I’m standing with my surfboard on the beach in Pichilemu, Chile. It’s January–the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer–the sun is out, and there’s a near-constant breeze rolling in off the Pacific Ocean. A series of black-sand coves frame the main attraction in these parts: Punta de Lobos, a left-hand point break that curls gracefully (in gentle conditions) around an outcropping of jagged rock.
This scene could be in Maui or Southern California–except the trees are pine, not palm; the water hovers around 60oF; and there’s hardly anyone around. Sheathed in a 4/3mm Quiksilver wetsuit–appropriate for “winter-worthy warmth”–I haul myself onto my board and start paddling out with equal parts thrill and terror.
With roughly 2,500 miles of north-to-south coastline, Chile is truly one of the last frontiers for surfing. Visiting surfers will find mile after mile of unexplored and empty beaches and waves, backed by a smattering of welcoming fishing villages. The cold water, remote location, and lack of tourism infrastructure have meant that Chile has remained off the radar for most globetrotting surfers, who head instead to places like Ireland and China if they’re looking for adventure, Bali and Hawaii if they’re not.
But the past 20 years have seen a notable increase in interest in the sport. With the development of a surf culture that is uniquely Chilean, there’s also been a greater emphasis on community and sustainability. Homegrown surfers are some of the most audible voices lobbying to protect the raw gems they know they have, and in more recent years, those voices have become more and more female. In a country that, pre-pandemic, was in the midst of social change, women are riding a swell of community activism at the forefront of both a developing political movement and the advancement of a sport.
The unofficial surf capital of Chile, Pichilemu, is a small, former fishing hamlet of 15,000 inhabitants located roughly 130 miles south of Santiago. Its resident wave–the left-hand Punta de Lobos, meaning “Wolves Point”–can produce waves upwards of 20 feet. In 2017, after a successful joint effort of fundraising and campaigning by the nonprofit Save the Waves Coalition, outdoor gear company Patagonia, and a locally established nonprofit called Fundacion Punta de Lobos, the coast was dedicated as the seventh World Surf Reserve, protecting the break and surrounding area from future development.
In 2020, the Chilean government approved the creation of the Piedra del Viento Coastal Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary protects 10,000 acres of coastline north of Pichilemu and is the first protected area in Chile to take wave protection and surfing into consideration, preserving six notable surf breaks.
Other small, developing surf towns, such as Matanzas, Renaca, and Totoralillo–all north of Pichilemu and outside of the protected areas–are also growing in popularity alongside Pichilemu. And though the conservation projects are on a smaller scale as of now, so is the development. These places can easily be compared to California in the 1950s, when bobbing boards in the water were still a novelty, and jerry-rigged thatched beach huts hawked rentals and lessons to the few that came seeking the laidback surf culture.
It’s all new here, but “there’s so much potential [for surfing] in Chile if we can manage to protect the source of it all,” says Ramon Navarro, the name most often associated with Chile surf, both as an athlete and as an advocate for its protection. He was the first Chilean to become known in the international competitive circuit, as well as the on-the-ground guy leading campaign efforts.
Mainstream surfing in Chile traces its roots to the 1970s, when youth started seeing Brazilian tourists bring boards over on holiday, searching for new waves outside of their country, where the sport was much more established. Before that, it had been considered the realm of rich kids or just simply unattainable, as there was nowhere to buy a board.
In this male-dominated sport, women only began showing up on boards in the ’90s. This inadvertently paved the way for the future fight for women’s equality in Chile, which crested with international attention in late 2019 at the height of the #MeToo movement.
A rallying cry and dance first performed by Chilean feminist group Las Tesis spread across the globe, adopted and adapted by #MeToo activists worldwide to denounce the violations of women’s rights. “It wasn’t my fault; not where I was, not how I dressed,” was chanted in multiple languages, from India to Turkey to the United States, where the powerful anthem was performed in January 2020 outside the New York courtroom where Harvey Weinstein was standing trial for rape.
Ladies of the lineup
“It was definitely a powerful moment” for Chilean women to watch a movement they started to go global, said Jessica Anderson, a 30-year-old competitive surfer. For Anderson, it was a welcome– and uncommon–occasion of challenged gender norms, as “the culture here was and still is very machista [male chauvinistic], but surfing, and sports in general, helps to break that.”
Anderson, whose parents were Christian missionaries and former California surfers, was raised in Pichilemu. Growing up, it was nothing more than a dusty, unpaved fishing village of wide beaches and rocky cliffs.
In 1993, when Anderson was three, Chile hosted its first World Surf League event, 1,200 miles up the coast in a town called Iquique, just off the spot where the country’s border meets Peru. The event took place nearly 30 years after the formation of the organization that represents professional surfers around the world. By then, other wave-rich countries were on their second, third, or even fourth generation of surf legends.
“For reasons that remain unclear, the sport was slow to catch on [in Chile]; northern neighbor Peru had taken to surfing with gusto decades earlier, and Brazil was on its way to becoming a world surfing power,” notes author Matt Warshaw, in The Encyclopedia of Surfing.
It’s been a slow-growing sport here,” Anderson agrees. With barely any surf shops to be found (the first one opened in Santiago in 1985), Anderson’s dad “would get friends and churches from the United States to donate surfboards and wetsuits. We would share all our equipment with friends. A few Brazilian surfers would come into Pichilemu, and everyone would buy boards off of them.” That’s how Anderson got her first shortboard when she was 15.
It’s only in the past ten years that “surfing has caused a massive change in Pichilemu,” she says, and women are a big part of the growth here, particularly due to the efforts of Trinidad Segura. She’s a fellow Pichilemu local and Anderson’s sometimes competitor in the water.
In 2011, Segura started Sirena Producciones, a company whose mission is to encourage women to participate in surfing. Segura played an integral role in hosting Chile’s first World Surf League qualifying series event in which a women’s champion was crowned. Held in Punta de Lobos, the Maui and Sons Pichilemu Pro started in 2014 and has been held annually since. (The World Surf League has yet to host a men’s qualifying series event on the same famous break.)