Taquile: A different kind of Carnival

A Tale of Two Islands
By Andrew Whalen

Trading beer for coca leaves with our new friend Bernardo and clapping my hands to the beat as a sea of dancers twirled, bobbed, and weaved in the main plaza on the island of Taquile, I realized that we’d stumbled on something special. There are two rules I’ve found true while traveling in the Andes: the locals are as stoic and difficult to befriend as they are said to be, and you as a tourist are typically seen as a potential source of income before all else. High up on Lake Titicaca, the island Taquile broke both those rules. Unfortunately, our spin through Uros islands (map) on the way back to the mainland put them right back in place.

The rules are the rules for a reason. The Andean region is one of the poorest in South America, and this poverty, the barren landscape, and the history of colonization have left their mark on the people. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tourists flood the region each year, to drink in the beauty of Machu Picchu citadel, the sapphire blue waters of Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian salt flats, and dozens of other spectacular travel sites. It should be a major generator of local wealth, right? Not quite. Like all other lucrative industries down here, foreigners and local elites run the show. Cuzco is, again, a prime example. The British company Orient-Express owns the only rail service up to the famed Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu and the only hotel located next to the ruins. Foreigners and carpetbaggers from Peru’s capital of Lima also own most of the tourist agencies that run treks up to Machu Picchu. I remember doing a story on the porters of Cuzco’s Inca trail and asking one of the Quechua Indians what he’d be doing if he weren’t hefting tents, trekkers’ baggage, and entire kitchens up and down stony mountain paths. He said back home, subsistence farming. “Up here there are only two economies: tourism and nothing.” Currently, there is a movement in the travel industry away from outside exploitation toward local-controlled sustainable tourism – known as community tourism, eco-tourism, eco-ethno-tourism, CO2rism in rainforests and more, depending on your pleasure. In the Andean region, this means putting control of the industry in the hands of local Indians. Taquile and Uros displayed both those extremes.

It was surprisingly difficult to get to Taquile, despite the fact the island was celebrating its carnival festival. All of the local tour agencies only ran overnight tours to the island of Amantaní, with a few hour stop the next day in Taquile. We missed the only community ferry to Taquile that left at 9 a.m., so we had to jump a boat mid-lake and pay extra to get there. Arriving in Taquile, we were surprised by how few tourists were there for the carnival. Our 2005 Rough Guide called Taquile the most popular island on the Peruvian side of Titicaca. We started asking around for hostels, only to find that Taquile played the whole tourism game by a different book. With no hostels in sight at first glance, we decide to grab lunch and ask around. Just 15 minutes after I asked the lunch joint’s owner about lodging, a spry, pleasant man dressed in traditional Spanish peasant clothing decorated with hand-woven Andean textiles – an outfit Taquileños adopted in colonial times – introduced himself as Jesus and said we would be staying in his home with his wife Esperanza, “Hope,” and their two children. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when a local schoolteacher turned politician, enter Bernardo, shoved coca leaves in my mouth and Pisco down my throat and decided to take me under his wing in the heat of the Carnival festivities that I got an explanation of what the heck was going on.

Taquile had been an early model for community-based tourism, explained Bernardo. As long as he could remember, islanders had rotated hosting tourists in their homes and also pooled sales of their UNESCO anointed textiles, sharing the bounty of the industry according to the ancient Quechua values of collectivism, ayni and ayllu. A Taquile representative recruited tourists in Puno and brought them over on a community-run ferry in the morning, and then delivered them to the family they were to stay with on the island. But Taquileños lost their grip on the industry in recent years, Bernardo described grimly, after agencies run by outsiders worked out a deal to bring  tourists to Amantaní. That left Taquile – which refused to let the agencies control profits and prices – as an afternoon trip on the way back from Amantaní to the mainland. Taquile still runs its morning ferry to the island, but the islanders get beat by the professional agencies’ advertising and sheer manpower in pushing their package to backpackers in hostels and at the local pier. Thanks to that sad turn of events, negotiations with the agencies had come to define the island’s politics, Bernardo explained, and that was the main reason why he, deputy mayor of one of the island’s six communities, wanted to run for a big promotion: mayor.

Local politics aside, Taquile is probably the most original, welcoming, and non-Western corners of Peru I’ve found as a traveler, not to mention one of the most beautiful and clean. The islanders took us in with open arms and let us participate, learn, and mix with the locals during one of their most important religious festivals, no questions asked. There was none of the begging for money off tourists or angry haggling with locals trying to give travelers the “gringo price” (take the local price and double it) that can be so common in other parts of South America. I firmly believe that this is not only due to the fact that Taquile is separated from the rest of Peru by a big blue lake, but also has everything to do with the islanders’ knowledge that the community controls the local industry and that the entire island shares in its benefit.

We were sorry to leave Jesus and Esperanza’s home the next day, but once we did, we decided to swing by the Uros floating islands. We had missed them on the way out in our hurry to get to Taquile. The famed floating islands, made of matted reeds on floating sod, have long been one of Lake Titicaca’s main attractions. But our reception was like night and day compared to Taquile. As soon as we were dropped off at one family’s floating home, the family’s unbathed children started crawling all over us. As their parents sat in the background, uninterested, the girls launched into a little routine: they would curtsy, smile, and say “take a picture!” and as soon as you did, they would stick out their hands for money. Once that got old – we stopped taking the pictures – they started a song and dance routine that ended with the same hand-extended pose. Over the din, we finally convinced one of the elders to give us an explanation of the islands’ origins. He whipped out a laminated poster showing how the islands float, and ran quickly through an uninspired presentation on the Uros with one of the young boys acting as his assistant. Of course, when it was over the boy came over and stuck his hand out for money. The whole experience was a huge shock coming from Taquile, where we’d played with Jesus and Esperanza’s son Edgar all day, laughing with him as he tried to film us with Mike’s video camera and snapping pictures of him and his friends posing in the plaza, with nary a mention of money. It was all out of a genuine, mutual interest in getting to know how each others’ world worked.

We were so put off by the Uros islands that we decided we couldn’t wait another two hours for the communal ferry to go back to the mainland. So we paid a gentleman from the neighboring floating island to taxi us back in his fishing boat. It turned out José, our boat driver, was actually not an Uros Indian, but a Quechua from northern Peru. He had married a woman from Puno and moved to Uros to open a fish restaurant and hostel on the island. We asked him if all the islands were as touristy as the one we just visited and he scoffed. Nope, he said, only five of the 35 Uros communities host tourists. Everyone else refuses them, he said with a smile and a shake of his head that made you know he thought their decision to refuse tourists was both foolish and to his benefit. It was the smile of a certain type of person known here as a vivo: those street-wise Peruvians who know how to make a quick buck and will dance around scruples with a smile to do so. Just then I was struck by a tidbit from the elder Uros’ presentation: that the Uros migrated onto the floating islands centuries ago to escape assimilation into the dominant Quechua and Aymara cultures. As we motored back to shore in a boat driven by a Quechua, dodging the wake of a big white ferry whisking another boatload of tourists off to the floating islands, I thought to myself that I couldn’t blame those Uros who refused to host tourists.

Awash in Tradition, Drowned in Color:
Carnival in Taquile
By Drew Straus

To my right, a pile of corn, beans, and dried fish cover a blanket laid on the cobbled floor of the courtyard, as women pour the food from their brightly colored knapsacks. Meanwhile other members of the community dig into the food by the fistful. Across from me an elderly woman rests her head on a relative, crying while wailing a monosyllabic tune. To my left, a drummer continues to play the ubiquitous beat of the day, too drunk to notice that the party is on break. I’m on the island of Taquile for Carnival, one of their biggest festival days of the year. We’ve danced our way to the community center of one of the seven communities of Taquile after being taken under the wing of Bernardo, a leader of that community. Moments before, Bernardo jovially handed Andy his scepter-like baton, a symbol of his authority as community leader. For a few awkward moments, Andy held on to the baton, before a horrified woman noticed and snatched the baton back for the swaying Bernardo. On festival day: community ritual, endless dancing, bright colors, and an island imbibed and imbibing.

We started out our day in the town of Puno, Peru, on the west shore of Lake Titicaca. After a confused exchange at the port, we finally took the 3-hour boat to Taquile, an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. From the approach, Taquile looked like a giant whale on the surface of the water. One big hill dominated the north side and then gently sloped down to the flattened west side. Getting closer, the whale became ridged as the agricultural terraces that cover the island came into focus.

Once on the island, we climbed up to the town square. Along the cobble path, neat stone houses with corrugated steel roofs marked a striking contrast to much of rural Peru where the houses are made of dust-colored adobe and brick, and often look on the verge of crumbling. Another notable feature of the houses was that most of them had a solar panel on their roofs, since Taquile has no other source of electricity. This also meant that the island has no electrical wire or towering telephone poles to mar the pristine sky. The main square sits in the center of a cluster of taller stone buildings and narrow cobbled alleys and opens on one side to a cliff and the lake.

The day was blazingly bright and was amplified by the surrounding water. Talking to some locals we discovered that today was the first and most important day of Carnival. The seven communities of Taquile were slowly making their way to the central square where the festival would take place. Already in the distance we could hear many flutes and drums slowly growing louder. While we awaited their arrival, we discovered the amazing textiles of Taquile. Named a World Cultural Heritage in 2005 by UNESCO, Taquile’s textiles are brightly colored and intricately patterned. The figures depicted in the woven belts and scarves represent important aspects of life on Taquile. One type of belt is even a calendar. We would later discover the textiles are woven on looms made out of interlocking branches. Shortly afterwards we got to see the textiles in full action.

The first of the communities of Taquile paraded into the main square in a whirl of color and a flurry of flutes. The women were dressed in many layers of skirts each a different electric shade: blue, green, orange, yellow, and red. On their backs they wore crimson woven knapsacks. The men wore black pants and shirt; everything else was a blaze of color. Their belts, knit hats, and shawls were all covered with intricate loud patterns. Each wore many small, brightly striped bags, tasseled in neon rainbow. The men in the community each played an instrument. Drums of many sizes tolled out a 20 second beat, accompanied by a wide variety of flutes, some almost as tall as the player, as well as whistles, ox horns, and conches all playing the same 20 second melody, which was repeated, without stop or diminished gusto, throughout the entire day. The women danced along to the music with quick small steps. At the crescendo of the rhythm, the women all spun braided ropes covered in balls of colored string over their heads while twirling in unison.

The other communities arrived in the main square one by one, each claiming a section of the plaza. While all the communities played the same melody and rhythm, they made no attempt to synchronize with each other. As the square filled to capacity, the groups slowly circled the plaza with the effect of a gentle cacophony of clashing flutes, irregular drums, and spinning colors with the backdrop of a brilliant vast lake and the barely visible mountains on the shore.

We rapidly discovered the source of the seemingly limitless energy of the people of Taquile. Each bag or pouch contained a bottle of pisco and an ample supply of coca leaves. The mayor emerged from the town hall with fanfare, bringing with him crates upon crates of beer and an enormous mound of coca leaves, which he laid out on a table above the square for the enjoyment of the community. Watching from the sides of the square, we began talking with two men from Taquile both surreally named Cesar. We quickly found ourselves pulled into the party as we shared beer and pisco, which they drank by draining full cups (or caps in the case of pisco) before passing it on to the next person. The feel of the day had changed as we were brought around and introduced to other festival-goers, usually (and much to our surprise) by being taken by the hand from one group to another.

The tone of the festival, I realized, though heavy on traditions, was lighthearted -thoroughly about the enjoyment of the communities of Taquile. This realization somewhat relieved my creeping suspicion that, dressed in preppy shorts, a striped shirt, and a straw hat, I was at least an eye-sore if not a turntable stopping, toe stomping, all out party-crasher. Interestingly, as we continued our somewhat bewildered rounds with the Cesars, we were introduced only to other men. Almost uniformly, we were welcomed to Taquile and offered something to drink, even from the older members of the community with whom there was no common language other than a sly nod at an outheld bottle. The most common topic of the day (aside from some brief “we love beer too!” formalities) was how much the people we were able to talk to loved Obama.

Soon the dancers prepared for the inter-community dance-off, judged by the mayor. Up until this point, I had been entirely unable to tell the difference between the garb of the members of the seven communities. While the dance competition went on, I noticed small distinctions, a style of hat or a particular color of ribbon in the hair worn only by one community. I should mention that this was the only distinguishing factor about the dance competition. All the communities performed exactly the same tune, rhythm, and dance moves as before, this time just one group at a time. A winner was declared (God knows how) and we ended up standing near the area reserved for the island officials.

Bernardo, one of the island officials, began talking to us and offering coca. Taking a liking to Andy, whom he wanted as his assistant on his run for Peruvian congress, Bernardo pulled Andy by the hand over to where a group of whirling, fluting, Taqilians were making their way out of the plaza. The rest of us followed and soon I found myself marching through the cobbled streets and down the hill with a huge marching band drum strapped to my stomach and no idea where we were going. We took turns trying to get the beat down right before we were stripped of our drum and Bernardo motioned us up a hill towards a large stone building.

Without realizing it, we had been invited back to Bernardo’s community. The building was the community center and in the courtyard, the dancing and playing continued. At this point, almost everyone in the community was so inebriated that no one noticed the women bouncing off walls or the flute players who had moved on to play their own solos. As I sat down and the evening meal was laid down on a blanket to my right I realized that this was the most colorful, probably highest participation level party I’d seen unfold. As a place not too far off the tourist map, I was surprised by how few tourists were there and, likely in turn, the openness of the people of Taquile.

I should mention too the wonder of the couple that we stayed with for our night at Taquile. Jesus and Esperanza run a wonderful B&B in addition to being the most impressively named couple in Peru.

We join the party. Hail Cesars!

“Bout that time, eh chaps?” “righto

Many layered skirts of Taquile women

The many bags of the Taquile men. All filled with booze & coca leaves.

We bring the funk.

Potatoes, beans, fish, salsa, and other Andean goodies: the holy spread of Taquile’s Carnival.

Rockpile #2: at the top of Taquile’s highest peak.