Totora Reed - a Unique Resource

Totora reed (Schoenoplectus californicus), grows in swampy areas throughout the Andes, in Central America, and much of the southern United States, where it is known as the California bulrush. In Peru, it continues to serve a number of important, traditional functions

 A Many-Coloured Rush Tyrant nesting in Totora Reed. 

A Many-Coloured Rush Tyrant nesting in Totora Reed. 

Painted ceramics demonstrate that, two thousand years ago, Moche fishermen used the reeds to construct pointy-prowed boats.

Today, fishermen along Peru's northern coast still build and use these boats, which they call caballitos (little horses). To make them, they take dried totora reeds and tie them tightly together. 

 Construction of  caballitos de totora  is back-breaking work in the sun. 

Construction of caballitos de totora is back-breaking work in the sun. 

Once ready for use, they sit, kneel or stand on the widest part of the boat, and paddle through the breaking waves, using a wooden or bamboo oar, to get to the deeper water beyond. Once they have finished fishing, they then ride the waves back to the beach ... like a surfer! 

 Surfer and  caballito  paddler riding the same wave at Huanchaco. 

Surfer and caballito paddler riding the same wave at Huanchaco. 

A great place to see this in action is at the fishing village of Huancacho, located just a few miles from Trujillo. The beach wall here is often lined with caballitos, standing on their ends, drying in the sun. And for a small fee, adventurous tourists can have a go themselves! 

 A tourist having a go on a  caballito  at Huanchaco. 

A tourist having a go on a caballito at Huanchaco. 

In other parts of the Americas, totora use has almost disappeared. On the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca however, the Uros people are famed for their extensive use of totora reeds, which grow in and around the lake. They too make totora-reed boats, known as balsas, which are generally larger than the ones used on the Pacific coast.

 Totora Reed boat with Uros family on Lake Titicaca. 

Totora Reed boat with Uros family on Lake Titicaca. 

And they take their relationship with totora even further, by not only building their houses - and many of the utensils within it - from the reed, but even the islands upon which their houses stand!

 Totora Reed - both living and harvested - can be clearly seen on this floating Uros Island. 

Totora Reed - both living and harvested - can be clearly seen on this floating Uros Island. 

Moreover, the reed is also sometimes used as fodder for livestock; and parts of the totora are chewed or boiled into tea to supplement the Uros' own diet - and stave off a hangover, when the need arises!

Please ask us how to visit these very contrasting areas of Peru, divided by almost 4,000m (13,000 ft) of altitude ... and yet connected by their use of the same plant.