The midday sun beats down on the terraced slopes of the island of Taquile and dances on the surface of the water surrounding it. With a population of roughly 2,000 people, Taquile is one of several islands in the Peruvian part of Lake Titicaca. Its highest point lies at just over 4,000 metres from which you can see the occasional boat carrying travellers back and forth from the city of Puno. There are no cars here, no dogs barking at passersby. The blue of the sky and the blue of the lake melt together at the horizon and you almost feel like you’re on a different planet, overlooking an ocean at the top of a new world.
Most visitors to Taquile come here for only a few hours, as part of a day tour from Puno. Boats stop at the floating islands of Uros and then continue on to Taquile for lunch and a glimpse of the local traditions. Tourism on the island is controlled and run by the community. Restaurants are operated communally and families take turns inviting visitors into their homes. The tourists spilling out of the boats are served a delicious meal of fish (often trout, which is not a native species and was introduced to Lake Titicaca less than 100 years ago), rice, potatoes, quinoa soup and a cup of muña tea before they continue on to explore the village and its community artisan centre in the central plaza. Taquile is world renowned for its exquisite handmade textiles. In 2005, they were declared by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the men who do all the knitting. The women spin the yarn and weave items such as the chuspas (small woven bags) that are traditionally used in the Andes to carry coca leaves.
The day-trippers hurry back down to the harbour after a few hours and the island is returned to its usual tranquility. Staying at least a night or two in one of the local homestays allows the window to open a bit wider into this special place. Visitors can wander along stone pathways, explore empty beaches, stumble upon archaeological ruins and almost forget that another world exists beyond the shores of the island.
The people of the island are kind and generous and very proud of their living culture. They still speak Quechua, practice their ancestral traditions and wear their traditional clothes. The women wear a black shawl (chuku) over their heads and vibrantly coloured skirts. The men wear black pants, a black vest and a white shirt along with beautiful chullos (hand-knitted hats). Different chullos are worn by bachelors (one with a large white stripe), married men (red chullo with intricate designs) and men of authority (one with more colours and small ear flaps). There is also a similar knitted hat (wawa chullo) that is used by children until they learn how to knit their own. Both men and women wear colourful woven belts called chumpis.
Wherever one travels in the world, the secrets of a place can only be unlocked with curiosity and observation. They are hidden in the people’s mannerisms, customs and way of life. In Peru, these can be seen most clearly in the woven and knitted textiles. As the continuation of a culture that never had a written language, they hold what the most treasured books might hold in other parts of the world.
Besides tourism and making textiles, agriculture is the main activity for the people of Taquile. The year here is not measured by dates on a calendar, but instead by the agricultural activities that need to be completed, and the changing of the seasons that dictate those tasks. The principal crops grown in the ancient terraced fields include potato, corn, quinoa, fava beans, oca (oxalis tuberosa) and barley. These, along with local fish and a few domesticated animals, are what sustain life on the island.