Chalupas – Small Boats with Great History

A chalupa is a small boat, usually rowed or poled; they have shallow drafts and may or may not be equipped with a few flat slats used as seats. The origin of the word is Basque, from txalupa, adopted as chaloupe in French, shallop in English, and chalupa in Spanish.

In the 16th century, when Spanish conquerors arrived to Central Mexico – where Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was founded – this is how the region looked:

Mexico’s Central Valley around the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, in 1519. From Wikimedia Commons

They admired how the areas surrounding Tenochtitlan had been developed into a system of gardens and farming parcels, seemingly floating on the many lakes.  The parcels were actually built on shallow areas of the lakes, by pressing sediments and vegetation onto framed reeds; these structures are called chinampas, from the Nahuatl words chinamitl – reed mat, and pa – on.  The man-made plots created neat networks of canals, easily managed by the locals in small boats that the Spaniards called chalupas.  They were used to connect and transport both human cargo and produce from the chinampas to the flourishing market in Tenochtitlan, and seed, soil and supplies back to the parcels.

The location of Tenochtitlan, on the map, corresponds to Mexico City’s current downtown area.  Probably a big mistake and an environmental disaster, these lakes were systematically drained during colonial times, and further swallowed by the city’s urbanization throughout the centuries, leaving just a sputter of small bodies of water where the Texcoco, Xochimilco and Chalco lakes used to be.  Chalupas are still used to carry produce and flowers, as water taxis, or as floating stands for vendors offering grilled or fried snacks (antojitos) to tourists, and even transport the occasional mariachi band for hire.  The original island of Tláhuac, dividing the Xochimilco and Chalco lakes as shown on the map above, is now a largely developed municipality within the metropolitan area, but still has a shore and some connecting channels on the much reduced Chalco lake.  The photo of a Mexican chalupa at the top of the post (it was greatly discoloured, so I edited it to look as a watercolour painting) was taken by my father in Tláhuac in the 1970s, as well as the photo below, showing the shores with 20th century chinampas and chalupas:

Tlahuac shore 1971
The shores of Tláhuac (photo by Luis K. Arita, circa 1971)

In my next post, I will share a recipe for the authentic Mexican corn dough dish named after the chalupa, including some serving suggestions.


O, Canada

Now, moving a long way up North, another chalupa story, to celebrate Canada Day:

Chalupa is also the name of a type of small whaling boats used by Basque fishermen in the mid-16th century in what is now Southern Newfoundland & Labrador, and the northern coast of Quebec, in Canada. Whale oil was highly prized because it burned brighter than most vegetable oils, and was also used in soap, treatment of textiles, and for pharmaceutical products. The favoured port was called Butus, currently known as Red Bay, in Newfoundland & Labrador.

In 1978, underwater exploration was conducted in the Red Bay area, and over the course of the next six years, the discovery of three Basque whaling galleons and four small whaling boats turned Red Bay into one of the most precious underwater archaeological sites in the Americas, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the small boats, an eight-metre whaling chalupa was excavated and meticulously recorded; it then went through a complete disassembly, recovery, conservation and re-assembly.  Exactly 21 years ago, on Canada Day, July 1, 1998, the restored chalupa was returned to Red Bay for permanent display in the Red Bay National Historic Site’s Visitor Centre:

0000 chalupa2
Copyright Parks Canada


Today, I am cooking the all-Canadian donairs with their unique sweet sauce; I posted a story about Canadian donairs and Mexican tacos last year (click here); excellent recipes for East Coast Donair and Sweet Sauce are available on the Canadian Living Magazine website (click here).

16 thoughts on “Chalupas – Small Boats with Great History

  1. The Basque word txalupa was probably derived from the Dutch “sloep” (pronounced “sloop”, which is also the English word derived from the Dutch). Many words in English, French, Spanish, German related to boats originate in Dutch. I’ve looked it up and there is no definitive proof; it is also possible that sloep was derived from chalupa. In my area are a lot of small towns with a history in whaling, competing with the Basques and Scandinavians.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s very cool about finding the underwater archaelogical site. And that restored the chalupa should come ashore where it was found. And I thought the chalupa was a kind of taco with a fluffy fried shell.


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