Bolivia is marking December 21, the summer solstice south of the equator, in grand style. A 50-foot long boat made of reeds by Aymara indigenous boatbuilders is en route across Lake Titicaca, carrying a sacred flame to the Island of the Sun where President Evo Morales will celebrate the solstice.
The remarkable boat, named the Thunupa, is constructed of totora reeds that grow along the edges of Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. Indigenous communities have long made their homes along these fertile shores and on the rocky islands that dot its brilliant blue waters. Titicaca's Island of the Sun was held sacred by the Inca, and the ancient civilization of Tiwanaku, which centered around a large pyramid, also grew along the lakeshore.
Forty or fifty years ago a person looking out across these waters would see Aymara people fishing and traveling the shoreline in small totora boats. In recent years those compact and easily maneuverable craft have been replaced by wood or fiberglass boats that, although expensive, last much longer. Yet the totora boat tradition lives on in several families, including the Limachis of the tiny island of Suriqui, whose skills have led to surprising adventures and incredible feats of engineering.
The Boat Builder's International Adventures
The Limachi's travels around the world began with Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian with an abiding interest in how ancient peoples traveled the seas. That led him to first undertake a trip from Peru to Polynesia in a balsa wood raft, then an attempt across the Atlantic in a boat build by people from central Africa, and finally to seek out the famed boat builders of Lake Titicaca. Demetrio Limachi, 67, was a young Aymara boat builder with an elementary school education who had never dreamed of traveling further that neighboring Peru when he agreed to go to Morocco to build a boat called the Ra II with Heyerdahl.
"The plane stopped and we thought 'We must be here!'" Limachi said of his first trip outside Bolivia. "But then another flight, another flight, another flight, and we got to Safi, Morocco."
In Morocco the builders faced two challenges. One was working with a foreign material, papyrus, instead of the more flexible totora native to Lake Titicaca. The second was building the 50-foot boat Heyerdahl's seagoing mission required. "We all thought, how can we do this? This boat is big, and we just make small ones of 12 or 9 feet," Limachi said with a smile. "Then we tried, and we did it."
Titicaca is huge and cold. Deadly boating accidents happen, but it is not the ocean, and questions persisted as to how a boat style used for lake travel would hold up on the open, salty sea. It turns out they can hold up pretty well, and in 1970 the Ra II sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to the Caribbean island of Barbados. The Limachi family built another boat with Theyerdahl, the Tigris, that sailed across the Indian Ocean. Today there is talk of building a totora boat in New York and sailing it to Europe.
The Strength of Reeds
Large totora boats have proven their ability to travel the open sea, but were they historically used on Lake Titicaca? In 2002 a group of researchers led by Alexei Vranich from The University of Pennsylvania set out to discover whether they could have transported massive stones from a quarry site to the center of the Tiwanaku Empire. Working with the family of boat builder Paulino Esteban, local communities and the Navy, they fashioned a 55-foot boat, rolled a 9 ton stone onto it, sailed it across Lake Titicaca and unloaded the stone.
"The 'sophisticated simplicity' of the boat design still blows me away. The way you build bundles of reeds within bundles, and then connect them all together is a beautiful thing," said Paul Harmon, the boat's skipper. "We tacked to the wind similar to modern boats. We were able to get surprising speed. In storms when the modern boats following us had to seek shelter, the totora boat proved to be more stable. The absorbed water acted like ballast. We handle 8 foot seas and 40 knot winds easily.
The Thunupa, which is currently playing its starring role in the solstice celebrations as it sails toward the Island of the Sun, is the result of a community effort that the Limachis hope will keep the boat building tradition alive and draw more visitors to the island of Suriqui. It's also proof of the ingenuity of ancient boat builders and the tenacity and innovations of their descendants. "We're proud," says Limachi of Suriqui's boats. "It's a source of pride for us and the whole country of Bolivia."
Read more on Thor Heyerdahl at the The Kon-Tiki Museum website
Explore the University of Pennsylvania team's project
Learn about the indigenous Uros who live on floating islands built of totora reed
Understand how pollution affects Lake Titicaca and the people who depend on it for survival.