Are you looking for an escape to simple living in the mountains of a remote land, a journey into the exotic past? For adventurous tourists, the place is the island of Taquile in Peru, a beautiful paradise of 1,200 inhabitants on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
Taquile's main attraction is a friendly and well-organized Quechua-speaking population in colorful ethnic attire who welcome foreign visitors for overnight stays in their adobe huts. During the past six years, the island has drawn mainly young tourists backpacking through the Andes in search of the unspoiled. Taquile is perhaps about as close as they will come to finding it.
But what is most unusual about Taquile is that the local people get all the economic benefits, because the tourist facilities are the homes that they own.
Taquile's setting offers visitors spectacular mountain lakeside scenery, rugged trails for hiking, lookouts for gazing and meditating and mysterious archeological sites. To the east are 35 miles of crystal-clear, deep-blue waters, with the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia on the horizon under a vast dome of azure sky and majestic clouds.
At night, sparkling stars fill the Andean sky, and occasionally the glow of a silver moon shimmers on Titicaca's waters. Paths and narrow stone walkways wind past Inca-style (steep, stone-faced) terraces, potato fields, stone walls and quaint thatched huts, leading up to ancient burial towers on the mountaintops.
The islanders' strong sense of history and ethnic identity is reflected in their red, white and black costumes of homespun cloth that mix styles from medieval Spain and the ancient Andean culture. Men wear brightly colored stocking caps and flowing, long white scarves. Both sexes wear wide red cummerbunds with intricate Andean designs. Throughout the Andean countries of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, dress styles distinguish a community from its neighbors.
Taquile has played various roles in the world during its long history. Before the European invasion in the early 16th century, it produced potato seed for the Incan agricultural system. In the 1930s, following a revolution, it became a place of confinement for prestigious political prisoners, including a former Peruvian president.
I worked in Taquile in the late '60s as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was then a remote, forgotten area. But during the past two decades, I have watched the island emerge from its centuries-old obscurity and tranquility to worldwide fame for its textiles and tourism.
Before tourists began to arrive in the late 1960s, the islanders earned their living from farming, seasonal work in copper mines and the sale of their exquisite weavings. The Peace Corps helped them organize a cooperative in 1968 to market weavings in the Peruvian tourist centers of Cuzco and Lima. After several years, the cooperative went under, but sales continued to increase each year. The textiles eventually found their way into craft stores in the United States and Western Europe. Nonetheless, the islanders remained relatively poor.
The big change came in 1976, when the "South American Handbook," a popular travel guide, described Taquile. Soon, waves of young tourists began appearing at the dock in the nearest port city, Puno, seeking passage to Taquile. At that time, the only way to reach the island was by a 12-hour night trip, frequently cold and windy. But soon the islanders pooled their meager savings from the textile sales and built new boats outfitted with used truck motors and comfortable cabins.
The Inter-American Foundation, a congressionally funded foreign aid agency, made a grant of $25,000 to Taquile. The money was used to support six boat cooperatives -- each with 30 to 40 islanders as members -- to help buy more motors and spare parts. The motorboat cooperatives multiplied; there are now 13, with virtually every family on the island belonging to one. With complete control over the boat traffic, the islanders brought new income into the community and reduced travel time by two-thirds.
Simultaneously, the community began to organize homemade tourist facilities by fixing up their adobe huts. They added extra rooms, tables, benches, tablecloths, silverware, kerosene lanterns, wash basins and such simple bedding as reed mats and woolen blankets. Next they built a community crafts store and later, with the help of an anthropologist, a local museum to display their old textiles. (Everyone on the island over 8 years of age can weave something to sell to the tourists. Taquile belts, bags and hats rank among the finest in weaving quality, not only in Peru but in all of South America.)
When I visited Taquile in 1978, 68 families were authorized to take in overnight guests. By 1982, the number had risen to 207 families -- in effect, every family on the island. And the number of tourists increases each year. During a seven-month period in 1982, about 5,000 tourists visited the island. In August, the busiest month, Taquile usually receives between 1,800 and 2,000 visitors. Most stay for two or three days. Community records show that tourists come from North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and especially Western Europe.
To reach Taquile, you first have to get to Puno. From Lima there are flights, which take several hours, to Juliaca, a city an hour from Puno by land over a paved road. Travelers can go from Juliaca to Puno in groups in a cab or colectivo. Or you can take a morning train from Cuzco, Peru's tourist capital, and arrive in Puno by nightfall.
Once in Puno, the Taquile trek begins at the dock. Cooperatively owned boats (each with a capacity of 15) depart at 8 and 9 a.m. and return in early afternoon; round-trip fare is $2.50. It is a three- to four-hour cruise on the panoramic lake (frequently interrupted by motor breakdowns) to Taquile's port.
From the dock it is a 20- to 30-minute mountainside hike up a winding stone walkway to the summit. There a native reception committee greets the new arrivals and registers them by age, nationality and duration of stay. Committee members describe the island and its principal features, and assign accommodations with a family. (The huts have all been inspected and approved by an island commission.)
The adobe dwellings are dark and dingy with tiny windows, small doors and, of course, dirt floors. Tourists get a separate room. Reed mats over earthen floors or adobe platforms serve as beds, with plenty of wool blankets.
The owner will furnish a wash basin and, if you're lucky, a bar of soap. If not, soap and toilet paper are available in local stores. There is no plumbing, electricity or potable water, and there are only a few latrines on the island. (Depending on where you stay, you could have as much as a 25-minute walk to the bathroom, so most visitors use the fields at night.) First-aid care is provided by one local resident. Bedtime is usually shortly after sundown.
The local family offers food three times a day and even breakfast in bed, if desired. A room is about 30 cents a night, and the three home-cooked meals come to slightly under a dollar a day. Barley, corn, broad beans and potatoes, spiced with a chili pepper called aji', are served mostly in stews and soups. The local corn is often prepared as popcorn, and the delicious Andean potatoes as french fries. The most popular dish is a fish dinner of trout for a grand total of about 60 cents.
To satisfy the growing tourist demand for fresh fish, the islanders recently organized four fishing cooperatives. They take turns fishing with nets all night and distributing the catch daily among members for personal consumption and tourist sales. There are also seven rustic restaurants -- also owned by local families or groups -- most of them in the village square. The restaurants have broadened the local menu to include Spanish omelets, pancakes, a variety of herbal teas and Peruvian beer. And a few of them provide space for some night life; sometimes visiting guitarists will strum into the night. Meanwhile, the islanders are fast asleep.
The unforced friendliness and gentle manner of the Taquilen os make it easy for both them and the tourists to share in what becomes an educational experience.
For visitors, it is an eye-opening look at the hardships of the Third World. The island's inhabitants use simple hand tools to produce their food on scattered small plots along rocky, heavily eroded hillsides. As altiplano peasants, they face frequent frost, hail and devastating drought. To supply their homes with water, women trudge up mountainsides with large jugs on their backs.
Meanwhile, the islanders, who benefit directly from the inflow of tourist money, are learning about countries and customs from all over the globe. Lasting friendships are common. Visitors sometimes send gift packages containing household utensils, publications and medicines; and many Taquilen os receive post cards, letters and photos from friends around the world.