How Surfing Could Help Save the Cultural Legacy of Traditional Peruvian Reed Boats

by Owen James Burke


For at least 3,500 years, the people in the village of Huanchaco, Peru have been paddling their fishing nets out through the surf in small boats strung tightly together with a reed grass, called Caballitos de totora (“horses of totora reeds”). Caballitos de totora are cherished by the Huanchaco for many reasons beyond their utility as fishing boats, and are treated and tended to as works of art. But to newer generations taking more interest in surfing, higher education, and more lucrative forms of employment, they may be history.


(Photo: Viva Chic Layo)

The newer generations may be trading in fishing for surfing, but like many seafaring cultures throughout the world, their parents and grandparents still look upon these traditional crafts as the hearts and souls of the community–their heritage.

Still, some have discovered more modern applications for caballitos de totora, finding that they make pretty good surfboards. Then again, the Huanchaco fishermen have always used the waves to carry them ashore after fishing. Some historians even argue that these may well have been the very first surfboards, brought to the Polynesians by native South Americans.

Sally Fitzgibbons caballito

(Photo: Agustin Munoz/Red Bull)

Above: Australian professional surfer Sally Fitzgibbons dropping in with a caballito de totora

Recently, the global surf community has also taken some interest in riding caballitos de totora as surfboards, and one SUP manufacturer is even producing a board that pays homage to the reed boats of old–a fanciful concept, though it’s hard to imagine that it could possibly be as fun as riding on natural reed).

El Caballito

(Photo: Suntech)

Older generations may not be thrilled with the use of their beloved vessels as surfboards, but perhaps the cultural heritage of the caballitos de totora will live on with thanks to the interference of modernity after all.

Video by NYT Magazine — OB

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