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Last of a breed who make boats out of reeds

On the shores of famed Lake Titicaca, Demetrio Limachi and a handful of others toil to preserve the ancient art of creating crescent-shaped craft out of bundles of dried reeds.

By Staff Writer / February 25, 2009

Wicker-basket boats: Demetrio Limachi wants to pass on the craft of totora boat building to his grandchildren.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

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Huatajata, Bolivia

Demetrio Limachi is a man with a foot in another century. Along the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, modernization and globalization lap at an ancient culture. Cars and tourist busses whiz by along the highway that lines the lake’s edge. Hordes of backpackers in North Face jackets explore the area by boat. Hydrofoils dart around the body of water that sits 12,500 feet above sea level.

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But Mr. Limachi, a humble craftsman in a red alpaca shawl, is carrying on one of the most revered and ancient of traditions: He’s making boats out of reeds. Called totoras, the boats were once the only way residents who inhabit the area’s desolate islands could navigate Lake Titicaca. Limachi is now one of the last in the world to create what are essentially floating wicker baskets.

“If we stop creating these boats, then no one will know how to make them in the future,” he says. “I am teaching my grandson how to build so that our tradition stays alive.”

His sentiment reflects a cultural resurgence being felt across Bolivia. It extends from a rekindling of the traditional Indian languages of Aymara and Quechua to reclaiming ancient customs, particularly as the nation’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, ushers in a new era of indigenous pride. Recently he enshrined the rights of native Bolivians in a new constitution, giving them access to their ancestral land and power to issue their own community justice.

In few places is the pride of the past more evident than around the cobalt waters of Lake Titicaca – and in Limachi’s gnarled but skilled hands.

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For a first-time visitor, Lake Titicaca, tucked into the Andes Mountains, certainly seems steeped in tradition. On the high plains, women don timeworn bowler hats that seem to defy gravity, tilting perfectly off the sides of their heads. Old men amble across their land, past grazing llamas. Locals talk in their native dialect.

Everything here seems shrouded in mystery, too. Ancient healers still use native plants and minerals to cure ills and summon luck. They read fortunes in coca leaves. The lake itself, which separates Bolivia from Peru, is so vast (110 miles long by 43 miles wide), it looks more like the shores of an ocean. It is home to some 40 different islands.

One of them, Suriqui, where Limachi was born, was always famed as the cradle of boatmaking in the region. For centuries, the people on this tiny island of about 1,500 residents have passed down their knowledge and attracted attention around the lake.

“Each island was good at something. Suriqui has always been famous for its boat makers,” says Erich Hochhauser, a guide who works with Crillon Tours, a La Paz-based agency that pioneered tourism in the Titicaca region.

Limachi learned to work with the hay-colored reeds from his parents, who learned from his grandparents, just like everyone else – weaving the stalks harvested in the lake to produce a vessel resembling a Viking-style canoe, the average of which was about 29 feet long. (EDITOR'S NOTE: the original version of this story reported the average length of a Viking-style canoe as 13 feet long)

The process seems to combine the skills of knitting and nautical engineering. The totora reeds are selected according to size and quality, then harvested and left out in the sun to dry. When ready, they are bundled together in sausage-like tubes, which are lashed together – two thicker bodies for the hull and a thinner internal one. Two other tubes form sturdy gunwales.

It takes two to three weeks to build one reed boat, which lasts one to two years. Eventually, the reeds become water-logged – one hopes while not in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

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