The road to Lobitos passes through the dry, barren desert of northern Peru before reaching the fishing district of Talara, where you’ll pass through a fishing port with air that is dense with the smell of yesterday’s rotting fish. After another stretch of desert you finally reach the surfing town of Lobitos, one of Peru’s best surfing spots. It’s a quiet town with few people, and out-of-place abandoned Victorian mansions along a stretch of the beach, giving the impression that everyone left in a hurry. Oil rigs bob up and down in the distance. Finally, you reach Lobitos, which is now known as a surfing town – but it has a complicated history.
Way before the arrival of surfers to its shores, Lobitos was owned and occupied by a British oil company that became known as the Lobitos Oilfield Company. The owners and part-owners of the company changed hands over the years, but what didn’t change was the colony of British residents who were making Lobitos their home. The company and their families rented the land from the Peruvian government and began creating infrastructure: roads, a church, a pier, desalination plants, electricity, a hospital, and even South America’s first cinema. The area quickly went from being a fishing town to a British colony for exclusive use by the oil company’s affiliates. Local Peruvians were not allowed in the area, nor were they allowed to use the facilities.
With infrastructure in place and a movie theater for entertainment, Lobitos became a major stopping place for large ships heading to Argentina and Chile. Its deep waters made it easy for large ships to dock, and amenities such as the movie theater made it all the more tempting to stay awhile.
In 1968, with a new government in place in Peru, the International Petroleum Company occupying Lobitos was forced to leave and their property was seized by the government. Military bases were built and the British mansions were used to house the Peruvian military.
The military occupation, however, was short-lived and, because of a peace agreement signed with Ecuador, the military base was slated to be removed. As the military left the land, the historical landmarks became vulnerable and began to be looted, which destroyed most of the area’s buildings, including the historic cinema. All that exists today is an old, dilapidated church and a couple of Victorian mansions-turned-hostels, which are just barely holding on.
The town’s history is now a story told to surfers over beers, but you can still find remnants of the town’s storied past dotting the coastline, and old Victorian mansions are now housing foreign surfers. The waves are why the town has been reborn, a revitalization that now makes the government care again, but even the waves can’t escape Lobitos’ past: oil rigs still line the deep waters just outside the famed surf spots, marring the beautiful blue waters with industrial machinery.