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Traditional totora reed raft usage is fading away.  Source: ecuadorquerido / Adobe Stock

Riding Peruvian Waves for 2000 Years on the Totora Reed Raft

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Traveling on the dry windswept northern coast of Peru, beside a spectacular landscape, one finds interesting ways whereby people make a living. That’s how we stumbled on a strange little raft made of reeds used by fishermen in Huanchaco. It raised both eyebrows and interest. The large town is located 8.8 miles (14 km) northeast of Trujillo and 304 miles (489 km) from the capital Lima, on the Pan American highway.

What a curious contraption, unlike anything one might expect for the task. And what, you ask, do they call it? Caballito de Totora ; the name translates as “Little Horse of Totora”. It seems that we have both an unusual contraption and a contradiction - because the horse, ‘caballo’ or ‘caballito’ for little horse in Spanish, did not exist before the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas.

A Caballito.

A Caballito. (©Willem Proos / [email protected])

We don’t know what it was called in the past, but its use is recorded over thousands of years, on ceramics of the Moche civilization (100-700 AD) and the Chimù (850-1470 AD), for example. The fishermen of both cultures adopted the very same reed raft to fish. Representations of the raft are present on ceramics and carved on adobe walls, as seen at pre-Columbian sites such as at Tùcume.

Caballito Chimù Culture, 850-1470 AD. (©georgefery.com)

Caballito Chimù Culture, 850-1470 AD. (©georgefery.com)

Early Reed Rafts

Reed rafts are among the oldest river and coastal modes of transport. Remains of rafts were found on the Failaka Island in Kuwait, dated 7000 years ago. In Egypt, rafts were built of papyrus reeds ( cyperus papyrus ), a close family to the Huanchaco reeds, that were widely cultivated on the Nile’s banks and its delta, since 4000 BC.

Reed rafts , along with dugout canoes, were built by riverine tribes of North American Indians. Other local types of reeds used for raft or boat building are found in the archaeological record around the world.

The totora plant’s scientific name is Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. Tatora. It is used today by the Uru indigenous people on the shores of Lake Titicaca , at 12,707 ft. (3873.1 meters) in Bolivia. Their homes are built of and on top of totora reed beds as floating “islands”.

The raft is also used for fishing, on the northeast coast of Peru, such as at Huanchaco, where the reed grows behind the sand dunes north of town, locally called Humedades de Huanchaco. The totora reed is also found on Easter Island in the South Pacific, specifically in the lake of the Rano Kao crater, an extinct volcano.

With Reed Rafts We Will Travel

How did the totora plant find its way there so far from its birthplace, together with the bread fruit tree, also indigenous to tropical South America?

There is little doubt today regarding an extensive history of ocean travel by groups of people from Polynesia and along the coasts of the Americas. The totora in the Rano Kao crater is an undeniable testimony to travels from south America westbound, to Polynesia. In the Lambayeque valley of northern Peru, the Sican oral tradition mentions the landing, in 850-900 AD, of a flotilla of large rafts (balsa or totora?), that brought the first dynastic founder of the Lambayeque dynasty, Ñaimlap, his wife Ceterni, and a large retinue of people that landed a few miles up the coast from Huanchaco. From where did this group of settlers came from? The record is uncertain; could it be from the western Pacific?

The totora plant can reach a length of 20 ft. (6.1 meters), but is more common at 13-15 ft. (3.96-4.57 meters), that’s about the average length of a caballito made of two bundles of dry reeds tied up together with double loop vines. Today, pieces of polystyrene are built into each of the twin master bundles for added buoyancy, and nylon rope replaces totora vines to tie up the bundles. It takes but a couple of hours for two fishermen to make a caballito , and the material used in their fabrication can rapidly and economically be replaced.

Left: Building the raft. (©J.AshleyNixon) Right: Raft bundles. (©georgefery.com)

The relatively light weight of the raft, at about 45 lbs. (20.41 kg), allows it to be carried on a man’s shoulder. There is an argument about the caballito : is it a boat or a raft? The distinction between the two is that a boat is usually waterproofed with some sort of tar, while the raft is not; so, our iconic caballito is a raft! Could it perhaps be considered a precursor to today’s surf and paddle board? That’s another argument.

Speaking of surfing, local folks mainly surf in the afternoon, since Huanchaco is known as a destination for its consistent clean surf. The town is well-known for its three surf beaches, its caballitos, and its ceviche tipo Huanchaco . Not to be missed, the pre-Columbian ruins of the largest pre-Columbian city in South America, Chan Chan , are located at the mouth of the Moche Valley, a few miles from Trujillo.

Out to sea. (© J.AshleyNixon)

Iconic Features of a Totora Reed Raft

The body of the caballito de totora is made in four parts. The two outboard bundles are the longest and are called bastones madres or “mother spars”, while the other smaller two parts are called bastones hijos or “son spars”. Each individual baston or spar is very tightly braided with totora vines by hand, then forcefully tied up together as one body in the shape of the raft. The depression between the spars is called the “crate,” where the fish and nets are stored.

The upward curved prow of the raft, in the shape of an elephant tusk , is likewise tightly tied up and powerfully curved by hand. As in the past, the raft design is made to get past the surf and waves in the ocean, not to ride them. The raft rides the swells of the Pacific beautifully thanks to its curved prow, a pre-Columbian design that helps cut through the surf and reach deeper waters where bigger fish are found.

A fisherman does not go into the raft because there is no into. They typically ride seated or kneeling on the rectangular semi-flat rear stern or straddling the raft with their legs dangling overboard. Out to sea they will avoid having their feet out, since sea lions in the area may be tempted.

When they get a large catch, they will store the fish in plastic bags with the nets, in the “crate” while riding on the body of the caballito. For propulsion, the rider carries a bamboo stalk about 8 to 9 ft.-long  (2.44-2.74 meters) split in half over its length, 7-9 inches (17.78-22.86 cm) wide, that’s the paddle; it also helps the fisherman keep lateral balance when crossing the waves.

Return with the catch. (©georgefery.com)

Given the limitation of their craft, fishermen cannot go far off the coast. They cast their nets between two or more caballitos about 2 to 4 miles (3.22-6.44 km) offshore. The nets are weighted and held by floats. After setting the nets they go their separate ways, with each fisherman dropping traps for lobster.

The Catch!

On a good day the catch may be up to 80 lbs. (36.29 kg), but more often than not the catch does not exceed about 25-35 lbs. (11.34-15.89 kg). Beside two or three lobsters perhaps, the mix of fish may include sardines, mullet, sea bass, calamari and others. The weight of the catch is limited by the craft structure in addition to the weight of the rider.

The waters teem with fish and fishermen aim for medium to large fish that sell quickly on arrival to hotels and restaurants. Commercial and private buyers are waiting on the beach…sometimes together with a pod of pelicans in the shallows, since who knows what can drop off the raft?

What is not sold on the beach will be loaded in a hand cart for sale to small restaurants in town. It is a hard way to make a living and is seen as an “old man” occupation by the younger generation.

Not too long ago the rafts were seen all along the coast, now they are only found in few places among which is Huanchaco, believed to be the most traditional place for the totora reed raft, with about 25-30 full-time fishermen.

As a rule, a fisherman has two or more caballitos because the reeds soak up water and after about three weeks, one needs to stay on shore to dry, propped up against wooden cross bars on the beach, while another goes to sea.

Totora reed rafts drying up. (©flickr.com)

Caballitos Cannot Compete

Are the caballitos fading into the sunset? In August 2014 an article in the Huanchaco Journal written by William Neuman and Andrea Zarate summed up the situation: yes. There are a number of factors among which is a long breakwater built for port traffic that altered the currents in the bay.

This has resulted in significant environmental degradation that damaged the totora reed tracts and narrowed the beach. There were over 200 tracts in 2011 but less than 110 today. As major as it sounds, it’s still a minor factor.

The major factor is the arrival a few years back of affordable fiberglass and aluminum boats that are safer, can go farther and carry more fish; the caballitos cannot compete. Fishermen today get a significant part of their income giving rides on their caballito to a steady stream of tourists. Younger men will double as surf instructors on theirs.

Alas, the young generation can get a better financial return for their labor working in the hospitality or industrial fishing industries, among other occupations. It seems that the caballitos will, in a not so distant future, be relegated to tourists or museums. Inexorably, their practical use is fading with each sunset.

The practical use of the caballitos is fading with each sunset. (©mapio.net)

Top Image: Traditional totora reed raft usage is fading away.  Source: ecuadorquerido / Adobe Stock

By George Fery

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