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Trujillo, The Golden Steeds of Huanchaco

Photo: Alejandro Balaguer


[Fisherman in Huanchaco]
Photo: Alejandro Balaguer


Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer

The view of the sea from the shoreline fades into an endless horizon, as the sun rises above the hazy mountains only to disappear hours later beneath the ocean waves. Crouching on his rustic reed boat, Mercedes Ucañan breasts the waves like his Yunga ancestors did a thousand years ago when they inhabited the Kingdom of Chimuc Capac. The 81-year-old fisherman is one of the last survivors of an ocean-going culture which centuries ago settled the coastal area of Guanchaco, which in the Muchic language means Golden Fish. The fishermen, who paddled the same reed boats, or caballitos de totora, as they do now, once supplied fish to the immense pre-Hispanic metropolis of Chan Chan.

Another theory is that the name comes from the word Wachake, the name given to the coastal freshwater marshes where the totora reed grows, fed by underground springs. The marshes still exist today inside the Chan Chan citadel, giving life with their splash of bright green against the bleak, barren backdrop of the desert mudflats where the temples have survived for so long mainly because it never rains here.

Ucañan's family, as the Humanchumo, Chinchihuaman, Chumbe or Inga, dates back to families who have not only preserved their peculiar last names, but also their age-old customs of fishing and building reed boats. The ritual that has not changed in centuries. The residents of Huanchaco learn from childhood that when the totora, or Scirpus reed, reaches its maximum height once a year, it is time to cut and lay the reeds out to dry on the sand until it attains its typically golden colour. The fishermen then skillfully tie the reeds together at the prow end until they succeed in forming an arc-shaped boat.

This peculiar shape enables the rider to clear the breakers and guide the boat in a direction.

The reed boats of Huanchaco are unique in that their prows end in a point and are tied slightly upwards, giving them the distinction of possibly being the world's first surfboard.

And there is concrete proof that these boats were used thousands of years ago: the Viru culture's pottery, which dates back to 200 B.C., is decorated with drawings of the caballitos, or "tups" as the Mochica culture called them.

The Spaniards changed the name to caballitos as the fishermen rode them rather like horses, a custom they continue until today in the fishing village of Huanchaco. At the end of the day's fishing, the boats are stuck upright in the sand in a line, waiting for the next day's catch.

A Spanish priest long ago noted the fishermen "were many, and each seated on his balsa horse, cutting through the ocean waves in a rough sea, fishing for sharks and other fish." Each fisherman carries a red net called a "calcal" tipped with hooks of varying sizes, an implement still used in small scale fishing down the coastal villages of Peru.

Historian Maria Rostworowski found in her research that the use of the reed craft was common during the sixteenth century down a wide swath of the coast from the northern reaches of Lambayeque down to the southern coast town of Pisco. As time wore on, the custom died out in many areas together with the marshes where the totora reed grew, leaving just the northern communities of Huanchaco, Pimentel and Santa Rosa. These are the only places that still use Guayaquil cane cut in half as an oar and a stone tied to a rope as an anchor.

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal has come across cases of this reed boat being used in Easter Island. Heyerdal has sailed the Pacific Ocean several times in totora reed boats to prove the Melenesians made contact with what is today the Peruvian coast thousands of years ago. The great seafarers of ancient times reputedly were the first to start using the reed, as well as being the first to figure out navigation aids such as the ocean currents and constellations.

The ancient Peruvians were able to predict the fishing season just from the color of the sea, the shoals of fish or the relationship between the moon and the tides. It was these factors that usually determined whether it was worthwhile taking to waves.

Inexorable extinction

This age-old wisdom is now in an ever-increasing danger of totally disappearing, as less and less youngsters take an interest in keeping up this tradition. Only one of Ucañan's six children helps him with the fishing nowadays.

"The others have emigrated to Lima, because life here is very tough," Ucañan said resignedly.

The lack of enthusiasm has to do largely with the waning availability of fish, a scarcity the fishermen blame on modern trawlers. Another factor though, is the gradual disappearance of the totora reed marshes thanks to the endless new constructions in Huanchaco that have gradually reduced the underground water supply to alarming levels.

Anthropologist Bernardo Alva claims that the same phenomenon is occurring now as it did in the 1940s in Chan Chan, where fishermen had to uproot the reed and plant it elsewhere, after local agriculture depleted the water table.

At the citadel ruins, all that remains are a few scattered clumps of reed, the last remnants of the vast totora marshes that once flourished in the area.

In Huanchaco, the fishermen have had to unite in order to preserve the last 40 totora reed marshes remaining, where they cultivate the reed from which they build their boats. The marshes are eco-systems and are home to various species of freshwater fish, insects as well as a peculiar bird that feeds on the reeds' parasites, helping them to grow.

The marshes today are passed from generation to generation and are carefully tended to ensure their preservation, as these reeds are the very reason for the Huanchaco fishermen's existence.

In the past three years, however, at least a dozen reed marshes have been burned and buried under piles of rubble, in aborted attempts to turn the area into a housing estate. If this building trend continues, in a few years, the only things that will remain of the Chimú culture, will be the mute portraits of birds and fish carved into the bas-relief friezes, found in the citadel of Chan Chan.

Old families, such as the Ucañan, Huamanchumo, Chinchihuaman, Chumbe, which form part of the 160 native families in Huanchaco will have lost the battle to preserve their culture, while Peru itself will have lost a piece of living history.

Saving the totora marshes

On January 23, 1992, La Libertad Regional Assembly issued a Legislative Ruling which declared the 46 hectares of totora marshes located in Huanchaco are now a Protected Regional Area. The law states the marshes may only be used for the cultivation, harvesting and drying of the reed, only rationally, as well as for scientific research. The law also prohibits any construction work within the reserve, as well as the building of roads, quarries or any other such activity that would have a negative impact on the environment. However, the law has not been enough to stop this recent boom in constructions, as mentioned earlier. The local authorities in charge of enforcing these laws do not appear to be unduly concerned about the widespread destruction of these freshwater reed marshes. The disappearance of these would definitely result in the loss of one of Peru's most enduring and enchanting traditions.

Travel throughout South America with

By Monica Vecco
Volume I/Issue 2, Page 56
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