management issues;
Pacific Ocean: The Swell Forecast
Following the trend set by the rest of the Americas, South America is also a clear case of split personality in terms of swell exposure.
The Pacific coast from Ecuador to Peru and Chile is perfectly poised to soak up the best of the SW swells from the South Pacific surf factory.
Low pressures trundle along a path from New Zealand to Cape Horn nearly all year round, marching out of the southwest onto the rocky shoreline of Pacific South America.
These swells are helpfully guided by the Humboldt (or Peru) Current, which tends to drag more SW swells up the coast of Chile and into Peru.
Some spots in Chile and Peru can be ridden every day, which is a rare privilege on Planet Surf's inconsistent shorelines.
While Chile and most of Peru rely on generous SW swells, Northern Peru and Ecuador protrude enough to pick up the end of the wave train from the North Pacific Aleutian lows.
These long-distance, long-period, winter NW swells have to march for up to ten days from their point of origin and consequently lose much in the way of height, and lulls between sets are long.
Waves are seasonally erratic, and water temps are balmy unless surfing the Galapagos Islands, where the end of the Humboldt Current deposits the coldest water found at equatorial latitudes.
Central to Southern Peru, along with all of Chile, can get pounded by big waves through the southern hemisphere winter (April-October), and these swells don't necessarily stop in summer.
Rather they just decrease in frequency.
Thousands of kilometers of desert fringe the coast where the constant S to SW winds blow, bringing tailor-made offshores to the seemingly endless array of lefthand pointbreaks that nestle inside the protection of southern headlands.
Winds veer more westerly in Chile, while in Northern Peru and Ecuador, the S wind is lighter, and mornings can be windless glass.
The extensive Atacama Desert (the driest on earth) is sandwiched between the lofty peaks of the Andes to the east and the predictable massive upwelling that occurs off Southern Peru and Northern Chile.
Compounded by the Humboldt Current, chilly year-round water temps bring thick fog yet a complete absence of rain in places.
When the El Niño current crosses the Pacific, a warm layer of water can disturb the balance, causing chaos via heavy rain and mudslides in areas that usually receive no rain at all.
Semi-diurnal tidal ranges are 1-2 meters for most of the Pacific coast, although Colombia can hit five meters in the north.
Swell and Wind
The best left-hand point break in Chile works best with SW swells.
On smaller days, there's a sand bottom section named Diamante breaking close to the shore that is perfect for beginner surfers.
Further up the point, the El Mirador section has summer peelers rotating past the shoreline rock clusters or muscle-bound walls linking from the rocks to the beach sections in a lined-up SW-W swell.
Too much S swell will ramp up the current, while W will shut down the outside barrels, so SW at 235º should be perfect.
It prefers lower tides but will break right through.
The paddle-out from the island rocks (Los Morros) has achieved legendary status for sketchiness - dashing across the slippery shelf from a hiding place in the rocks when there is a lull has caught many out.
Experts only when it gets above double-overhead.
Summer beach party scene, surf shop on point, and skate ramp on the beach for flat days, which are pretty rare, so don't expect to get it to yourself.
The dominant wind comes from the S, but during the winter period of May-July, it also gets a lot of NW-NE winds, which is unheard of further north.
The remainder of the year sees a light S or SW pattern, meaning that the north-facing coves will often be offshore, favoring lefts.
Mid-to-high tides are the best option at most spots, meaning that the north-facing coves will often be offshore, favoring lefts.
The Humboldt Current cools the water year-round, and it rarely exceeds 62°F (17°C), so get a 4/3 or 3/2 mm wetsuit in summer.
Like Peru, shark attacks are unheard of, although fishermen will tell you they are out there, gorging on the feast of fish in the Humboldt and maybe snacking on the seals and penguins that frequent these rich waters.
Orcas too can be spotted further south, but with only one recorded bite to a surfer in California in 1972, there is little danger of an attack.
Far more dangerous are seismic events triggered by the Nazca tectonic plate crashing into the South American plate, resulting in megathrust earthquakes, including the strongest earthquake ever measured (magnitude 9.5), the 1960 Valdivia earthquake.
Tsunamis up to 82 feet (25 meters) severely battered the Chilean coast before waves as high as 35 feet (10.7 meters) traversed the Pacific and caused widespread destruction in Hilo, Hawaii.
Antofagasta was hit in 2007, followed by a devastating 8.8 magnitude quake in February 2010, just off the coast of Maule and Biobío.
The sixth biggest quake ever measured was so strong that the city of Conception was shaken for three minutes and moved 10 feet (3 meters (10ft) westwards.
The resulting cluster of tsunamis wasn't so high, and surfers at Curanipe reported them as 8-foot walls of whitewash, but the port at Talcahuano and the city of Concepción were slammed very hard.
Save The Waves offices were flattened, and they transformed from environment campaigners to disaster relief NGOs, helping distribute aid in the stricken surf-rich region.
There are also volcanic eruptions to factor into your potential hazards list, as the latest eruption (June 2011) put a halt to international air traffic in the Southern hemisphere.
Volcanic activity also kept the Parque Pumalin Nature Sanctuary closed for two seasons.
So apart from the big acts of Nature, the real dangers are the waves themselves, unfurling over some really shallow slabs of reef up north or haphazard rocky headlands further south.
Even the pros were shocked at the energy-to-depth ratio when the Championship Tour event was held in Arica, where several injuries to both bodies and boards occurred.
Then there are the big wave set-ups like Punta de Lobos, where timing a mad dash over a semi-submerged platform between sets is the only possible entry point.
Currents can be horrendous, sweeping up the coast with some Humboldt turbo and getting tired trying to fight it is a common scenario, often in conditions that see wave heights jump massively in a short period.
River mouths can bring conflicting currents into the mix, and the cold water temps can drain strength and energy.
Otherwise, the locals are cool, the crowd pressure is low, the rocks are well-covered with seaweed, and the numerous seals are curious but harmless.
Keeping an eye on your stuff is also required at the beach, where rental cars can be targeted, but Chile has one of the lowest crime rates in the Americas.
Arica Led the Way
Since the advent of the barrel-rich Rip Curl Search pro surfing contest at Arica in 2007, more people are aware that Chile has some quality waves.
El Gringo and El Buey burst onto the scene from a tight urban surf zone in an industrialized northern city that already has a healthy surfing population.
Wander south out of town into the Tarapacá region, and a blank 180-kilometer canvas of gnarled, eroded cliffs dip their toes in the cool current, broken by the occasional alluvial plain of dark desert sand deposited by a canyon carving river.
Checking these river mouths may uncover some thumping beach breaks at Caleta Camarones, Caleta Chica, and near the rocky bays of Pisagua.
There are some good short slabs and rocky pocket beaches that fire in just the right conditions, but to find them would take luck and lots of time, better spent elsewhere.
There is barely a break in the bristling desert cliffs before hitting the short coastal flats of Iquique, where thunderous tubes unload over the unforgiving reefs that scoop up the SW swell and amplify it.
These lurching, spitting waves have dictated that Chile has a far greater proportion of bodyboarders to take on the challenging spots that would otherwise go virtually unridden.
Long, lonely beaches stretch out beside the ocean-hugging Ruta 1 down to Barrancon, a slab peak with good rights about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Tocopilla, where shorepound hits the city beaches in the shadow of the industrial port and power station.
Punta de Lobos, Pichilemu, O'Higgins, Chile | ID and X-Ray
Location: Punta de Lobos, Pichilemu, Chile
Type of Wave: Left-Hand Point Break
Length: Up to 875 yards (800 meters)
Best Swell Direction: SW
Best Wave Size: 3-20 feet
Best Wind Direction: SE
Best Tide: Low to Mid
Best Time to Surf: March-May
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Best Board: Shortboard and Gun
Crowd: Epic Days, Only
Water Quality: Good
Hazards: Sea Racks/Headland
Bottom: Rock and Sand
Water Temperature: 62°F (17°C)
Getting There: Jump-Off Point on Rocks
Conditions: All swells
Bibliography and References:
Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor. "Surfing the World," Footprint, 2006
B. Sutherland and A. Colas. "The World Stormrider Surf Guide," Low Pressure Publishing, 2018