ruschenberger : caballitos and balsas, Peru, 1835.
On the 29th of
September 1832, we anchored opposite to Pisco, about two miles from the
shore, and in four fathoms of water.
Lat. 13° 46' S. Long. 76° 12' W.
We found the landing easy, though it is occasionally difficult ; when the wind is fresh, several large rollers form themselves in lines, and tumble one after the other on the beach, with so much force as to upset or fill the boats that attempt to land.
Guanchaco, is situated in 8° 4' south latitude, close to the beach,
upon which the sea breaks with so much violence that the ordinary boats
of a ship cannot land, even when the ocean is most tranquil.
The anchorage is about two miles distant, and communication is held with the shore by large launches, and a peculiar kind of balsa, made of straw, which the fishermen call "caballito," from the manner they ride upon it through the breakers.
It consists of two large bundles of straw or rushes, made of a conical shape, bound close together, leaving a small space or hole towards the large end, in which small parcels are sometimes carried ; the apex of the cone is turned up in a slender point, like the toes of the shoes worn by our great-great-grand-mammas, in times of old.
The balsero sits astride this little vessel or caballito when in the surf, for better security, and when he gains the open sea, a la Turque, in the hollow or space just mentioned.
hat, a coarse shirt and trowsers, form his dress, and he manages his "little horse" with a double paddle instead of rein.
On the morning
after our arrival, we pulled towards the shore, to meet a launch that was
making its way slowly to the ship, and thus save as much time as possible.
After we had got on board, her head was turned again to the shore, and we soon found ourselves in the rollers.
When fairly in the breakers, foaming and boiling fiercely enough, the oars were held up perpendicularly, ready to be put in the water again if
occasion should require, and the timoneer, an old Indian, guided her, as she swept high on the top of a roller swiftly towards the beach, and just before she touched, brought her bows to the sea, and the next moment three or four Indians waded to the stern of the boat, having one shoulder saddled with a sheep skin, on which the passengers were ridden ashore.
The Indian holds the feet of his rider in his hands, while the latter holds by the other's head, to prevent himself from sliding off.
For this piece of service each passenger paid a real.
At different places along the coast, as far as eye could reach, the line of the breakers was sprinkled with fishermen, mounted on their caballitos, engaged in their vocation, now mounting high on the foamy crest of a sea, like a great water fowl, now sinking from sight in the hollow of the waves, or whirled about in the eddies ; and again, by aid of the double paddle, regaining their positions.
Whether the cross of brilliant stars or the goddess keeps away tempests, I must leave to the decision of those who are more deeply skilled in the reading of the heavens, though I hope the goddess may not be cheated of her empire, since she is so beneficent to sailors.
Soon after anchoring,
we took a whale boat and pulled in for the town, in hopes of getting on
board of a balsa, which we saw under sail close to the shore, and which
we conjectured was steering for the beach ; but on coming up with her,
we found she was standing out with goods for a brig loading for Callao.
Loath to return after so long a pull, we determined to attempt the landing in our boat, though extremely hazardous, from the heavy surf that constantly lashes the beach; we did not apprehend much danger, as the boat had twice landed on former occasions without the least difficulty. We rowed boldly into the breakers, and though they boiled fiercely around us, we met with nothing that caused us to regret our undertaking,
till within a hundred yards of the sand; then the steering oar was wrenched from the hands of our timoneer.
Now deprived in a great measure of the means of managing the boat, she came broadside to the sea, which rushed leaping and foaming
and roaring towards us, as if exulting in our danger.
We found ourselves in the most imminent peril; and one of our party cried out, "It is all up with us that sea must turn us over."
"Not so fast,"
exclaimed our timoneer. "Now boys for your lives ! give way your starboard
oars, and back the larboard and no crab catching!"
The order was obeyed with precision, and the stern of the boat almost instantly was opposed to the approaching sea, but not soon enough to avoid the spray, which drenched us pretty thoroughly.
The boat mount-
* Lima Fundada. Canto I. st. xx. p. 10.
ed on the crest of the wave ; the oars were at rest, and the next moment we lay safely upon the sand.
At this season,
many families are here from the town, for the benefit and pleasure of sea
More than a hundred persons, men, women, and children, ran to the beach, springing over the balsa logs strewed in every direction, to see us
Some were impelled by curiosity to examine our boat, never before having seen one, except at a distance, and others, who had sympathized with us in peril, shouting for us to turn back long before we were within ear-shot, now came to reprove us for our temerity.
"Que temeridad ! exponerse la vida para nada !" What temerity ! to expose life for nothing ! said one.
" Unos calaveras sin duda!" Some rattlepates, doubtless! cried another.
" Valgame Dios
! no lo hago yo por diez mil pesos !" The Lord preserve us! I would not
do it for ten thousand dollars! exclaimed a third; but the young damsels
spent their admiration on the boat.
"Que buen bote! que bonito parecia, en laola! que bien andaba !" What an excellent boat ! How beautiful she appeared on the wave ! How well she sailed !
Indeed, many a boat has been lost here, and money cannot induce these people either to embark or land in any thing but a balsa.
Seeing us dripping like river gods, several of the good people came forward, thanking Heaven that we were safe, and offered us a change of clothes; but our valise having escaped being wet, we declined the offer, though we were fain to accept a potation of pisco to keep out the cold.
Our boat was again launched, in spite of protestations, and being very buoyant, was soon forced through the breakers, and pulling away for the ship.
There are a few
huts and store houses built upon the shore, which together form the town
of San Jose.
The town of Lambayeque stands about six miles to the northward and west-ward.
The balsa used
here, differs from that of Coquimbo, Cobija, Arica, or Huanchaco ; it consists
of a raft of large logs, of a very light species of wood that grows near
are secured together
by ropes, and a mast is fixed near the centre, on which a square sail is
The balsa is managed by six or eight Indians, and used for landing and embarking cargoes for vessels, for fishing, and many sail as far north as Guayaquil, with cargoes of dry goods.
Some are employed carrying salt from Sechura to Paita, and sometimes go as far as thirty and forty miles from the coast.
They beat along by standing off all day with the sea breeze, and laying on all night with the land wind, which succeed each other very regularly.
Their progress is much more rapid than could be possibly conjectured from a simple examination of their structure.
At this port they always land, sailing directly upon the beach, and if not required for immediate use, are at once taken apart, because the breakers very soon dash them to pieces.
We left Lambayeque
about twelve o'clock, and embarked on a large balsa, called El Sacramento,
which was laden with supplies for our ship. The crew consisted of ten brawny
Indians, who, like all of their tribe, wore the hair braided behind, and
cut short from the crown to the forehead, except a long tuft in the centre.
Their dress was complete in a pair of cloth trowsers.
All being ready,
the square sail was hoisted, and one end of the balsa pushed off towards
the breakers, while the other was retained on the beach by a rope held
by a party of Indians on shore.
Presently the sail filled, a heavy wave broke roaring on the beach, sending a sheet of foamy water towards the shore, and our balsa was afloat. The balseros who had been bearing: off the bow of the vessel, or rather raft, gave a shout, jumped on board, and the rope was let go.
The sail was now sufficient to urge us steadily through the surf into the open sea, aided\ by broad paddles, called rudders, which the Indians worked cheerily.
As we got into deep water, several short planks were forced down between the logs, giving steadiness, and, like the keel of a ship, keeping the balsa near the wind.
After we were
fairly under way, the Indians put on their ponchos, and sat themselves
down, with gourds of mot? and little shell-fish, before mentioned, called
At four o'clock P. M. we reached the ship, and, having been thirteen days in port, got our anchor and put to sea.
Three Years in the Pacific;
including notices of Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Peru
1831, 1832, 1833, 1834.
By an Officer of the United States Navy.
Carey, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, 1835.