Every man is a skilled hat maker in the close community of Peruvians on remote Taquile Island
THE MAN with the white beanie sits away from the group, listening to the conversation but not joining in, and he rarely lifts his eyes from his work. His relatives stop to stand and stretch their legs or just turn their heads to gaze across the blue water of Lake Titicaca, which stretches south to Bolivia from the tip of this isolated Peruvian island.
“He’s a widower,” my guide explains in a whisper. “You can tell by his hat. See how the other men all wear lots of bright colours while his is mostly white? His wife died recently and he is still so sad.
“He comes to weave with his family, he likes their company, but he doesn’t talk much.”
You can tell a lot about a man’s marital status on Taquile Island by his hat. Single men wear a white tip on what looks like a floppy night cap and those who have found a spouse sport a far fancier model with tight lines of vivid patterns.
When a couple is set to get hitched the man knits the traditional cap to impress the fiancée’s parents, presenting the prospective father-in-law with the hat to prove his worth and show he is able to care for a family.
The potential in-laws test the young man’s skill by filling the headwear with water. If the water drips through it he fails and must start again – or clear out – but if the threads are tight enough to contain the water he gets the tick of approval.
Taquile women also demonstrate their weaving skills before approaching the altar by making a belt to serve as a contract for marriage, featuring pictures of the things she expects from her husband – a summer and winter crop, a house with a strong roof, a cow for milk, a sharp knife, a good bucket to carry water, ample firewood.
Once married, the man wears his cap to show he has a wife while the woman keeps her belt handy to remind the husband of his matrimonial responsibilities.
Weaving and knitting are important on Taquile Island, a tradition that’s been treasured for centuries and handed down through the generations, and while the members of this extended family gather to make things to sell to the few visitors that venture to this isolated community it’s more about maintaining the ties that bind the family.
They sit in a circle around the edge of a sun-drenched plateau, after exchanging coca leaves as a greeting, and gossip as the men use four needles to knit the island’s iconic chapeaus and the women perch above primitive frames to weave vibrant belts.
While tourists based in busy Puno rarely make it past the overexposed villages in Taquile’s north, travellers staying at Titilaka – the luxury waterfront lodge a 30-minute drive to the south of the lakeside capital – can visit these secluded communities near the island’s steep southern tip, led by an expert guide.
Visiting Taquile Island with my Titilaka guide I feel like I’m stepping back in time to the days before the Spanish arrived in the Andean peaks and the Inca communities lived a simple life of subsistence farming.
There are no mobile phones or televisions, women cook in battered pots on an open fire, men release the sheep to graze in the morning before herding the animals back into their stone enclosures at night, water is collected from a community well, and a style of dress adopted after the Spanish invaded is still worn.
It takes an hour to travel by boat from Titilaka’s private jetty to the pier in one of Taquile’s quiet coves. We meet our first locals – a villager and her two children waiting for a ride to Puno – as we step on to land
She holds the hand of her older child, while, in a sturdy black shawl around her shoulders, tied securely below her chin, her baby is held close to her back. The curious toddler peers around her ear to see us.
As we hike from the dock – and I do mean hike: Lake Titicaca is almost 4000m above sea level, breathlessness sets in after taking just a few steps – we pass locals doing their morning errands.
A teenage girl, wearing a colourful pompom on the corner of her shawllike hat to announce she is looking