The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca Part II – Taquile Island

After leaving the Uros Islands with an uncomfortable feeling that we had just been conned (The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands), we settled in for the 2-hour boat ride to Taquile Island and hoped our next experience would feel more authentic. Along the way, our guide told us about Lake Titicaca and Taquile. The people are known for their beautiful textiles and, in an interesting twist, the men all knit and the women weave. Similar to the Uros Islands, the Taquile community decided to control the tourism on their island. The community is a cooperative and runs day tours, home stays, restaurants and textile sales. After lecturing us for awhile, our guide piped down and most of us cat-napped on the ride.

Taquile is tiny – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide – and stunning. We landed on a lovely beach with farming terraces dotting the hillside above it. Some young tourists who had done a homestay were playing with local children on the beach when we were met by our local male guides.  They were wearing beautiful outfits – bright, knitted hats with earflaps (chullos) and gorgeous woven sashes (chumpis). The men never stopped knitting. It was remarkable to see them walk and knit, especially given that we were not on smooth pavement. The hats denote marital status. While men wear knitted hats, with or without earflaps, married men wear red, patterned hats folded to the right, while unmarried men wear hats that are red and patterned at the bottom and white at the top. Folded to the right, it means he is looking for a girlfriend; hanging down the back means he is taken or not yet interested in dating. The island’s elected officials (men) wear black, felt hats during their terms. The community marries within itself, and our guide bluntly remarked that a disabled man who was causing some minor disruptions is the end result when the gene pool doesn’t expand. In addition, couples cohabit before getting married. If the cohabitation doesn’t work out and they didn’t have children, they part ways. I’m not sure how that works out as it would be pretty hard to avoid your ex on this tiny island!

After a brief introduction on the beach, we walked up the path. Matt and I thought we were pacing ourselves and going slowly, but apparently we weren’t as we inadvertently ended up following another group and had to be shooed back to wait for our own. Due to the altitude, some folks had a trouble with the ascent, but we had been in the Andes long enough to be acclimated. The views are stupendous and we were able to see Bolivia in the distance.

Eventually our group congregated in a courtyard and the women filed in to set up their weaving. I was confused to see the black head coverings as we heard the islanders were Catholic with the usual indigenous bent. Our guide told us that the head coverings were to protect the women’s hair from being bleached by the sun. A woman’s hair is a great asset and a bride cuts off her hair to weave into a sash for her husband’s wedding gift. No word on what a man gives his wife, but apparently he has to finish knitting his married-man hat before he can tie the knot. As our guide talked and got one of the men to demonstrate how to clean wool with a local plant, the women bent over their weaving in the hot sun while wearing multiple wool skirts and sweaters. In talking with one of the women afterwards, she admitted that it was terrible for her back to weave in this fashion. She also said that the runners they were weaving take about 3 weeks to complete.

Ancient Tools

Ancient Tools

After the talk and demonstration, there was the usual setting up of textiles for sale with the obvious expectation that we would buy. In talking with other visitors to Taquile, I think our experience was different than usual due to the elections. The main square where there is usually a textile market was closed, so the selection was limited and we felt more obligation than if we had been wandering around a market. We bought a few things and likely would have bought more given the fine quality if we had seen more than just a sampling. In addition, the weavers and knitters were not friendly (and Matt and I usually get points for at least speaking Spanish though on the island they also speak Quechua) and I felt a vibe that ranged from indifferent to resentful. Very different from the overly exuberant women on Uros, but awkward just the same. Matt and I compared notes later and he felt the same hostility.

After shopping, we were herded to the Eco Lodge Taquile for a traditional lunch of quinoa soup, fried trout and tea. The setting was pleasant and the lunch was fresh and tasty. We then hiked around more of the island to another dock for pick up. The day remained beautiful and the walk was leisurely and lovely. Upon our arrival to the dock, we discovered that the crew had returned to Puno to vote! We were stranded for about an hour and half with no beverages in the hot sun and nowhere to go as we were not allowed to wander. Needless to say, this ended our trip on a sour note. Matt and I struck up a conversation with some friendly Australian tourists who were planning their cocktail hour upon returning to their hotel and we had to break the news to them that it was a dry country due to the elections. We gave them “directions’ to our source in the market and hoped they found some libations for the evening.

There is no doubt that Taquile is beautiful and we felt we saw an authentic way of life (questionable on the Uros Islands), but we also felt unwelcome, which is odd for a community that has decided to become a tourist destination. It is hard to say whether I would recommend either excursion to someone traveling in Peru.

Going Native – A Homestay in Sibayo (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part II)

I am wearing an embroidered, gathered skirt, heavy shawl and too-small hat as I dance around a fire in a small, cobblestone courtyard – no easy feat in hiking boots and at an altitude of 12,730 feet (3880 meters) above sea level. Welcome to a homestay at Samana Wasi, in the Peruvian town of Sibayo.

After our stop in Sumbay (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art), we continued through the canyon with a few stops along the way, most notably at the Castillos Encantados (Enchanted Castles) where we took a short hike to enjoy the rock formations.

We arrived in Sibayo and were greeted by Nieves and Vesevio, the owners of Samana Wasi. In an effort to assist communities with maintaining traditional lifestyles, the government has promoted “experiential tourism” in towns like Sibayo. Guests stay with a family and see a traditional way of life and the tourist income allows the locals to continue that life. The Peruvian government fronted money to improve the infrastructure of Sibayo with new cobblestone roads, a quaint town square, a lookout pavilion that doubles as a community center, statutes and paint in cheerful colors to liven up the homes. Several families formed a cooperative to host tourists and initially guests booked through a central agency that placed tourists in the various homes. But Vesevio told Salome that the co-op system has broken down because some families had very poor accommodations and tour agencies began booking directly with the better homes. Vesevio was proud to say that his home had the most bookings, a fact confirmed by our tour agent who made a point to tell us that we were staying in the best home in Sibayo.

Semana Wasi was a small lodge with traditional single story stone buildings with thatched roofs surrounding a courtyard. Our room was…rustic. If this room was the best in town, what were the other rooms like? The plain furnishings, less than spotless blankets and cement floor were not a complete surprise, but the stench was overpowering. We had an attached bathroom, but the promised shower wasn’t there and the bathroom had a 3/4 wall between ours and another bathroom. We stood in our room a bit stunned for a few minutes not wanting to offend anyone. But how could you miss the smell of shit? Ultimately we closed the bathroom door and held our breath any time we needed to use it. No shower? No problem as we wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in the bathroom anyhow. Once again, my years at the cottage with an outhouse served me well. We ultimately decided that the plumbing must not be hooked up properly (or at all) and chalked it up to another adventure.* We met fellow lodgers – a group from Belgium – who told us that they were booked into a hotel but decided to stay another night at the lodge. Apparently their rooms didn’t stink or they weren’t as particular as we are.

But while the room was lacking, the hospitality was not. After a stroll through town, we joined Nieves, her daughter-in-law (whose name I never caught) and Dulce, a rejected 1-month old alpaca, in the kitchen as our meal was made. Nieves and the other woman were friendly and we had a nice conversation about Dulce and the food that was being prepared. We also learned why the women wore different hats. Nieves and Lady (Nieves 13-year old daughter) wore tall, white hats with some shiny bling and a flower or two. Nieves daughter-in-law’s hat was lower with embroidery as was one of the other woman’s hats. The women wear the traditional hat of their culture: Collagua or Cabana. Both cultures practiced skull shaping until it was banned by the conquering Spaniards. The Collagua forced skulls into a taller, narrower shape and the Cabana forced skulls into a squatter, broader shape. Once the practice was banned, they demonstrated their cultures through their hats. The Collagua wear white, tall hats, and the Cabana wear low, embroidered hats. Marriage does not change the hat one wears, which is why the daughter-in-law still wore the hat of her ancestors, and the type of hat is determined by the mother (so the daughter of a Collagua man and a Cabana woman would wear the Cabana hat of her mother’s culture). After our visit in the kitchen, we sat down with the friendly Belgians to enjoy a traditional meal of fresh tea, quinoa soup, pancakes and rice.

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

That evening we were treated to a traditional Pachamama (World Mother or Mother Earth) ceremony. Honoring pachamama through traditional rituals remains common and Salomé’s family still engages in the practice despite living in Arequipa. Offerings are made to Pachamama to ensure good plantings, harvests, travel and health. Vesevio asked for good travel for all of us and good health for an ailing guest during our ceremony, which included offerings of coca leaves and other herbs being passed around the circle and offered to the mountain apus (spirits). It was very interesting but we did not take pictures out of respect.

Then the party began. We were dressed in traditional garb and the local musicians showed up. Soon we were all dancing. And what would be a dance without some shots?


The Belgians had a 5:30 wake up call so the party ended around 9. We crawled into bed and were thankful for the heavy alpaca blankets as it was about 50 degrees in the room. We slept well until a rooster started crowing at 3:30. Yep, we were back in Peru! We had a simple breakfast and then Nieves escorted us on a walk through the town to a suspension bridge. Sibayo’s people were famous for the long treks they would make from the mountains to the coast. They would pack up their mountain goods, trade them along the way to the coast where they would collect seaweed (needed for iodine in those days) and trade it along the trek home. The round trip took about 3 months. There are still some older villagers who made this trek in their youth.

We continued past the square, to the suspension bridge and then up to the lookout. Our conversation lagged a bit, but then Nieves and I began to talk about the plants she was collecting and their uses. It was very interesting to hear how the plants are still used to treat all common maladies and made me want to learn more about their medicinal properties. Back at Samana Wasi, we said goodbye to the family and headed on our way through the canyon.

We enjoyed a unique experience with a wonderful family who made us feel welcome and at ease. It is odd to view someone’s lifestyle as a tourist attraction, but this visit was very comfortable and it felt as though the family was showing us their normal activities and not a “show” for the tourists. A few days later we would experience the “show” when we toured Lake Titicaca, but we left Sibayo with a warm feeling and an appreciation for the life they continue to lead there.

Part III – The Condors

* Note: I mentioned the plumbing problem to the tour operator who said he would tell the family so it could correct the issue.

Local Art

Matt’s former secretary, Elvira, is a lovely woman and a talented one too. Last year she was learning traditional weaving at a school in Cajamarca. The school’s main purpose is to provide training to young people in an effort to provide opportunities for these students who otherwise would likely continue to live in poverty. The girls in the skirts come from traditional farming families. The school’s additional purpose is to promote traditional weaving techniques. Elvira invited us to come on a day when the students were learning to dye wool using both natural ingredients and dyes. The instructor was delighted that we wanted to observe and mentioned that she thought our presence and interest would also reinforce to the students that these skills are valuable and interesting.

This batch was made using twigs from a type of pine tree. Notice the final product with all of the debris – I would not want the task of picking all the particles off the wool!

The green and hot pink colors came from synthetic dyes. The pink and purple batches used a type of crushed beetles.

Elvira’s current artistic endeavor is jewelry making. She takes classes at Koriwasi the Center of Technological Innovation in Jewelry that is funded by the Yanacocha mine in conjunction with the Peruvian Ministry of Commerce and Tourism. Its purpose is to teach jewelry making so individuals can set up small businesses and also to produce high quality jewelry for sale both in Peru and in international markets. Elvira invited me for a tour and as my prior manufacturing clients know, I love shop tours and this one far exceeded my expectations. Sarah joined me and we were treated wonderfully with many of the instructors taking time to explain (often in English!) the various stages of the process to us. We first saw the manual work room where the jeweler would create the object.

Next stop was the kiln, where the silver is melted and a copper amalgam added to strengthen the silver, which is otherwise too soft. Jewelry from Koriwasi is certified 950 silver, meaning it is 95% silver. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver.

Just as we were beginning to think this was a low tech process, we got to the design room. They have several computers and use three specialized softwares (Type 3, 3Design and Rhinoceros). But the coolest part was seeing the 3D printer that prints a mold in wax. A small item takes almost an entire day to lay down the layers of wax to create the mold. They also have 2 other computers that create a mold the opposite way – wax is cut away to create the item. We learned that there are literally millions of dollars invested in the equipment of the school. Very impressive.

We then went to the casting room. I have always had a hard time understanding the casting process despite countless museum visits, including several to the amazing Rodin Museum. So for me it was fantastic to have the process explained to us and to be able to see many of the steps in the process. As I understand it, the process is as follows (any errors are my own and not due to the patient instructors and Elvira who explained everything very carefully to us and answered my many questions).

1. Start with a metal master model of the piece.

2. Press into rubber molding material to create a mold of the model.

3. Very carefully remove the model, leaving the mold intact.

4. inject wax into the mold to create the pattern.

Wax Patterns

Wax Patterns


5. Attach the wax patterns to a trunk to create a tree.

6. The tree then gets placed into a cylinder and is covered in a plaster mixture,  leaving the base of the trunk uncovered. Once the mixture has hardened, the cylinder is heated. The wax melts and runs out of the mold, leaving a hollow mold in the plaster.

7. Molton metal (silver in our case) is poured into the trunk opening in the plaster, filling the void. Once cooled, the plaster is washed away. Violá – metal trees!

8. The jewelry is then cut away from the base and finished.

Finishing Room

Finishing Room

One of the most interesting things is that even for items that are “mass” produced, it is still a labor intensive, hand detailed process. Very impressive. Our only disappointment was that the store was rather empty because many pieces had been taken to an out of town show!

A Visit From Alex

Within days of our arrival, before we understood that door-to-door salesmen are the norm here, we opened our door to Alex, the rug guy.  We then let him in because he invoked the magical words “Shauna and Max,” the prior occupants of the home.  They had told us about Alex and said that he offered good rugs at good prices, so we took a look.  It helped that Alex speaks good English, which seems pretty amazing for a guy from the high Andes who goes around the country peddling his rugs.  Alex arrived on foot pulling a cart with a bundle of rugs that easily weighed 100 pounds.  If we understood correctly, Alex lives south of Lima in the Huancayo Region at an elevation about double ours.  So we are barely in the mountains according to Alex.


Alex makes the rugs with the help of others in his village.  It appears that the finer weaving is done by men; women knit. He was justifiably proud of his wares and took a lot of time to explain the different offerings.  He has items in wools from sheep, young alpaca and alpaca, and showed us examples of each.  The young alpaca wool is incredibly soft and we quickly learned that those items are to be used as bedcovers or wall hangings, not rugs.   While we loved the idea of a bedspread, both Matt and I are allergic to wool and decided not to take a chance with something we could end up hating.  Alex explained the meanings of the designs.  Some were traditional Peruvian designs, such as “the Gossiping Women,” which depicts a group of women in traditional dress and hats sitting with clay jugs for sale, and hunting and warrior scenes.  Birds, butterflies, cats and frogs are also prevalent in the designs.  Alex also designs his own patterns, and was very proud to show us “Women Going to Church,” another one of Jesus that he did for a church, and one depicting a traditional scissors dance. Ultimately Matt and I special ordered a rug that will have condors around the perimeter and other animals on the inside squares.  The consummate salesman, Alex left us with the promise to return with our ordered rug (no deposit was requested, which seemed odd) in late November/early December so we could buy Christmas presents and invite other expats over to see his selections.  He agreed to the photo because he thought perhaps our friends at home might also like to buy some things from him and gave us his website to share.  He also suggested that by his return trip our Spanish would be better.  Let’s hope he is right on that count!

Beautiful Rugs and Tapestries

Beautiful Rugs and Tapestries