We land at the bottom of terraced slopes and begin a forty-five-minute steep climb up a winding path of stone steps. Taquile Island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca is a small two-and-a-half-mile-high island and once a prized possession of the Incas. We follow the path toward our lodgings through a series of archways and cobalt blue panoramas of Lake Titicaca. The Taquileños, as the inhabitants of the island are called, are masters at knitting and weaving. On Taquile, men knit and women weave. Spinning yarn and weaving intricate patterns hundreds of years old are as important to their everyday life as farming and cooking. I am greeted by Alejandro Flores Huatta whose face is etched with seasons of sun and cold. Wearing a cropped vest, with a colourful knitted hat, thick black trousers, and a red coca pouch on one hip,Alejandro shows me to a tiny mud-brick bedroom.
The weaving tradition on Taquile island goes back to the ancient Inca, Pukara, and Colla civilizations. The Taquile people speak Quechua, an indigenous language of Peru. One of the most characteristic garments is the Calendar waistband, as it depicts elements of the community and its history along with the annual cycles connected to ritual and agricultural activities.
The waistband is woven by women for their men as a wedding gift.
The wide belts or chumpis that the islanders wear are also full of symbolism. The woven belt depicts many different events in a persons life, for example, birds facing each other, birds with baby birds, symbolize engagement, marriage, and children.
All weaving is done on pre-Hispanic fixed and pedal looms. The women exclusively make yarn and weave. Married women wear red sweaters and all women wear a black wool shawl over their heads. In 2005, Taquile’s weavers earned the islanders a UNESCO designation as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", to help preserve the regional culture.
Knitting is exclusively performed by males, starting at age eight. The men feed the yarn from around their necks and instead of their fingers, they use their thumbs to wrap the yarn around the needle to create the stitch. They are amazingly fast in the execution of their complicated patterns. The Flores family is unique on Taquile because their weavings are done with fibers coloured only with natural dyes. Married men wear a patterned hat that is predominantly red while single men wear hats that start with a band of red and then turn into a white hat with a pom pom that shows their dating status by the position. Red denotes responsibility while white shows that they can be carefree.
The chuspi, or coca leaf pouches are very important as well, and every married man wears his pouch folded and tied to his belt. When islanders greet each other, they exchange coca leaves, but these sacred leaves cannot be received by hand: men receive them in their pouch, women receive them in a corner of their shawl, and boys receive them in their hat. Only after exchanging leaves, and starting to chew will they begin a conversation.
I had asked my guide, Manuel Velazco Serrano, if he could arrange for Alejandro to bring his flute with him and take me to the top of the island to witness the sunset. Our walk up to the top was very awkward as through gestures Alejandro seemed confused that I could not speak any Spanish. We reached the top after about thirty minutes and waited patiently for the Andean sun to set behind the horizon of Lake Titicaca. While waiting Alejandro serenaded the group who had gathered on this perfect evening.