The island residents of Lake Titicaca have survived the Incas, the Spanish and the tourists
By R.S. Gompertz
About 20 years ago I told my restless sons a series of bedtime stories about a prince who was reticent to assume his duties. He was expected to become king over a group of islands located at the top of the world, but he was curious about what lay beyond. So he disguised himself and ran away to discover the world beyond the palace.
Each island housed different people with different beliefs and traditions. Cliffs bordered the sea surrounding the islands and it was believed that there was nothing beyond the perimeter.
I had largely forgotten about the stories until the day we toured a tiny bit of Lake Titicaca. Our first stop was Los Uros, a series of over 100 floating islands that house over 2,500 Aymara people.
Our second stop took us about 45 km away from shore to Isla de Taquile where about 2,200 Inca/Quechua people live much the way they always have in what seems like a colorful ecotopia.
The Taquileños are a collective society based on three principles: do not steal, do not lie, and do not be lazy. They are industrious and self-governed. Their belief system is a mix of traditional and Catholic. The only way an outsider can live on the island is to marry into the society. Their economy is based on agriculture, fishing, tourism and the finest hand-woven textiles I have ever seen. Knitting, by the way, is an exclusively male activity. And available males of marriageable age wear floppy red and white caps.
Even though the people I interacted with were savvy in working with tourists, I was deeply moved to glimpses of two ancient utopian societies. Every utopia has its narrow-minded orthodoxies and cultish dark side. While most attempts fall under their own weight, these islands of have been peaceful and sustainable since before the Spanish and earlier Inca conquests.
Can they sustain their way of life? There was no cell phone coverage on Taquile but I did see a couple of satellite dishes. But I’m not worried about the corrupting influences of camera-toting visitors and cultural artifacts from the self-proclaimed modern world. These hearty people could not have survived this long if they weren’t able weather change while holding fast to their essence.
The day’s rain channeled down the terraced slopes of Taquile, bringing life to the corn, potato’s and quinoa that sustains the island. When the sun broke late in the day, the Andes emerged all along the lake’s perimeter.
On the boat ride back to Puno, I was reminded of those bedtime stories about the isolated islands at the top of the world and wondered if that reluctant prince from the bedtime stories ever found what he was looking for.