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Peru and Easter Island: The Blessings of the Tótora Reed

November 12, 2009

Along the coastal deserts of Peru and, strangely enough, within the crater lakes of Easter Island, grows a unique reed that has contributed enormously to the development of civilizations in those places.  The South Americans and Polynesians have long cultivated the tótora plant in ocean-side pits, where it thrives near salt water but does not do well in moister climates away from the sea.

The reed is one of those families of plants that have enabled human societies to grow and prosper.  One can eat the hearts of its tender shoots, weave baskets and floor mats from its stalks, and even build primitive houses with its mature foliage.  More importantly, tótora has been used for eons to build small craft, together with larger sea-going vessels, to aid in both the fishing industry and oceanic navigation.

Tótora is currently found along the coast of Peru – and even as far south as northern Chile and on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

In northern Peru the reed is fashioned into the famous caballitos de tótoro, small boats that look like a cross between a kayak and a surfboard.  Local fishermen brave the icy waters of the Humboldt Current to venture into the open Pacific to fish from these flimsy boats, yet the crafts exhibit the seaworthy qualities of vessels far superior in “technological” development.  Representations of caballitos have been found on ceramics dating back thousands of years, which goes to show “There is nothing new under the sun,” an old but wise cliché.

The boats are paddled with a single double-bladed board, usually fashioned from palm wood or other materials close at hand.  The paddles are not works of art but of functionality.
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1) A group of caballitos drying in the sun near Chiclayo.  The boats do not last more than a few months after becoming waterlogged, but they are easy to construct by lashing two bundles of reeds together, and then by cutting away a small space toward the stern for the pilot to sit and steer while he engages in fishing and surf-dodging.

I have personally seen, in Huanchaco, fishermen pull away from shore through six to eight foot surf in these craft.  Their high bows easily ride over the waves.  On their return to the beach, the fishermen slide to shore through the surf, catching waves with the expertise of the best Hawaiians.  Men often used to invite me to try out the caballitos for sport, and I suspect, to have a good laugh at the expense of a gringo.  Personally I have an aversion to cold water and I always declined the offers.

In other situations I have seen the Huanchaco fishermen run their forty-foot wooden fishing boats straight out to sea through the whitewater from twenty-foot breaking waves.  These men are a breed apart, and their piloting skills would make the hearts of most American or European yachtsmen palpitate with fear.

tucume0762) Catch of the day near Chiclayo

The great beauty of these boats lies in the simplicity of their design, the low cost of their construction and their great sea-handling qualities.

tucume0754) After the workday has finished; the boats are pulled to the beach to dry.

The only question we cannot answer is this: how did the reed makes its way from Peru to Easter Island?  Individual specimens could not have floated over the huge reaches of the Pacific Ocean.  Traditions and artwork on the moai of Rapa Nui depict great ocean-going sailing ships made from reeds.  Perhaps these clues provide the answer.

5) ocean-going reed boat carved on back of a moai, Rapa Nui (Easter Island): photo by KG Herring

It’s a pity that tótora reed boats don’t ply the waters of Seattle and Puget Sound. An enterprising businessperson could make a thriving trade by renting or selling them to the eco-conscious kayakers of the Pacific Northwest.

6) Caballito boat-building

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