Fishing on 'Surfboards'
Traditional fishing in Huanchaco
When you visit Huanchaco in Northern Peru, you literally can’t miss the caballitos de totora. The shape of these reed vessels resemble that of a kayak but with a more pronounced curve at the end. They have been used by fisherman in the region for more than 3000 years. The name, caballitos de totora, means “the little horses of cattails” which makes sense because one of the main ways that the fishermen ride the cabillitos resembles riding a horse.
There’s a debate whether these reed vessels were the world’s first surfboards. Regardless of whether they were indeed the first surfboards, the caballitos de totora have become the icons of the region. Huanchaco’s beaches are lined with caballitos de totora and almost every restaurant will either have a caballito at the entrance or a painting of one. And of course, the souvenir stands along the beach offer miniature versions for you to take home.
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You can see depictions of fishermen using these caballitos in ceramics from the Moche culture displayed in museums around the region. You can also see them at the beach today since the caballitos remain in use by fishermen.
The thing I love most about staying somewhere longer is that you start experiencing the rhythms of a place. And rather than having to force stories that capture the essence of the place, the stories come to you.
When we first arrived to Huanchaco, we only saw the cabillitos in the distance. After a few days of wandering around the beach, we had the opportunity to see the fishermen up close, bringing in their catch.
The fishermen are like local celebrities. When they arrive to the shore, a crowd form around them. Some are interested in buying the fisherman’s catch, but most are just curious. The fishermen split their time between sorting out their catch and letting tourists pose on their boat for a nominal fee.
After a photo session with a couple of tourists, the fisherman headed back out again. I didn’t expect to see him again so soon, but he came back with a basket teeming with crab less than twenty minutes later. He later explained that he set the trap at 5:30 in the morning.
The bulk of the crab went for 15 soles (a little less than four dollars) per kilogram. We even debated whether it was a good idea to bring back some to Lima as a carry-on!
On the way to the airport, on New Year’s day, we saw a fisherman in the process of constructing a new boat1. I didn’t get a photo, but it was nice to see tradition continuing as the new year began and our trip winded to an end2.
You can experience the cabillito for yourself for 15 soles (a little less than four dollars). You’ll sit in the back and the fisherman will take you a short distance out from the shore. However, you may smell like fish when you get back since you’ll be sitting where the fishermen normally stores the fish.
Next time, I’ll tell you more about how the catches the fishermen bring in are used in the local cuisine.
The modern versions of these boats include styrofoam to increase buoyancy.