IF YOU believed everything you read on internet forums the world would be a pretty boring place, mainly because you wouldn’t go anywhere. You gotta wonder about some of these kooks who write shit on the internet (yes I realise that includes me). If I’d believed the things I’d read about Lobitos on the internet – that there was a good chance I’d get bashed, dropped in on constantly and all my shit would get stolen – I never would’ve rocked up here. Likewise, If I’d believed the place looked as if it was ‘straight out of a horror movie‘, like this paranoid kook wrote on their blog, I would’ve steered well clear of the town. But I didn’t believe the naysayers and when I leave here this week my stay will have totalled around 40 days – the longest I’ve stayed put in any one place on this trip.
Lobitos is a town of about 1300 people, in the district of Talara, on km 1147 of the Panamerican Norte, North Peru. And while on first impression it may look a little ghost town-y, for lack of a better word, there is a lot more to Lobitos than meets the eye.
Basically Lobitos used to be the shit. In the early 1900s the town sprang up solely for the petroleum industry – firms from the UK started drilling for oil in 1901. Wanting a slice of the economic pie, the US joined in after World War 1. Because of all this cashola flowing into the town, Lobitos became, in a word, ballin’. With all the foreign folks coming to stay, they needed their Western creature comforts so big mansions were built as well as a casino and South America’s first cinema. In the town’s prime, the world’s most luxurious ocean liners were stopping off in its bay en route from Liverpool, England to Santiago, Chile. The Prince of Wales and Prince George even stopped by in 1930 on their way to the World Fair in Buenos Aires. Crude oil was shipped to the UK and refined there, which resulted in peeps all over the UK filling up their cars from 200 ‘Lobitos’ brand petrol stations. Everyone was super stoked and rollin’ in the Benjamins. Except of course, the Peruvians.
Fast forward to 1968 and the dream was dead. Within six days of a military coup in Peru, all oilfields were nationalised and foreign companies were kicked out. Petro-Peru was established, which are still in operation today. All that is left of the ‘golden age’ of Lobitos are haunting, delapidated shells of grandiose old buildings, tons of offshore oil rigs and a graveyard full of dead foreigners. What some consider eyesores, I find super interesting relics to walk around and imagine the old-school horse-drawn carts that would’ve cruised the streets out front, and the cashed up Brits and Americans who would’ve been walking around in their old-timey clothes doing ol’-timey stuff. A thriving community from the West, living large in the Peruvian desert.
The other lingering presence, which pervades the town is the military. With Lobitos so close to the Talara air base, the Peruvian military government saw the strategic importance of the town and moved 7000 troops here. The military base was largely decomissioned in the 1990s as part of a peace deal with Ecuador, but a few troops are still here to make sure land invaders don’t try to occupy military land. The remains of the old military presence can be seen everywhere. The surf camp I’m staying at used to be a training ground for troops and you can see propaganda and motivational slogans stenciled on its walls. Hordes of disciplined troops doing pushups and shit under the watchful eyes of stern officers have been replaced with traveling surfers and stoners, who’ve painted over most of the old army slogans and the soldiers’ left-behind helmets.
The next phase of the town’s history is uncertain. During the past decade heaps of the old structures including the workers’ houses, casino, cinema, the old pier and anything worth any money, were dismantled and sold off by corrupt military officers. Outraged, the local community banded together and sent a petition to the government calling for an end to the destruction of the town’s history. In 2008 the government stepped in and declared all the old wooden structures heritage buildings, thus protected by law.
Surfers flocked to Lobitos en masse during the early 2000s with many renting out the few remaining old wooden houses from the government. They restored the old houses, some building lodgings to house other surfers. Apparently the government promised to lease them the houses for years and the people were told that if they continued to fix up the houses the government would sell them the land. But now Peru’s private investment promotion agency (I don’t know what that means either), Proinversion, wants to build a huge tourist development and many locals, and obviously surfers, are pissed and a bit worried.
The Proinversion tourist development is a $USD119 million project, which aims to build a ‘modern tourist complex positioning it in to a important international destination for surf and windsurfing practice’. It will supposedly be comprised of a bunch of swanky hotels and condos and a local mall, as well as a wharf for the local fishermen, ‘whose presence and activities are value added from a touristic viewpoint’. How convenient. I’ve also read some claims that it would also include an 18-hole golf course, but who knows. The Proinversion website says, ‘The Steering Council of PROINVERSION approved incorporation of Project to the private investment promotion process. The areas to be auctioned have already been specified and the characteristics and method of sale will soon be approved.’ The foreseen award date is the third quarter of this year. Now I don’t know what most of that shit means, but you get the jist – it seems to be coming, and soon.
Agustin Panizo Jansana’ wrote in his online (admittedly outdated 2009) piece for Living in Peru, a Peruvian expat news site, eviction orders relating to the ProInversion project could affect 80 families directly (the Ministry of Defence has given ProInversion the task of selling the 70 hectares of land on which the buildings are located). 500 families would be indirectly affected because tourism has created a local market whose growth shouldn’t be stunted. Jansana paraphrases Juan Carlos Rivera, president of a local neighbours association, as saying the people he represents don’t want to stop the development plan, they merely wish to add to it – have their say, ‘If Lobitos is to become a big tourist attraction then a quaint neighborhood full of restored old homes would only add to that. They wish to save the spirit of the place and that is why they are petitioning to buy the houses they have put so much of their effort and time into.’ One benefit of the development would be the jobs it could create for the locals. A recent study by Waves for Development, a non-governmental organisation working with the local community, suggested the majority of the town’s population of 1300 people are are under 18 years old, which is a a potential socio-economic timebomb. These kids are gonna need to to get jobs to live and shit, you dig? It’s a tough one.
The so-called ‘golden age’ of Lobitos – when old-timey colonial petrol-farming folks was lighting cigars with $100 bills and drinking Cristal outta ivory goblets and shit – is long over. Now it seems the golden age for traveling surfers may be soon over too. While some of the breaks can get a little crowded at times, I’ve always managed to find a spot in the town where I can get more than my fair share of waves. In fact some days I’m absolutely fucked from getting too many waves. But sessions like that, uncrowded white beaches and the town’s epic tranquil vibe would be a thing of the past if it’s to go down the beach resort path. I asked the Peruvian photographer at my surf camp what the development would mean to Lobitos and he said simply, ‘It’ll become another Mancora’.
This would be super lame. Mancora is Peru’s premier beach resort, and is only a couple of hours north. Mancora’s mayor earlier this year called on the Minister of the Interior to send more cops his way to combat the drug and prossie rings affecting its beaches. My friends spent a week there earlier this month and in that time they heard about a guy who was robbed at knifepoint and a girl from their hostel was gang-raped. Another Aussie mate who works at a hostel there came to Lobitos a few days ago for his weekly surfing fix and told me this week a dude was held up at gunpoint. I spent a few hours there late last month and I wish I hadn’t. Aside from the waves being ultra-crowded and lame (though it’s touted as a surfing mecca), its dirty busy streets were full of stalls hocking cheap t-shirts and shoddy souvenirs to packs of tourists, each store offering the same useless shit. It was Peru’s version of Kuta, Bali just with a whole lot more coke deals going down, instead of mushie shakes. The place just didn’t have any soul. Lobitos does. I hope it retains it.
This article was possible due to the sweet history lessons from:
Agustin Panizo Jansana 2009, Living in Peru, ‘Phantom Paradise’, http://www.livinginperu.com/blogs/travel/664
Intrepid Surfer 2011, ‘Lobitos History, http://www.intrepidsurfer.com/lobitos-peru/lobitos-history/