Huanchaco is an old traditional fishing town in the northern coast of Peru. It is also a tourist and surf destination. In the sea, fishermen tend their nets in small reed boats known as “caballitos de totora”, or little reed horses, very much like the ones that their ancestors have used there for thousands of years.
Today, only a handful of fishermen keep up the tradition. Beach erosion and marine life decline are causing great damage to this ancient artisanal fishing activity. There’s very little space on the beach to let the caballitos dry in between fishing trips. Industrial fishing, pollution, unplanned construction projects, along with global climate change are the main causes of coastal erosion and marine life decline.
Fishermen build the boats from the totora reeds that grow along the coast of Huanchaco They go fishing right before dawn, then go work in the totorales (reed plantations) while the women sell the fish at the markets or to the local restaurants. In the afternoon, the men build or repair their nets and caballitos or give rides to tourists to supplement their income.
A caballito if used daily, lasts no more than 2 or 3 months. Fishermen are in constant need of totora to build new caballitos. Totorales take one year to grow from seed to be ready to cut and let dry. Many totorales have been destroyed as the shoreline erodes and the current plantations are in danger due to heavy traffic and unauthorized housing projects.
Humberto Gordillo started fishing when he was 14 years old. He is now 80 years old and no longer fishes. His father, brothers and grandfather were also fishermen. When he was a child, all the houses in Huanchaco were made from totora (reed) because totora crops were bountiful. Now it’s scarce and the fishermen have to “fill up” their caballitos with Styrofoam or plastic soda bottles.
Gordillo is respected by all the fishing community. He has trained many younger males. Every morning, he goes to the beach and the younger fishermen give him fish as a token of appreciation. According to him, kids don’t want to be fishermen anymore; they now prefer to be surfing instructors or construction workers. Only one male under the year of 25 is now at work. This is most likely the last generation of artisan fishermen in Huanchaco.
© 2017 Claudia Ruiz-Gustafson. All rights reserved.