Anglers take the bait on Peru's rainy coast

Pacific: A collision of two ocean currents affects global weather -- and attracts giant creatures of the deep.

Destination: South America

July 23, 2000|By Patrick Joseph | Patrick Joseph,Universal Press Syndicate

Remarking on the Peruvian coast in "Moby Dick," Herman Melville wrote of "the tearlessness of desert skies that never rain." Had the famous author stayed around long enough, he would have seen another reality -- that is to say, it never rains, but it pours.

Northern Peru is the land of El Nino, that enfant terrible of global weather. The phenomenon has become famous for its ripple effects around the world, but it's here that it was christened, and here where it is first and most directly felt.

During strong events, torrential rains may pound the normally arid coastline for months on end, washing out roads and bridges, and rendering the region a disaster area.

"We're in El Nino now," Maximo Jacinto said as we motored out into the calm Pacific aboard Cristina, a vintage fishing yacht with outriggers and fighting chair.

"I thought we were in La Nina," I said.

La Nina, or "the little girl," is El Nino's meteorological opposite and follows on her brother's heels. In temperament, she might be characterized as normal, only more so -- even drier than usual, with stronger offshore winds and a return of colder water offshore. According to everything I read and saw, we were in La Nina.

"No, the current," Maximo said, pointing to the water. "La corriente del nino."

He meant we were passing into the warm, northerly Equatorial Current, as opposed to the cold Humboldt Current that flows from the south. He could tell, he said, because the El Nino Current is clear, the Humboldt dirty. I peered overboard, but it just looked like ocean to me.

At around this latitude, I knew, the two streams collided and veered westward, leaving in their wake a zone of massive upwelling and superabundant sea life; so abundant that the area was once considered the world capital of sport fishing. "Marlin Junction," they called it in the sporting press.

"Was the world record caught near here?" I asked as we trolled.

"Closer in," he said, "off Cabo Blanco."

Seventy-six-year-old Maximo was there, in 1953, when Alfred Glassell brought in the largest-ever black marlin on a rod and reel, a 1,560-pound monster that landed the Texan on the cover of Sports Illustrated and lured many of the era's rich and famous to the remote and exclusive Cabo Blanco Fishing Club.

Stories and survivors

Former mate on the Miss Peru, Maximo fished not only with Glassell, but with actor Jimmy Stewart, baseball great Ted Williams and author Ernest Hemingway, who came to Cabo Blanco, near Piura, in 1956 with the film crew for "The Old Man and the Sea."

Today, few yachts work the coast, and the old lodge -- "El Fishing," the locals call it -- sits abandoned on a sandy bluff overlooking the Pacific. A lone oil pump nods at one end of the beach and chickens occupy the room that Hemingway slept in.

But many surviving members of the fishing crew still live in the village of Cabo Blanco or up on the plateau in the oil town of El Alto.

I first met Eleuterio Querevalu on the dusty waterfront of Cabo Blanco. Bare-chested and nearly toothless, he looked as old as Methuselah, and I talked to him about the days when he worked as mate on the Miss Texas, one of four boats operated by the club in its heyday.

While we talked, he braided a length of twine from a hank of native cotton. "For catching sharks," he explained.

Then there was Pablo Cordova, the old barman from the club, who now owns a small restaurant where he has a picture of himself and Hemingway hanging over the door to the kitchen.

And, of course, Maximo Jacinto, who had agreed to go fishing with me.

I took my pick of rooms in the clean, whitewashed El Merlin, the only hotel in Cabo Blanco. From my deck I could watch the daily ritual of boats being launched from the beach, a community effort in which timbers are thrown under the keel while young and old grab a rope and heave.

At night I ate seviche, raw fish cured in lime juice with onion and hot red pepper, in a restaurant run by a fisherman's wife in their home. While I ate, the family went about their business at the table next to me -- the kids doing homework, the father rigging his fishing lines, the grandmother nodding approvingly and clearing my plate when I was done.

For days I had made my way up and down the coast, visiting fishing towns, talking to people about El Nino. The towns were mostly sleepy seaside villages.

I watched fishermen in Pimentel paddle their "caballitos de totora" -- traditional reed boats shaped like elf shoes propelled kayak-fashion with a length of split cane -- out beyond the breakers. Young boys paddled their own miniature versions like surfboards.

In Monsefu, I drank "chicha de jorra," a fermented corn drink, while watching an old woman seated in a doorway across the way weave a Panama hat.

The coast is not entirely sedate, however, and as a diversion from the shuffling tempo of the villages, I went surfing.

The sport is popular in Peru, and the north has some of the best breaks on the continent, at beaches including Juanchaco, Mancora and Puerto Chicama.

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