The Kon Tiki and ancient skills

We were cycling aside Titicaca one evening, wondering where to pitch the tent, when I saw a sign for a ‘Kon Tiki Museum’.

The Kon Tiki Expedition is one of the most exciting and audacious adventure tales ever told. It’s the true story of a 1947 expedition across the Pacific by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl and five other crew members who were aiming to substantiate Heyerdahl’s theory that people from South America populated Polynesia in pre-Colombian times. The only way this could have been done was by sailing over 4,000 miles on balsa wood rafts.

Using only materials available to the pre-Colombians, the Norwegian and Swedish crew survived the gruelling 101 day journey to arrive safely on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. The voyage was an incredible success and changed expert attitudes into how the islands may have first been populated.

I’ve long considered Heyerdahl a hero, and seeing the sign for the museum, we had to stop there to spend the night.

Fermin Esteban, the owner, greeted us and suggested we pitch the tent near a magnificent 40 foot totora, or bulrush reed raft that was floating at the edge of the lake. Fermin is a master builder of these boats, having had the technique passed down to him across the generations. His father Paulino knew Heyerdahl well and had even accompanied the Norwegian on a different expedition, down the Tigris river.

He showed us hundreds of photos of various rafts being built and the many expeditions that had been launched around the world. In his farmhouse workshop, reed tables, hats, decorations were all on display, showcasing his impressive craftsmanship.

Fermin – an Aymara Indian – explained that more than 20 trans-oceanic expeditions had been undertaken on reed rafts in the past few decades, all using the same construction techniques that have been used by the Incas for millennia. And we can expect to hear of a further expedition, sailing from Los Angeles, California in 2017.

The rafts are still used on Titicaca, but are these days mainly a display for the tourists. Most of the locals now prefer wooden or fiberglass boats. It’s people like Fermin who are ensuring the building know-how will not get drowned under the tide of modernity. Long may the skills continue!

Check out the You Tube video below of Fermin’s father Paulino working with the reeds:

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!


As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to to get involved. Thanks :)

Fermin and his wife

Fermin and his wife

totora raft and fiberglass boats

totora raft and fiberglass boats

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