The pilot cuts the motor, allowing the boat to drift lazily as it bumps up to the dock. Smells: sun-warmed wood from the pier. On it, two Quechua women clad in black mantillas and layered skirts are standing expressionless before a low stone arch. The boat wobbles as we step tentatively out. No sound, save the slap of waves on the rocks.
We’ve landed on Taquile, a tiny island some 20 miles from the western shore of Lake Titicaca, near Puno, Peru. Or specifically, I’ve landed here, to seek out a simpler way of life far from the mainland.
The taquileños, as they’re called, are a Quechua-speaking people that hark back to Inca times. Geography has favored them: at two miles up in the Andes, the terraced slopes and rustic stone paths of their rocky enclave are the perfect refuge, guarded by water that’s beguilingly blue. So blue, in fact, you’d swear you were on a Mediterranean island: Capri maybe, or Sardinia.
Availing themselves of this seclusion, the taquileños have planted one of the Andes’ deepest-rooted communities, a close-knit tribe where collectivism is woven into the texture of daily life. It’s a place where everyone pulls his or her weight, where the world outside is only allowed in after the clan gives the all-clear.
Today I’ve come to glimpse what I can of their isolation.
I’ll have to use my legs to do it. From the dock, the path to the plaza ascends at what feels like a 60-degree gradient. After four hundred feet, I collapse on a rock. Unwinded, a 15-year-old local lugging a shrink-wrapped bundle of Inka Colas scurries past.
At the top, I’m greeted by Calisto Quispe, an islander whose cracked-mud face and radiant smile are the best possible welcome. He’ll be my host, he says, hoisting my bag as we leave the plaza. In a corner, a signpost like a crazy antenna points off to the globe’s farthest corners: Roma 10552, Jerusalén 12269.
Where we’re headed is an area called Qollino, out past the local school and away from the commercial parts of the island. It’s sparse and sandy, all wild scrub and kolle orchard. There Calisto’s adobe house awaits, my lodging for the next 24 hours, and the base for my retreat from the world.
My escapism isn’t exclusive to me. As my host tells it, Taquile’s community-based tourism has surged recently, with hundreds of visitors spending the night on the island each year, rotating among the different family homes and contributing vitally to the island’s sustenance.
“It’s surprising: here there are no cars, no hotels, no electricity in most places, but still they come. I have the opinion that they are seeking peace.”
I have the opinion he’s right.
And who can blame them? Here on Taquile, serenity is the accompanying music of everyday existence. From Calisto’s front door, a vista of tiny islets basks in the sun. Sheltered groves look out on swaths of cool green.
Having deposited my bag, it’s time for lunch. As we head back along the cobbled walks, a flock of sheep crosses in front of us, accompanied by a silent boy in his late teens, knitting as he goes.
“He’s looking for a wife, but so far no luck.”
I ask Calisto how he knows.
“Bueno, it’s all in the hats.” Taquile’s men, he explains, use their headgear to advertise their marital status. A white pom-pom on the tassel means he’s single; a multicolored one, that he’s taken. The youth of the island go around knitting these chuyos as they milk or till the fields, presenting them to their prospective in-laws when asking for their sweethearts’ hands.
“The tradition is to pour water into the caps to test the weave. If it doesn’t leak, he’s accepted.”
The restaurant where we’re slated to eat is all adobe and earthen floor, its only decoration a rainbow-hued, geometric Andean tablecloth. There is no menu. Everyone eats the same two-course meal: quinoa soup, lightly fried trout from the lake, fries made from homegrown potatoes. Sprinkled with aji, a pepper sauce made with cilantro and lime, and with our hunger sharpened by the thin mountain air, simplicity never tasted so good.
During the meal, one of the diners accidentally tips over an Inka Cola on his white tunic. Calisto’s colleague, the restaurant’s manager, is instantly on the scene.
“This is chukjo,” he says, holding up a slender green stalk. Soliciting the guest’s garment, he crushes a few blades on a gray stone tablet, adds water, rubs it into the yellow stain. Voilá: nature’s detergent.
Customs like these spring from deep soil. They reveal a people bent on self-sufficiency, making use of at times scant resources so as to remain free of the world’s encroachments. It’s what the residents have had to do to preserve their traditions in the face of the myriad intrusive stamps—16th-century Spanish hacienda, 18th century prison colony—imposed from outside.
Lunch being over, Calisto takes me to a neighbor’s to see some textiles in the works. When we knock on her door, Carmen Huamani is making a faja, an ornamental belt worn by women on the island.
“These designs show what the woman expects of her husband when she marries.” She proffers the garment for perusal. Cows, houses: the gals on the island evidently aren’t ones to settle.
Textiles like Carmen’s are a big source of income for Taquile, with all islanders over the age of seven contributing. They’re sold in the co-op in the main plaza, and prices are fixed to prevent harmful competition. “Here the men generally knit, while the women weave. It’s good business: we sell to people all over the world,” Calisto says proudly. Indeed, the quality is so fine that the needlework was cited by UNESCO when it made Taquile a World Heritage site in 2005.
Embroidery is just one of the more famous aspects of a society that is communalistic from top to bottom. For Taquileños, the ancient Inca commandment Ama sua, ama llulla, ama qilla (“Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not be lazy”) continues to be in force. All duties, from tilling the fields to hosting tourists, are shared equally by all residents, with the proceeds going to purchase foodstuffs and housing materials on the mainland. Crops and livestock are rotated throughout the island’s six sectors or suyos. Homestays are parceled out among 110 families.
It’s getting late, and the temperature is dropping, so Calisto makes to escort me back to his abode. The accommodations are basic—no running water, electricity from solar panels—but the night view of the lake is enchanting. I huddle under the thick blankets as the wind howls outside.
In the morning, after breakfast and a walk to see some of the chullpas or Inca towers on the island’s far side—Calisto was able to stand up inside them, I had to duck—I’m brought to see one of the keystones of Taquile’s social life: the coca ceremony. An age-old cure for altitude sickness, the gray-green leaf is here central to worship of pachamama, Mother Earth.
It’s brought out the islanders in their full regalia. Black trousers and vests, white shirts, red cummerbunds. I look on as the men bow in reverence and unwrap their estalias, coca-carrying cloths. Each person comes up to take a handful of leaves, making the sign of the cross. Hats are removed. Prayers are intoned. Then the whole community makes to bury the leaves, interring them in the furrowed soil, an offering to the source of life.
Not all is somber, however. Though it’s still early afternoon, the islanders enliven their reverence with plentiful libations. Cuzqueña, a Peruvian lager, flows freely. Someone strikes up a tune on the zampoña, an Andean pan-pipe. An old matron takes my hand and leads me off to teach me some dance moves. This amuses Calisto to no end. He’s beaming ear to ear.
“Sure you don’t want to stay?” He shouts at me, laughing. “There’s a Dutch guy who came for one night. He’s now been here for two weeks. Taquile really affected him.”
Yes, I think as I do a shuffling two-step with my smiling partner, I can definitely see that happening.