Claudia Ruiz-Gustafson | Caballitos de Huanchaco: The Last Generation, 2016

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.

Every summer when I was in college, I used to travel from Lima to Huanchaco to visit my grandparents who retired there. The town was a lovely postcard town with a thriving fishing community. Twenty years later, in 2016, I visited Huanchaco and I found a deeply changed town. More crowded, more polluted and with a tiny fishing community that is quickly vanishing. The fish is scarce, the coast has eroded, and the sandy beaches are long gone.

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 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. Totora crops once bountiful are now scarce and the fishermen have to “fill up” their caballitos with Styrofoam or plastic soda bottles.

Like their ancestors, 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. Now, the fishermen also give afternoon rides to tourists to supplement their income.

The new generation of Huanchaqueros don’t want to be fishermen anymore; they now prefer to be surfing instructors or construction workers. This is most likely the last generation of artisan fishermen in Huanchaco.
Caballitos resting and drying by sea wall