caballito


One-man vessel made of woven reeds, used by Peruvian fishermen for over five thousand years; regarded by some to be the earliest known form of surf craft. Caballito means "little horse" in Spanish.

On average, the caballito is twelve feet long, two feet wide, weighs 90 pounds, and lasts about six weeks before it gets waterlogged and begins to decompose. The caballito is built from the dried stalks of the totora plant (Schoenoplectus californicus; California bullrush to English speakers). After cut stalks are fanned and and dried for three or four weeks, hundreds of individual reeds are first bundled, then lashed together into a distinctive tusk-shaped form. Two of these "mother" pieces are bound together side-by-side, at which time the craft is given its distinctive pointed, uplifted prow. With enough experience, a fisherman can make a caballito in less than two hours.

To use the caballito, the fisherman sits or knees in a small open pod near the back of the caballito, and drives his craft forward using a long double-ended bamboo paddle. The caballito's raked-up nose is designed  to break through small- and mid-sized surf. It also allows the fisherman to ride waves back to shore without nosing under.

It is believed that the caballito was invented about 3,000 years ago—the Egyptian papyrus raft, remarkably similar, first appeared 1,000 years earlier. Those who view the caballito as the original wave-riding craft point to ancient drawings and ceramics of caballito-riding fisherman riding waves while standing - evidence, they say, that the caballito was used for fun as well as work. As Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl said in the late 1990s, ancient Peruvians "were mentally and physically exactly like us, [and] would do precisely as you and I do. If [they] had time for leisure . . . there'd be nothing more natural than for them to start surfing." But most historians still credit the Polynesians as the original surfers, noting that the ancient wood-made surfboard, unlike the caballito, was designed specifically for recreation.

Peruvian fisherman still use the caballito. In the coastal city of Huanchaco, caballito-riding has become a tourist attraction, and in 2013 the area was declared a World Surfing Reserve by the Save the Waves Foundation. The following year, Save the Waves held the first caballito surfing competition, at Huanchaco.