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.
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.
It is a labor-intensive process, with few tools used other than a “crochete,” a wooden instrument to pull the strings (dried prairie grass or wild straw), and a rock to help form the boat’s crescent shape. Limachi seems surprised when asked if it’s hard work. “It’s easy,” he says. “I’ve done it my whole life.”
In his early years, Limachi was plying his craft in ordinary obscurity until Thor Heyerdahl, the late Norwegian adventurist, decided to try to prove that human migration between continents began much earlier than people had thought.
Mr. Heyerdahl became famous with his voyage in 1947 from South America to Polynesia, recounted in the book “Kon-Tiki.” But decades later he wanted to prove that descendants of Africans could have found their way to South America. In 1969, he set out on a cross-Atlantic voyage from Morocco, but it failed: Heyerdahl blamed it on faulty boat construction. So he sought out the craftsmen of Lake Titicaca and their ancient art.
Heyerdahl held a contest among 60 locals to build 10-foot reed boats. Mr. Limachi won, along with his two brothers, and a neighbor, Paulino Esteban. In 1970, the four went Morocco to build the Ra II, which Heyerdahl sailed to Barbados in 57 days – boosting his theories and changing Limachi’s life. Later that decade, the four went to Iraq to construct another boat for Heyerdahl.
Limachi had traveled to Denmark, Spain, Iran, and Norway before he learned to read. The one thing he requested from the government on his return from abroad as a famed boat builder was a high school on his native island. “We went to Iraq illiterate,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t want my children to be illiterate too.’ ”
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Now a slight man in his 60s, Limachi still harbors a passion for building boats out of water grass. Yet his is a vanishing craft.
Modernity has been crowding in on the ancient ways of Lake Titicaca for several decades. Much of it is good: Many towns in the region now have electricity, allowing for more tourism. That means more sales. But it also means less authenticity.
Nearby, Ricardo Inda lives on a recreated floating island, made of the same reeds used to make totora boats. This is how the ancient Uros people lived. The islands helped protect them against invaders. Today only the floating islands on the Peruvian side of the lake are still inhabited.
“Our tradition is dying out: We are trying to recuperate our language and ancient fables,” says Mr. Inda.
The boating culture has changed, too. Residents of Lake Titicaca long ago turned in their totoras for wooden boats. Trips that used to take a day – to buy sugar and oil and beef and sell the day’s catch – suddenly became a two-hour venture in a motorized craft. But Limachi is determined to teach the ancient art to his 12 grandchildren. The boats he now creates are mostly sent off to exhibitions. He also works in a museum recounting the history of the vessel.
Until recently, this seemed as if it might be his legacy – a living history lesson. But the international spotlight has found the Limachi family once again: A German adventurist is setting out to prove that these reed boats also were sturdy enough to sail West to East, against the currents. The Limachis built the Abora III for the first attempt in 2007, but it failed, they say, due to damage done to the boat during shipping to New York.
Now they are set to try again this year. “I hope to be part of the crew,” says Fermin Limachi, the elder Limachi’s nephew. “And give the tradition a boost once again.”