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On Assignment for Photographers Without Borders: Swim Tayka Peru

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In February 2022 I went to Huanchaco, Peru on my second assignment for Photographers Without Borders. This assignment had been delayed for two years thanks to COVID. It felt great to finally get out again.

This is the article that I wrote to explain where I was, the problem they’re facing, and the solutions this nonprofit is using.

surfing in huanchaco

Swim Tayka Peru

The northern coast of Peru has a long, proud heritage of life with the sea. Just outside of Trujillo one can explore Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world. The mud walls, six hundred years old, are adorned with reliefs of fish, waves, pelicans, and sea otters. And in Huanchaco, modern fishermen still utilize reed fishing boats called caballitos de totora, a design that has not changed for 3,500 years, and are the oldest known craft used for “surfing”. Life with the sea was important then and is today.

chan chan carvings
Adobe fish on the walls of Chan Chan, the largest ancient city in South America and seat of the Chimor empire from 900AD-1550AD.
Huanchaco fisherman
A fishermen cleaning his net in the morning after fishing in his caballito.

While Huanchaco’s fishermen still ride their caballitos every morning, fishing is no longer the economic driver of the region. It’s tourism. Huanchaco’s beaches are a popular summer destination for Peruvians, particularly those from Trujillo, Peru’s third-largest city. Huanchaco is also world-renowned for its surfing, and the longest left-hand break in the world is just a few miles north. Huanchaco was designated as Latin America’s first World Surfing Reserve in 2013.

huanchaco surf lessons
Chicho, an ancestral Chimú, runs the oldest surf school in Huanchaco. He can trace his relatives back over a thousand years to the “original” surfers.
huanchaco surfers
Some fishermen give tourists rides in their caballitos to supplement their income due to the decline in fishing. Elsewhere, the waters are full of surfers.

Tourism, and the money that tourists bring, are very important to the local government that benefits from this tourism. But step just outside of Huanchaco’s developed tourist areas and you’ll find several communities that receive little to no acknowledgment from the government at all, that can’t even get running water and only received electricity just a few years ago.

For an area with such strong, ancient ties to life with the ocean, children in these communities do not have any opportunities for water safety or swimming classes. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in 2019 citing drowning as the third-leading cause of unintentional injury death in the world. Children aged 1-14 years from low-income areas, particularly in the Pacific, make up the majority of these statistics. Latest numbers released by the WHO report 1,178 drownings in Peru in 2018.

cerrito de la virgen
Sewage from the tourist areas is pumped to ponds next to the settlement of Cerrito de la Virgen, where they do not have running water and only recently received electrical service.
cerrito de la virgen
One of three water tanks in Cerrito de la Virgin. Only two are functional. The tanks are filled every two weeks but are empty by the first day. Residents must scavenge for water the rest of the time.

Water safety & stewardship

Swim Tayka, a UK-registered nonprofit, has been filling this gap where the government is not. Swim Tayka operates volunteer-based swim classes for these communities during the summer break, from the beginning of January to the end of February. These morning classes consist of roughly 60 children and 8-10 volunteer instructors.

swim lessons
swim lessons
swim lessons

These children learn more than just swimming skills in their classes. While half of the group is in the pool learning swimming skills, the other half is in a group discussion setting. The facilitator leads discussions that are critical not just to youth development but also to Huanchaco’s future. In addition to water safety topics, the children learn about what happens when garbage is left on the beach instead of being put in the bins and the resources consumed for each light bulb that is needlessly left on.

water safety lessons
trash on the beach

Swim and water safety lessons will become more and more important as weather patterns continue to change. Three-quarters of all flood deaths are from drowning, and Huanchaco has seen some of the worst floodings in history in recent years due to intensified El Niño events. 

Luis, a ten-year-old swim student in his second month of lessons, says that these lessons aren’t just important because he wants to learn how to surf, but because they could also save his life one day. 

And that’s why Eduardo, one of the local instructors, volunteers to teach. “The lessons don’t just give them access to water, their heritage. They give them the gift of being able to save someone else’s life too.” Eduardo notes that the goal is not to make them competitive swimmers – though a few of their students are on that path. The goal is to give them the confidence and skills to safely be around water. His approach is to first get them comfortable in the pool. The students utilize kickboards and noodles to learn kicking and breathing skills. Then they bring it all together by swimming laps unassisted. Eduardo’s favorite part of teaching these lessons is seeing the dramatic progress they make in such a short period of time.

swim instructor
Eduardo, one of Swim Tayka’s instructors.

Promise for the future

Huanchaco and its residents face many challenges. In the past few decades its beaches that tourists flock to have receded 30 meters. The wetlands that provide the materials for the caballitos, Huanchaco’s identity for thousands of years, are disappearing due to coastal erosion, development, and pollution. It will be up to Huanchaco’s youth to ensure that this heritage and the living it provides will not end here. Ensuring that they have the skills to safely live near water, and the capacity to care for it, is critical towards this goal.

swimming in ocean

To view more photos from this assignment, visit this gallery.

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Michael Dubois

Sunday 4th of December 2022

Awesome story, very well written!


Saturday 19th of March 2022

Hi John,

This is so well done and should be impactful. I hope you have avenues for wide distribution.

Although I only recently experienced Chile as a tourist, I have lived/worked in Central Africa for several months. The connection in your story between potable water (lack of) and the benefits of swimming brought memories of dry villages and danger of jungle rivers (the 'highways' of the forest). Thanks for that attention.

I look forward to you continuing this work.

So glad you enjoyed your trip at the same time! dcraig

John Peltier

Sunday 20th of March 2022

Thanks for the feedback DC! Yeah, it's crazy how valuable water is in these communities. I found the same while I was in Uganda also. I can't wait to go back!

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