Sunday, August 19, 2012

Building a Uros Reed Boat Part 1: A Changing Tradition

Victor, Wilber, and I in our just-christened totora reed boat
The totora reed boat is a changing tradition. To the Uros people of  Lake Titicaca, both in Bolivia and Peru, it has been a practical and essential piece of their existence and survival for an unknown number of centuries. Today, it remains a centerpiece of meaning and cultural importance, but rarely does it live as a direct means of physical survival to the people who created it.

Over the past two weeks, I have been living and working with the family of Kristina Sauna and Victor Vilca on Isla Khantati, just outside the Bay of Puno. In that two weeks I built a reed boat with Victor, his brother Wilber, and their soon to be brother-in-law, Gregorio. Modern materials and the rise of the tourist economy are major examples of forces that have changed the role, and design, of this extremely unique boat in global human heritage.

Dragon headed catamaran boats, only appearing in the region over the last few decades, are the majority of reed boats on Titicaca now, as tourism has become the means of survival for the Uros Islands. Yet what is define as traditional by the Uros, what the Uros in this area still build as traditional, is what we set out to build.

A non-traditional reed boat form

So much has happened in the last few weeks, and so much knowledge is deep in the mind of these builders I have the privilege of calling my tios (uncles), that I will break the process down into three posts; A Changing Tradition, What Hasn't Changed, and What's Traditional?. I will also reveal the boat building process in somewhat of an awkward manner, by not showing from start to finish. Instead I will begin in this post with the modern techniques that have replaced traditional techniques. In the next post I will explain those techniques that haven't changed, and finally I will explain what traditional is for the Uros totora boat. I will write in this way in hopes to reveal the complex layers of change and traditions that exists in the survival of the art. Even with that, not every detail will be covered, for what I know is but a grain of sand in the ocean of what there is to know.

Wilber looking over the finished boat, ready to be launched with 30 people or so.
 The basic outline of the totora reed boat has changed little. The were various kinds of ranging shapes and sizes, for different purposes, which I will discuss in later posts. All of the Uros reed boats have five main pieces. Two main pieces in the hull, one piece that goes in the center called the corazon ( heart) and the two pieces which create the decks on either side.

Replacing an only totora hull with tarps and recycled bottles makes the  boat last twice as long.

The first major changes that have taken place in the Uros boat building process can be seen in the building of the hulls themselves. Tarps and recycled bottles are used to fill the hulls, adding lifespan and reducing weight. Almost all of the reed boats built on Lake Titicaca use these methods  today, with the exception of a few remote communities and individuals. A layer of totora is placed between the waterproof tarp and the plastic bottle sewed bags.

Using materials available to them, as always, the Uros replace a totally totora hull with  waterproof tarps and recycled bottles. Lighter, last longer, but a change from tradition.

Nylon cord is now used to replace a traditional grass cord, which is woven using the hands and some water. This traditional grass is found in the surrounding Alti-plano hills, as will be explained in future posts, but is extremely time-consuming to make and isn't as durable as the nylon cord bought in Puno.   I estimated that up to 6000 meters of cord could be used on a boat of this size, wrapping every two finger distances.

Weaving the final layer of totora, covering up the modern look

In the same manner used to build the separate pieces traditionally, a woven mat is wrapped around the hulls of modern materials. Once the two main hulls are constructed, the corazon,. or heart piece, must be constructed and then an intricate system of  lifting a weaving. The corazon is buried in the two hull pieces creating one hull. Look forward to the next post to see how this is done in an essentially traditional manner using eucalyptus poles and shear strength. 


  1. Really interesting Will! The photos and method description are fascinating. How many of these boats are built by the community in a year? RG

  2. Hey Rick! The boats last only a year, so new ones are constantly needing to be built. Its hard to say because in this community, the boats are really used for show and cultural sharing. My estimate would be under 20 of the boats similar to this. Its a question I want to investigate more, thank you for it!

  3. Hi Will.

    Thank you so much for your email.

    I, along with a friend, visited the uros in June, and I've been thinking of the great experience we had there at Khantati every single day since. Not only is the it beautiful and a rare opportunity to stay overnight at such places, but Victor, Kristina and Wilber (+ all the sweet ladies) really made our stay a top 3 experience on a 6 months long journey!

    I'm glad to see people helping them out, they need more people like you!

    I've spread the "news" about the Uros back home in Norway, so I hope they will have many visitors in the future, and that they keep the amazing traditions.

    I wish you and the Khantatis all the best. And if you are still there (or see them again), les mande saludos desde Noruega! (I'm sorry about my crappy spanish, ha ha..)

    Best wishes,
    Siri (Norway)

  4. Thanks for sharing such a great experience. We also stayed with this family and we loved it!

  5. Very interesting post, I look forward to more.