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The Last of the Moche Wave Riders

Uncovering surfing’s secret ancient history on the desert coast of Peru.   by Karen Emslie

March 27, 2015

Omar runs the Surf School Muchik with his brother in Huanchaco—a colorful beach town with a population of about 15,000 along northern Peru’s desert coast. Before the Incas came to dominance, this land was home to the Moche people from A.D. 100-800, then the Chimú until A.D. 1470. Huanchaco fishermen and surfers can trace their ancestral lines back to these cultures, and Omar is proud of his ancient surname, Huamanchumo.

In his classroom, he introduces new students, both foreign and Peruvian, to the principles of surfing—as well as the story of his family and the school. He explains that Huamanchumo was the name of a Chimú ruler and that Muchik is another name for Moche. (Though some academics suggest that the groups are distinct, locals consider the terms to be interchangeable.) And he delights in telling them that here in Huanchaco, they are in the birthplace of wave riding.

The board is Hawaiian, but the art of correr olas (“riding waves”) is from Peru.

The classroom’s concrete floor is wet and sandy from the students’ bare feet. Diagrams from Huamanchumo’s morning lesson are still on the whiteboard. A red surfboard leans against the corner of the small room, and Huamanchumo points at it. “In Spanish, we call this a tabla hawaiana because it comes from Hawaii. The board is Hawaiian, but the art of correr olas (‘riding waves’) is from Peru. You can correr olas with a surfboard, a bodyboard, your chest, or a caballito de totora (‘little reed horse’).”

The image of the caballito is everywhere—here, on a sculpture in Huanchaco.

Huamanchumo shows me a photograph of a man in a wetsuit surfing on a caballitoa narrow reed boat with an upturned bow. “We believe that surfing was born here in northern Peru,” he tells me. The world may think that Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, but this is not so, he says. Why is he so certain? “Because we have evidence.”

Many Peruvian surfers, and some scholars, claim that wave riding in Peru goes back more than 5,000 years. Gabriel Prieto, of Yale University’s Anthropology Department, is somewhat wary of this claim, though the Huanchaco-born archaeologist has uncovered carbon-dated evidence that wave riding has existed in northern Peru for at least 3,500 years, long before even the Moche and Chimú, who celebrated surfing on caballitos in the ceramics they left behind. 

Shark teeth, Gramalote. Photo by Angiolina Abugattas.

In 2011, Prieto’s team discovered a miniature caballito—nearly identical in form to those found in Huanchaco today—within a ceremonial site in Pampas Gramalote, an ancient settlement on the outskirts of the town. This tiny model of a caballito is the 3,500-year-old proof that makes Prieto certain of his claim. The team also found more than 16,000 shark remains on site, showing that people used their caballitos to hunt for sharks, which swam in local waters when they were warmer than they are today.

You can ride caballitos with your knees clamped round them—wearing on the knee bones of excavated bodies show this was a common form of steering—but you can also sit in and stand on them. Though the caballitos were designed for fishing, and are undeniably distinct from the fiberglass and polymer surfboards found today, they are also—as Prieto points out—intended to be ridden for pleasure.

“Caballitos are designed to break the wave,” he says, “but the shape is also perfect to ride the waves when the fishermen are returning from their daily fishing expeditions. I would say that surfing was present in Peru since the very first day the reed boat was invented.”

Despite his findings, Prieto is cautious of assigning a country of invention to surfing. He likes to think of it as a shared passion across many maritime communities, including both Peru and the Pacific Islands. “Each [region] loved the ocean and wanted to have fun in its own way,” he says.

Caballitos are the pride and joy of Huanchaco—but the art of building and fishing from them is on the verge of extinction. Only around 35 caballito fishermen remain in Huanchaco today, and the totora reeds used in their construction face threats, both natural and man-made.

Fishermen turned tour guides take tourists out for short trips on caballitos.

Ancient objects like that miniature caballito demonstrate that the reed boat’s construction has remained virtually unchanged since the time of Pampas Gramalote. Each caballito lasts for only two months, and today in Huanchaco you can find fishermen building them just as their ancestors did 3,500 years ago. (Yet to be discovered is evidence that may show the construction method to be even older.)

Pedro Anhuamán Gordillo is a local artist and author of Huanchaco: Cultura Viva Muchik-Chimor de la Costa Norte del Peru (“The Living Culture of the Moche/Chimú of the Northern Coast of Peru”). On a Sunday afternoon, amid the sunbathers and paddlers by the beach, we meet at the Totora Interpretation Center.

There, we crouch down beside a caballito and Pedro shows me how tightly packed bundles of totora—called bastones madres, or “mother canes,” are secured around shorter bastones hijos, or “son canes,” and bound together to form the distinctive 5-meter-long caballitos. The few modern additions are the polystyrene floats that fishermen now fit inside, along with a minimal amount of nylon ties.

Caballitos on the beach.

Gordillo then asks me to imagine this desert region thousands of years ago, when the Moche and Chimú reigned and the land was fertile, irrigated by canals and rivers. Long ago, the palaces, temples, and pyramids of Chan Chan—the world’s largest adobe city—overwhelmed this landscape. Today, clattering red and yellow buses cut paths right through the ancient structures that remain, most of them nothing more than unprotected mounds eroded by salt winds, El Niño, and grave robbers.

Totora were grown in pools called huachaques all over Chan Chan, Gordillo tells me. The coastal air and fertile, recessed areas protected the specific reed species (Scirpus californicus) that thrived here. Scirpus californicus like to grow in 30 to 40 centimeters of freshwater, fed by the natural water table, though they require salty maritime air to flourish.

Says Gordillo: “The totora have been grown here on the coast continuously for thousands of years. They used to be grown 6 kilometers away [at Chan Chan] and were taken to the beach at Huanchaco on donkeys. Then in the 1960s they were transplanted.”

The totora were transplanted because agricultural developments in the area caused the old huachaques to dry up. The reeds were rooted into new pools on a thin strip of land that starts on the edge of Huanchaco, then runs northward, parallel to the sea. It is called the El Balsar de Huanchaco, or “the wetlands.” These wetlands are now a protected reserve, and the huachaques are only 50 meters from the sea. The land may be dry and sandy on the surface, but freshwater feeds the pools from below.

Today, clattering red and yellow buses cut paths right through once-majestic ancient structures, now nothing more than unprotected mounds eroded by salt winds, El Niño, and grave robbers.

I see a fisherman working in his huachaque. His name is Fidel, and he is laying totora out to dry in the sun. The totora take one year to grow to 5 meters; then they are cut down and laid out in bundles for two weeks to dry. The fish caught from Fidel’s caballitos end up in his family restaurant, La Perla del Pacifico (“The Pearl of the Pacific”). It is a prudent move as fishing alone has become a subsistence activity, and incomes need to be supplemented.

Gabriel Prieto explains why fishing has become unprofitable: “Due to industrial overfishing of the Peruvian sea, ‘first-class’ fish are located 20 or 30 miles offshore, and it is impossible for Huanchaquero fishermen to reach that zone. A fisherman in a reed boat can only go as far as 5 miles offshore.”

Fidel in the totora pits.

Fidel is worried about his huachaques. The sea is rising and coming closer, he tells me, and too much saltwater is getting in, which will kill his reeds. “We will have to move the totora further away from the sea,” he says. But the land here is narrow, sandwiched between the Pacific and high sandy banks, so Fidel doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.

A potential solution, according to Prieto, is to build breakwaters—structures that prevent weather damage and shore drift—along the Huanchaco coast. But he adds that this would have disastrous consequences for the modern wave riders like Huamanchumo. “[Breakwaters] will get rid of surfing and today, that activity is one of the most important sources of income for the local community, so this is a very tricky and difficult situation for Huanchaco.”

The ocean is encroaching from the West, but the huachaques are also being squeezed out from the North and South. From the South, the expanding city of Trujillo has virtually merged with Huanchaco; there is simply no room for totora to grow. At the northern limit of Huanchaco, the houses, hotels, and restaurants suddenly stop, and an unmanned checkpoint marks the start of that wetland reserve. An unpaved road runs through the reserve, and when trucks, moto-taxis, or motorbikes rocket along it, they kick up flurries of dust. 

Unspoiled beach with half-built buildings in the background.

For about 2 miles, you can walk through the wetlands’ uninterrupted huachaques, though a surreal sight soon appears: row after row of walled plots of land and half-built houses stretching off into the distance, creating an ugly mirror image of Chan Chan’s adobe ruins. The presence of these ghostly modern structures make the planting of new huachaques impossible.

These structures have created conflict over land use, with many claiming that they are illegal land invasions. This is the tradition whereby people claim plots of Peruvian land by squatting or building walls around it. The practice has popular roots stretching back to the 1970s, when vast swaths of people uprooted their lives to move from the mountains to desert land surrounding Lima. Struggles ensued, but ultimately the government worked with the people and turned the land over to the squatters (now legal owners). 

However, in 2004, land invasions were outlawed. This was to prevent people from building in natural risk zones or on reserves, like the one at Huanchaco, and also to deter professional land traffickers who bought and sold land by corrupt means. Still, the practice continues to this day.

According to Gordillo, “These grounds are intended solely for ecological purposes, and unfortunately, some in the local community have allowed land invasions to take place.” And he points out that in 2003, in a separate piece of legislation, the totora were declared part of national heritage or a “cultural patrimony of the nation.” The authorities should be taking action, he says. Prieto also believes that the invading structures should be torn down and the road through the reserve closed.

Trying to establish the legality of these structures is not easy, which is perhaps the root of the problem. The wetlands are a “regional protected area” but are not nationally protected. And strictly speaking, the buildings are on the edge of the reserve, where there are neither controls nor a formally managed buffer zone. Some plots have title numbers scrawled in paint on their walls, but whether these are legal depends on to whom you speak. Others have no permits at all.

While the legalities may be in need of sorting out for years to come, one thing is certain—construction here threatens the totora. This is prime land on the Pacific coast, and most individuals staking out these plots are speculating on a tourist boom, interested in building beachside villas and hotels. Currently, there is no infrastructure in the wetlands—no electricity, water supply, or sewage. Tourist development is essential to Huanchaco, but this is fragile land, say those who want to protect it, and laying down water pipes or electric cables will destroy it. The encroaching ocean and conflicts over land use threaten the totora, but even if these threats are addressed, it will make no difference if there are no fishermen left to build and fish from caballitos. Huamanchumo believes that this is a far bigger problem than any environmental pressures. “If we spoke 15 or 20 years ago, you would have seen many more caballitos on the beach. At that time, there were 60 or 70 fishermen. I was on the beach last year talking to a fisherman and I asked him, ‘How many fisherman are there now?’ He counted on his fingers—there is one here, here, and here. He thought about it, then said to me, ‘There are less than 30.’”

Others are slightly more optimistic and tell me there are perhaps 40, but all agree the numbers are going down. And we can only imagine how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of caballito fishermen there were in ancient times. In the past, fishermen’s sons maintained the tradition of the caballitos de totora, but today young people in Huanchaco prefer to study, become professionals, or pick up more practical trades. Huamanchumo’s own father is a carpenter; the generations before were all fishermen.

Weekend on Huanchaco Beach, featuring caballitos.

Today, surfers, travelers, and day-trippers come to Huanchaco to play in the water, drink happy-hour cocktails, and devour papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) and picarones (syrupy doughnuts). Others visit to learn a bit about the area’s archaeology and culture—and the caballitos are Huanchaco’s No. 1 cultural attraction.

Caballitos and tourism go hand-in-hand, and despite the fact that the tradition is dying, the caballitos are being milked for marketing purposes. The distinctive shape of those beautiful reed boats appears everywhere: on marketing leaflets, hotel signage, surf school logos, and menus. You can buy little wooden caballitos on the beach and even caballito ashtrays. It is not the story or image of the tradition that is in danger. It is the living tradition itself.

Most of the visitors these days are Peruvian: day-trippers from Trujillo, holiday-makers, and surfers. There are some foreigners, too—volunteers working on long-term projects, archaeology and surfing fanatics, and backpackers looking to get off the gringo trail.

Tourism is essential for the community, and government programs, like the Ruta de Moche (“Route of the Moche”), promote the culture of the region. Some longstanding fishermen have turned tourist guides and offer short trips around the bay on caballitos. But Prieto thinks the solution is about more than tourist attractions; it is about keeping the tradition alive while also embracing modernity.

Huanchaco, he points out, is part of the modern world. People here are ambitious and have been exposed to the internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, just like everyone else. Prieto thinks that it is selfish to expect current Huanchaco residents to get in their caballitos and fish like their Moche and Chimú ancestors.

Aerial view of the ceremonial sector of the Gramalote site.

This is a community that needs to survive, he says, and it would be better if people were educated about their traditions, and then could decide of their own accord whether to preserve them, rather than being compelled to do so. He acts on his words—Prieto uncovered the miniature caballito at Pampas Gramalote, but his work didn’t stop there. He tells me that he now wants to use the site to show local people their own traditions, in the hope that they will want to preserve them.

Gordillo shares Prieto’s philosophy and passionately puts it into practice through his writing and painting exhibitions, as well as through the workshops he runs with local children to make them aware of their history. They have recently completed a large mural in a school that tells the story of the caballitos, and he has been working on education programs with the Proyecto Especial Complejo Arqueológico Chan Chan (“Chan Chan Archaeological Complex Special Project”) in Trujillo.

It can be argued that it doesn’t matter if old traditions die, but Huanchaco is unusual—here, this special tradition also feeds tourism and benefits the economy to this day. Wave riding doesn’t need to be artificially reconstructed here, as it does in many places. Visitors appreciate the authenticity of this tradition, and one idea is to channel some tourist money back into caballitos themselves, perhaps by charging a royalty payment for the use of caballito imagery in advertising—potentially very fruitful given that the town is awash in such imagery.

The afternoon before I leave Huanchaco, I meet Fidel in his restaurant, La Perla del Pacifico. I ask if he was out fishing that morning. “No, the waves were too big,” he says. “Now, I can only go out when the sea is smooth.” He has health problems caused by a life at sea and rolls up his trousers to show me his knees, which are badly swollen. It is a stark reminder that this traditional life is also a tough one—Fidel has suffered the same damage to his knees that the Pampas Gramalote shark fishermen did 3,500 years ago.

Until now, I have only known him as Fidel. I ask for his surname and am poised to write it down. “Huamanchumo,” he says. I look up. “Huamanchumo? Like Omar at the Muchik surf school?” I ask. The Huamanchumo brothers are his nephews, he tells me.

Fidel’s nephews named their surf school after their Muchik (or Moche) ancestors and, like them, they surf caballitos for fun—but they are no longer using them for fishing. Is this Huamanchumo elder with swollen knees the last of that line? Some of his grandchildren are studying or working in cities, he says, but they also want to build and fish from caballitos. He is adamant that the tradition will never die; in fact he seems vexed that I would even ask.

I am reminded of Prieto’s hope that young people will choose, of their own accord, to keep the tradition of the caballitos alive and that it will coexist with modern aspirations. As he puts it himself, “My dream is to see a future lawyer from Huanchaco who can build a reed boat.”

Top photo: Henry (Chicho) Huamanchumo, Omar’s brother, surfing on a caballito. Photo by Tatiana Miranda Huamanchumo. All other photos by Karen Emslie.

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The Last of the Moche Wave Riders Uncovering surfing’s secret ancient history on the desert coast of Peru.