The Intangibles of Isla Taquile


Take a boat tour to the Uros Islands out of Puno, and the package will likely include a visit to Isla Taquile (Taquile Island). Where? you ask. That’s what I said when I booked it. OK, I thought, as long as I get to see the reed islands.

Turns out, if I had done my research, I should also have looked forward as much to this visit because of a marvelous cultural tradition that earned it the rare UNESCO designation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity.

Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That’s quite a mouthful, a designation that I have trouble repeating without stumbling over the words.  To be serious, the idea behind it is to recognize an ‘intangible’ art that needs protection and faces pressure of disappearing without it. It involves a cultural heritage or tradition in which an entire community gets involved and goes further by recognizing the observance as a form of cultural identity. It could also include spaces where these activities take place. Examples are expressions of art, craft, music or dance; festivals; markets; rituals; language or other forms of oral heritage. To date, there are 166 such proclamations.

The approach to Taquile from the west was visually impressive because of extensive terracing, the legacy of the Incas who took the island by force in the 15th century. On de-boarding, my tour group was instructed to meet in the central plaza. It wasn’t effortless getting there, the middle of the island. The western side of Taquile challenges anyone who hasn’t gotten accustomed to the thin air. The stairs were a steep climb, though my lungs kept screaming Everest. No tour information I saw warns visitors who might have respiratory or cardiac issues. A local woman offered muña leaves to ease the strain. When I finally got to the plaza, I discovered that the world-famous woven products are displayed and sold in a community building facing the plaza.

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Taquile Island, with a population of only 2,000, was bestowed the UNESCO recognition for the exceptional quality of its hand-woven clothing and textiles. If the skill involved in making them were all that was considered, that would’ve been the end of UNESCO’s vote. Here, there’s more to it than that. All able-bodied Taquileños take part in the handicrafts. The women do the weaving, and the dyeing and spinning of wool. The men, including boys as young as 8 years, do the knitting.

Women and men both wear the chumpi, a wide colorful belt woven by the women with ancient patterns depicting annual events. Islanders have worn these belts even before the Spanish arrived.

Chumpi

Chumpi

The men knit chullos, the ear-flapped hats that are seen throughout the Andes. The ones the men here wear are distinctive for their extra long pointed tops that drape over the wearers’ heads down to their shoulders. The ones for sale have different designs than those worn by the island’s men.

Chullos

Chullos

It isn’t just these two famous garments that make what the Taquileños do so distinctive but that they make their entire wardrobe, a mix of Spanish peasant and traditional Andean clothing, and utilitarian textiles, the crafting of specific articles relegated along gender lines. And they wear them in their daily dress. Weaving requires skills that are passed down from one generation to the next and is an integral part of the island’s culture and social practices. Certain garments, like the chullo, coca-leaf purse or almilla (the woman’s shirt), even reveal the wearer’s marital status. It is for these reasons that UNESCO thought it important to recognize the weaving arts of Taquile and help preserve its way of life.

The pace seems unhurried on the island. There are no cars or roads, no running water. And with no electricity, there are no cell phones or other powered devices or appliances. After our group gathered in the square, we were taken to an outdoor dining area where we were served a prix fixe lunch.

Quinoa soup

Quinoa soup

Fried trout

Fried trout

Trout omelette

Vegetable omelette

Lunch was followed by a harvest dance performed by men, women and children.

Harvest dance

Harvest dance

The walk back to the boat took a different route, one on the other side of the island. It was noticeably longer than the arrival, more gently sloping but downhill. With no need to catch my breath, it gave me the opportunity to appreciate this beautiful place, set in the sea-like Titicaca, above it a deep blue sky that you find only at high altitudes. The peace and solitude are intangible, like the weaving culture. Two hours after boarding the boat, I was back in Puno, thankful that I had the chance to experience an island that hadn’t entered my mind at all before taking the tour. Wonderful surprises like that thankfully happen every now and then.

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Masters of the Loom: the Weavers of Chinchero


It was at an oxygen-starved altitude of 12,300 ft (3,800 m) that I got my first headaches. Higher than even nearby Cusco, the town of Chinchero in Urubamba province has nights so cold at this time of year that my home-stay host family of Paulino and Vilma Quillahuaman put seven woven blanket layers on the bed. As in most towns in the mountainous parts of Peru, there are very few level areas, which are usually relegated to their Plazas de Armas, all the other narrow streets and lanes at various grades lined with dressed stones or stone steps. Walking even the slightest rise can tax un-acclimated lungs.

Chinchero, or Chincheros, is known for its Sunday market and a colonial church built on an ancient Inca stone foundation that features ten enigmatic trapezoidal niches. Behind the church are incredible Inca terraces and walls.

Chinchero is also home to world-class weavers, including a cooperative, Minka Chinchero, that has as its mission the passing down of the craft to future generations, not an easy task when young people are flocking to the cities. Tourists come from all over the world to see the beautiful woven fabrics and perhaps to purchase one or two.

Central to the tradition is the end-to-end use of natural materials, starting with alpaca wool, down to the plant-based, color-fast dyes. It occurred to me that the art is not a reversion to earth-friendly methods but the way things have been done for a long time. It’s just that we in the 21st century need reminding that there was a way of life before chemistry and industrialization.

My wife and I had a private demonstration of how the entire process is done.

In making their textiles, it begins with wool cleaning. Rather than using chemical detergents, the weaver grates habonera root that saponifies in water and does a remarkable job of cleaning the wool.

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Except in one case, plants are used to make dyes, which requires hours of boiling to intensify the colors. Following are the plants and their color extracts.

Chillca: green

Quinsaquchu: blue

Quolla: yellow

Purple corn: purple

Barba de la roca: orange

The range of red colors is extracted from a tiny scale insect, the cochineal, that feeds on prickly pear cactus. When crushed, the cochineal turns a bright scarlet or carmine. Used as lipstick, I was told it was good for a thousand kisses. With a squeeze of lime, the color turns purplish.

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Cochineal scrapings

Next comes the yarn spinning with a puschca. This task takes years to master. It has gotten so second-nature that the women can do it while carrying on conversations or walking down the street.

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The final step, of course, is the weaving, an art that completely evades me, how intricate and precise patterns are imagined and translated onto the work from the weaver’s mind. A typical woven table runner, for example, will take months to complete. All Chinchero woven fabrics are traditionally finished with tubular edging containing multicolored diamond patterns.

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Our host family has been intimately involved with the co-op. They warmly took my wife and me into their home, made us part of the family. We talked and shared stories as best as we could, considering the language difficulties that confronted both them and us. It was a brief two nights, but we benefited from our stay because we saw first hand how weaving has become the fabric of their lives.