I clearly remember learning about Peru and Lake Titicaca in the 3rd grade. Like a scene straight out of Beavis and Butthead, there was nothing we could do in class to stop the inappropriate church giggles — “she said…Titi-caca”. It was just too much for 8-year-olds. Two of the words little boys and girls were never supposed to utter came out of our teacher’s mouth at the same time, in the same word, and were met at once with chitters and giggles all around.
I still giggled at this memory as we traveled around Peru thirty years later. We had made our way from Cusco to Puno, the port town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, and were ready to board the small passenger boat and tour Amantani and Taquile.
The Islands of Lake Titicaca
If Peru is on your bucket list and you're looking for interesting things to do, Lake Titicaca has unique cultural experiences, like staying overnight (homestay) with an indigenous family on Amantani, or a day trip to Taquile. Both islands lay nestled in Lake Titicaca and are as interesting and colorful as you’re likely to see in the world. As we disembarked the boat on Taquile and made our way to the top of the island, any thoughts of those childhood giggles were replaced forever by the most breathtaking views and intense colors of the islanders themselves.
Taquile is a fascinating place. The community is largely reliant on fishing, terraced farming and potato cultivation, and tourism from the nearly 40,000 tourists who visit each year.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Taquilean culture is their knitting and the beautiful handcrafted hats, belts, and other items they wear themselves and offer for sale to tourists. Their knitted goods are regarded among the highest-quality handicrafts in Peru and South America. Even more interesting is the fact that the master knitters of this small island are exclusively men.
Boys start knitting around the age of 6 or 7 years old, and continue throughout their long lives as long as their hands can manage.
Women tend the flocks of sheep, gather their wool to dye using vegetables and minerals, then weave and spin the yarn. Some women also weave the colorful chumpis, the wide belts with woven designs worn by everyone in the community. But the delicate knitting is solely men’s work.
Knitting isn’t just for show and tourism, however. It plays an important role in social status, courting, and marriage. It’s actually a pretty good system for finding a mate and helps take the guesswork out of dating, though to be fair Taquile isn’t very big - there are only about 2,000 residents on the island. But it is an easy and effective way to show marital status. You can see their bright hats coming a long way off, and have plenty of time to formulate your greeting or pick-up line, whichever the case may be.
For instance, if you’re interested in knowing who’s married and who’s not, married men on the island wear mostly-red patterned hats, men in a relationship but not yet married (perhaps engaged) sport a very manly embroidered bag adorned with bright pom-poms. Single guys wear red hats with a white top.
Women also wear colorful pom-poms to denote their marital status, although describing it brings to mind a really bad joke.
Women on Taquile wear colorful embroidered black shawls with pom poms attached to the bottom. Large ones sewn onto them mean that woman is single, while one small pompom means she’s already married. That’s right ladies, after an interesting glimpse into one of the world’s most interesting cultures, it may come down to this: men looking for love on Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca need look no further than the size of a woman’s pompoms.
Let the giggling begin again :-)
If You Go
We had an excellent trip to several islands on Lake Titicaca with All Ways Travel, a reliable and socially responsible tour company that puts the welfare of the islanders first. We would not hesitate to recommend them. They offer day trips as well as overnight Cultural Homestays which we loved - our homestay was a highlight of our time in Peru.
Have you been to the islands of Lake Titicaca? What did you think of this interesting culture?