Although southern Chile’s lefthand points are legendary amongst goofyfoots, the waves in the northern half of the country are not as widely known. That isn’t to say they aren’t just as epic, though! In fact, some would argue that the waves north of Santiago are even better than their southern neighbors. And while this debate may never be settled to the satisfaction of everyone involved, there is no arguing that the northern waves are heavier—after all, the International Bodyboard Association wouldn’t schedule three world tour events in a region known for soft, user-friendly ankle slappers!
The Surf: Slabs, predominantly, although there are also a number of big wave bombies, empty point breaks and softish beachbreaks to round out the collection. Although the points and beaches may be cater to the novice crowd, they aren’t the reason LAN airlines offers free board bag check-in to the numerous visiting surfers. Anyone that intends to surf northern Chile to its full potential should be a bona fide expert.
Five Waves Worth Surfing:
- El Gringo: Popular with bodyboarders for decades and featured on the 2007 ASP World Tour via the Rip Curl Search event, this slab a-frame peak (nicknamed “the Chilean Pipeline”) breaks straight onto exposed lava rock and scared the crap out of the world’s best surfers—most of whom have never returned. Consider yourself warned.
- Intendencia: A hairball lefthand slab that is unsurfable by all but the best, this wave sees heavy bodyboard usage, but has only been surfed by a handful of pros and hell chargers.
- El Bajo: A more recent “discovery,” this big wave slab left is a nightmare to paddle, but has produced numerous tow-in XXL contenders.
- El Colegio: A righthand reef barrel breaking in front of the college in Iquique, this wave is quite popular with the bodyboarding crowd—as are all heavy waves in the region.
- The Rest of the Coast: 99% of the known waves in this region break in the three most populated cities—Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta—which together boast around 50 quality setups. Makes you wonder what the other 2000 kilometers of northern Chilean coastline is holding.
The Water: Surprisingly warm, and pleasantly clean except in a few polluted downtown areas. Although Chile has a reputation for booties, gloves, hoods and ultra thick neoprene, the north is actually quite temperate, with water temps ranging from 68 F (20 C) in the summer to 60 F (16 C) in the winter.
The Season: Northern Chile is one of the most consistent stretches of coastline on the planet, taking both north and south swells year round, and it is extremely rare for the waves to drop below head high—even in the “offseason.” That having been said, May through September is when the XXL rides go down.
The Vibe: There are a lot of bodyboarders in this area—supposedly because no one can afford to surf since so many boards get broken—and the most popular spots can get pretty unruly. However, Chileans are some of the most welcoming people in South America, so the vibe isn’t actually too bad. Plus, the locals party late into the night—every night—so the dawn patrol is almost always empty.
Things To Do: On the odd chance that it actually goes flat while you are there, or (more likely) if you get surfed out and need a break from the ocean, Lauca National Park on the border between Chile and Bolivia provides an incredible experience in the volcano-rich antiplano, or high desert.
Where To Stay: Chile is a popular destination for both surfers and backpackers, so there are a number of hostels available in all of the major cities. However, rates are a bit higher than in neighboring countries, so expect to pay at least $25 USD per night. The extra expense is worth it, though—Chile is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in the world, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting hassled by beggars or rob by ne’er-do-wells.
What To Bring: Step-ups and miniguns, with lots of backups—don’t be surprised if you break your entire quiver while you are here. If you are into the big stuff, bring a proper gun for the outer reef bombies as well. There are a few surf shops in every major city, so accessories are available, but they can be a bit expensive, so bring your own if possible. A 3/2 wetsuit should be sufficient if you are somewhat thick skinned, and you’ll never need more than a 4/3, even in the dead of winter. Many people wear booties at the shallowest and gnarliest setups—pros included—so you might as well throw in a pair of three-mils. The weather and air temperature is quite pleasant along the coast, but if you head to the mountains you’ll need serious insulation, as it gets downright freezing at 5000 meters.
Getting There: Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta all have international airports and field flights from both Lima and Santiago (typically via a connecting airport), as well as a few other major South American destinations. To save a bit of coin you can also take a bus down from Lima or up from Santiago (around 20–30 hours in either direction). Visas are available upon arrival, but note that anyone flying into Santiago from overseas will have to pay a reciprocity tax of around $170. (Entry through other ports avoids this fee, so plan accordingly.) Airport codes: SCL (Santiago), ANF (Antofagasta), IQQ (Iquique) and ARI (Arica).