"Lost in Time"
by Lynn F. Monahan

Miami Herald, October 1, 1995

From island's steps
1997 Andrys Basten

Published: Sunday, October 1, 1995
Section: LOCAL
Page: 4B


LYNN F. MONAHAN Associated Press
Nearing shore in his motorboat with a half-dozen tourists, Nestor Huatta replaces his baseball cap with a long, red-and- white knit "chullo," the traditional male head wear on the island of Taquile.

With the stocking cap snug on his head, Huatta is dressed to return to a Lake Titicaca island where the modern world is held at bay and time is still measured by the rotation of crops.

Until 20 years ago Taquile was a forgotten place, tucked away near the western shore of the world's highest navigable lake, at 12,490 feet above sea level on the high Andean plateau called the Altiplano.
Outsiders were so rare that residents hid at the sight of strange faces.

Now the 1,300 islanders struggle to hold on to their simple lifestyle and native customs while interacting with the late 20th century.

Huatta, whose grandfather was one of the first to bring tourists to Taquile using a small sailboat, says Taquile's natives prefer to stay on their island, and almost always marry other islanders.

"Nothing else occurs to us. We only think of Taquile," he says.

Long isolated from the rest of Peru and the world, Taquile residents strive to hold on to their traditional clothing, their native Quechua Indian language, their mud-colored adobe homes, their beliefs and their festivals.

The men wear homemade black pants and coarse white shirts, held around the waist by beautiful woven sashes, some of which are decorated with symbols representing the island's agricultural calendar. The different patterns of their stocking caps, which the men knit themselves, distinguish married men from bachelors.

The women wear heavy, wide Andean skirts called "polleras," and black shawls, with colored pompoms on the corners -- mostly red for senoras and multicolored for senoritas.

"We only change when we go to Puno because there are lots of thieves there, and they think people from Taquile have lots of money," says islander Faustino Quispe.

Puno is the departmental capital, three to four hours away by boat. The island is 530 miles southeast of Lima, the Peruvian capital.
Only 3 1/2 miles by 1 mile, tiny Taquile is surrounded by shifting shades of blue from the sky overhead and the water all around.

Its steep contours are etched with pre-Columbian terraces that still yield most of the local crops. A small, but well- preserved Inca ruin sits on the side of the island's main hill.

The only electricity comes from generators or batteries, and one central telephone was installed last year. Residents still gather early in the morning and late in the afternoon to collect water from wells.

Taquile has no cars, or roads for that matter. The entrance to the island is a 600-foot climb up steep stone stairs. There are no horses or burros, not even llamas or alpacas so common elsewhere in the Andes. The farmers keep only a few cattle and small flocks of sheep.

The island has neither police nor jail, a reflection of the people's reputation for honesty. Problems within the community are solved by leaders elected annually.

Peer pressure is the main means of enforcing order and getting residents to observe local customs, which is key to the island's growing tourism trade. Island officials say tourism is replacing subsistence farming as Taquile's mainstay.

In the community meetings held after Sunday morning Mass, leaders chide villagers for wearing contemporary clothes or shoes instead of sandals. Others draw criticism for walking about with portable radios, listening to pop rather than Andean folk music.

"As an authority I have to tell them what they should do and what they shouldn't do, because we can't change too much," says Sebastian Marca, the island's deputy mayor.

But he fears that is already happening.

The thatched roofs of the adobe cottages are disappearing, replaced by corrugated metal. Below the Inca ruin, a TV antenna sprouts from one house, and residents admit most have small televisions that run for a couple of weeks off car batteries charged up in Puno.

The island's cultural identity is also threatened by the state education system, Marca says. The teachers who come from Puno tell the children that they are part of a new, modern Peru, echoing a theme sounded frequently by the government of President Alberto Fujimori.

"The children no longer want to know anything about our own costumes," Marca says. "The children have other thoughts. They want to be modern."

CUTLINES: Associated Press

ON THE SIDELINES: Women who weren't invited to a wedding watch the celebration from a nearby street.

Associated Press
DANCING DRUNK: Two men participate in the traditional three days of celebration for an island couple's wedding.

Associated Press
LIVING OFF THE LAND: Maria Flores, 12, helps care for the family flock.

A TIME FOR FUN: Most island children, like Rebeca Marca, 9, begin working an an early age.

              - by Lynn F. Monahan

Back to top of page ... or


                  or Return to Peru Index