Boats of Guatemala: Lake Atitlan Cayucos

Dugout Canoes on the beach at Santa Catarina

 

(to start of project)

The boats native to Lake Atitlan are the cayucos, a unique form of dugout canoe. You see these boats all over the lake, from dawn to dusk, though usually near shore where the fish are, as fishing is their primary use. Rows of them are pulled up on the beaches of every small village and town along the shore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s interesting about these boats is not only their unique and consistent shape, but how they are made. When you think of a dugout canoe, you naturally thing of a log hollowed out from the inside, with the round outer surface of the tree forming the round bottom of the canoe. Not so here. Instead, the logs are cut in half and the hull hollowed from the outside. This leaves the widest, innermost heart of the log as the flat bottom of the hull, exactly opposite, or upside down, to every other dugout I’ve ever seen.

 

 

This method appears to offer several advantages for the purpose and place they are used. For one, the wide flat bottom makes for a much more stable boat, as it’s hard chined like a sharpie skiff. As anyone who has tried to sit in a traditional style dugout will tell you: a round bottom dugout canoe is extremely tender, such that a slight shift of weight from one cheek to the other will send you over, requiring considerable skill keep upright. At Atitlan, most of the fishing is done with nets handled by one man who operates both the net and the boat. The extra stability and carrying capacity of a flat bottom makes this possible in even in the choppy water of the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another advantage is the ability to get two boats out of a single log. Large trees are now scarce near the shore, and builders seem to have adapted the design to the material available, not only getting two boats out of a single log, but the planks needed, as well.

The boat starts as a dugout, hollowing the half log into a box, squaring up the sides, pointing the bow, and working some rocker into the bottom. The next step is what gives these boats their distinct shape, a sort of coffin box with a church gable. Because the lake gets so rough in the afternoon, planks are added along the sides to raise the freeboard, and more are added to form a high peaked, highly raked bow so the boats will lift and ride over a steep chop. Perhaps in the distant past, when large trees were plentiful, the high sides and bow could be carved directly from the log, all in one piece with the hull, but it appears they’ve used planks for a very long time.

Nails are dear, scarce as trees, so the planks are attached with very few. The seams are then sealed with a boiled pine resin that’s applied while it’s hot and soft. This not only makes the boat water tight, but acts as a form of glue. As the boat ages, the cracks and checks that inevitably form are sealed with pools of more resin, sometimes in combination with patches, and sometimes with more modern adhesives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pine resin seals the seams. The marks from a
chain saw slabbing the planks are still visible.

 

A thick section of the original log is left tall at the stern to support the aft plank, and there are more interesting details here. All the boats have two short posts carved into the stern, with holes bored through. These provide a purchase for hauling the boats out of the water and tying them down, but surely have another purpose, too. I never got close enough to a fishing boat to verify it, but my guess is the lines for the nets are tied here. This would allow the boats to be paddled forward easily to deploy the nets and draw them in a circle.

 

 

A few boats have seats, frames strung with leather or cord or fabric, but most do not. I did see old wet blankets in many boats, and don’t know what they were for. It’s possible they’re left damp to keep the hulls from drying and splitting in the sun.

In building my own boats, I have an arsenal of tools on hand. Planers, scrapers, saws, chisels, rasps, routers, etc., etc. A whole workshop of tools. At Atitlan, the builders use one tool: a machete. In fact, during all our travels in the Guatemala countryside I only once saw another tool – a shiny new hammer that appeared to have never been used. But I saw machetes everywhere. I was hoping to buy a pocket knife (to replace the one the TSA took from me at the airport), but I never saw any. Apparently, if you need a knife in Guatemala you need a machete. Same goes for an axe, a plane, and a saw. Whatever you ask for, the answer is a machete. On a microbus ride through the countryside – a trip that at one point involved riding on top with the luggage – the driver stopped to pick up a young boy and his grandmother at the side of the road. They both carried machetes. The little boy also wore a slingshot on his head. I bet he was a good shot, too.

Planks are now rough cut from logs by hand with a chain saw, probably at the time the logs are split; but the shaving, shaping and smoothing are still done with a machete. As we were leaving San Antonio, I saw a man working on the inside of a hull, chipping away at the corners with the point of his machete, refining the shape, removing a little more wood, making the boat a little lighter and a little faster. I guess in some ways boat builders are the same everywhere. In the boat next to him I noticed black roofing tar in the seams in place of pine pitch and asked him about it. Or rather, I pointed and gestured clumsily. But he knew exactly what I was asking and why. He said it was an “experimento” – an experiment. Made me smile. Like I said, boat builders are the same everywhere.

 

 

On the second day we arranged a launch to take us to several villages on the south shore. I managed to get a brief clip of that boat under construction, and some rough ones of others in use:

 

 

Youtube Link

 

 

  

 

11 Replies to “Boats of Guatemala: Lake Atitlan Cayucos”

  1. I would not have believed this if I hadn’t seen it, kind of like big foot. really strange. I may have to put this particular link out to the boatnuts.

    Dave
    Friday, April 15, 2011 – 09:51 PM

  2. I am fascinated by these boats. It was a knee jerk to learn that such craft exist. It is interesting to learn that only machetes were used in their construction, and the adze, a woodworking tool from ancient times was not used.
    Do you know how holes were/are bored?
    I believe that before the art of building is lost, there is a need for documentation, or has there already been a study of the origins, building and use of these unique boats?

    1. Tony, the bottoms of the boats are somewhat smooth. I don’t know how they get that way. I’m sure anyone who had access to an adze would use it. However, in remote rural areas such specialized tools are rare. Perhaps a heavy hoe would do as well, or some sort of scraper, I don’t know. Doing research when I got back, I could not find any studies on these boats in English, but did find some in Spanish, usually associated with a university somehow.

  3. Hellop,
    Should you be able to come by any texts in Spanish, if you do not have anyone who could translate, I could try at this end. These boats are truly fascinating and I for one would be grateful for further information – I will see if the likes of Frederici, who wrote, in German, on boats of the Americas may have written a few lines – I shall check.
    Kind regards
    Tony

      1. Thanks, Tony. If I find those spanish texts again I’ll get in touch.

        I’m sure some planks are split by hand. Boat builders are notorious for making do and doing what they know. It’s an interesting counterpoint to a preference for repeating what’s already been done before. If you didn’t have access to a saw, splitting by hand is the next best option.

        Of the boats I examined closely, which wasn’t many, all the planks were rough sawn from logs with a chain saw. It was clear this wasn’t a chain saw “mill” but a saw operated by hand. My guess is someone locally has a good saw, a good eye, and a going concern cutting lumber with it. The planks used to build the deck of the restaurant where we ate, overlooking the lake, were cut the same way. Even the tables and chairs.

  4. It is intresting to see that modern technology (chain saws) have become an accepted means of reducing manual labour – despite the cost of saws, fuel, and oil – and it worries me that before too long other “modern tools, both manual and machine, will be used in the construction of these boats, or like the First Nations, clinker built boats will be purchased instead of using traditional umiaks and dugouts.
    Again, information on Spanish language documentation on these canoes would be welcome.
    Finally, in agreement with MAIB, we exchange articles published in our respective journals, and I would hope to reproduce the article in the recent issue of MAIB on the Atitlan canoes, and hope you are happy with this.
    Kind regards
    Tony

  5. Barry,
    Somehow I missed this post when it was fresh.
    In the late ’80’s I bought two photographs at an art charity. They are about a foot square, in color and the artist scored the surface of the pair with tiny hash marks in patterns, made with a razor knife or similar, which gives the photos a three dimensional appearance. Very interesting.
    The subjects of the photos are small dark skinned women hand washing colorful clothes in still water, possibly in a lake. Though they are not addressed in the titles, in the foreground, on a beach, are a fleet of boats built exactly this way. There is no explanation of where the photos were taken and since I never met the artist, I’ve been left to wonder (for over twenty years) about the provenience of these unusual craft.
    In fact, though I look at those photos every morning, it took a while for me to notice the boats were carved from the outside in. Since then, I have been fascinated and mystified until today. Now I am sure that my boats are these same cayucos, though if from Lake Atitlan, I can’t say.
    Part of my fascination was that such a primitively crafted boat was in daily use somewhere in the world. Now I see that they are still. A time capsule.

    michael b.

    1. That’s very cool. You could easily see that very scene again today. The ladies in rural areas still wash clothes in lakes and streams. We saw that in various places during our travels.

      And I saw other hand made dugout canoes elsewhere, as well. But those were made in the more conventional way, with a round hull bottom conforming to the natural round of the log. Lake Atitlan is the only place I saw them made this way, inverted with a hard chine flat bottom for stability.

      I’ve been holding off posting photos and stories of the other boats until my own were done. I should be able to get back to that soon. (In fact, there’s some video, taken at a hot volcanic waterfall, of women from the local village doing laundry in the stream.)

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