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   Siale is a pueblo on the West shore of Lake Titiccacca, North of Puno. It was the site of the crew’s workshops (radio and zine) and our second expedition to Peru (but not our last! Help us share in Cajamarca and the North – donate to our fundraising campaign here!) This is a story of our time there, told from the perspective of one of our crew members.  


   Two hours Northwest of Puno, along the western shores of Lake Titiccacca (from Titi = mountain lion and Ccacca = stone) lies the Capachica Peninsula. Capachica itself is a small, dormant town that comes to life only on market day- when a swirling colorful crowd gathers from the neighboring districts to buy and sell weekly supplies. On other days, you’ll find only a handful of people under the sun of the plaza. 

   We squeeze into a red and white mototaxi (a motorcycle turned tricycle, with a bench behind for passengers) with our backpacks, as our teenage driver Suzy climbs up and over the hill. We bounce on every bump of the curvy, dirt road leading further into the Peninsula. We raise our voices to be heard over the noise, talking with Suzy through the spidernet-like fence that separates us from her. We pass the turn towards Ccotos, where she lives, and keep straight, heading seemingly into the water.


   The Island of Amantaní rises up in front of us, the coast of Bolivia further behind. We pass the school and a donkey and one or two people leading cows and sheep to greener pastures, arriving to the deserted plaza. It is the middle of the day and people are busy in their chacras (gardens) or tending to household work. The air is thin at 3,800 m or 12,500 ft above sea level, and sun blazes down, unfiltered. A hat is most needed. A montera.

   To one seeing the Capachica montera for the first time, its shape may seem reminiscent of the roves atop Japanese temples: bending softly down from the peak with four corners curving upwards. But most striking are the two pompoms perched on each side of the head, and the colorful embroidery that intricately decorates the black fabric. This is a hat worn by women in this district, and they wear it not on very special occasions, as its appearance may suggest, but daily, while performing everyday tasks- carrying the harvest to the house or washing clothes. The older monteras are more faded, their colors bleached by the powerful sun of these heights. 

   Here it is winter, July, and every morning the water in the washing buckets is frozen, the yellow grass slippery from the freshly melted dew. The wool of the monteras keeps the head warm and shaded, a difficult accomplishment in a rough climate. Many things are rough here, and long lived.

   We have the privilege of witnessing the genesis of the montera while sharing our days with the artisan family of Juan Ccolla Pancca, his wife Leonarda Cahui, their daughter Claudia, and Claudia’s young child who is learning to walk. We see the shearing of a sheep with Maria Rufina, an old lady living on her own who coos soothingly to the sheep. When she accidentally cuts their skin, she says her eyes are not so good, and there’s nothing to be done now that it’s done. They share their school-grade scissors with us, since they don’t have better shearing tools and it is usually the people from other districts who bring their shears and buy the wool. We are happy to cast aside the cameras towards the end and give her a hand. The wool is greasy, scissors unsharp, progress is slow; the sheep is calm.

   We see then how the wool is spun into a thread, which some women do while walking both here and on the adjacent Island of Taquile. One hand spins the wooden piece like a yoyo rolling sideways. We watch the neighbor Pedro Llutare Lazarinos weave the wool on a wooden loom. He unfurls three bundles and weaves them on sticks in his courtyard. He pushes the pedals and swings the shuttle back and forth. His movements are rhythmic and abstract, casting changing shadows on the adobe walls of the small room. We film perched on potato sacks and wool bags that fill the perimeter, careful not to make sounds or tumble over the oca piles. At one point he reaches over to the wall and picks a straw that was sticking out from the adobe, parts it with his teeth and uses the end to sort something out in the parallel threads of wool. The fabric rolls up on the underside of the loom, still smelling faintly of animal. (“The sheep don’t bathe themselves!” is repeated to us, with great hilarity). Across the road and up the hillside, Juan washes the woven fabric, stepping on it in a metal bucket with his pants rolled up to the knee. It is a long, narrow piece of cloth, and when it is hung out to dry it looks like an ink stroke on the horizon.

   It is Sunday, Market Day. Juan is here buying anilina to dye the fabric deep black. The lady vendor sits on a stool behind dark green tins, lids open, revealing bright powders in every color. There is no black among them. She tears a piece of paper and holds it in her palm- in goes a spoonful of brown, smaller quantities of green, red and yellow. She folds the paper into a compact bundle. 

   This day we dine on small fish from the Lake, a lake that is mostly ignored except for the fishermen who face it in the dark of night, returning at dawn to pull up their findings. It is a sacred Lake with calm waters. There are legends of a bull in Ccotos, who went to a small island filled with snakes and crocodiles. It was devoured by the snakes, and its blood flowed into the lake. The bull’s blood transformed into the fish that now swim in the lake, and his bones became the gypsum that is found on the shores of Ccotos to this day. This legend is shared with us by children and adults during our workshops in the plaza. We gather songs and draw the bull and snakes to illustrate the tale. We also draw monteras, as they tell us about foxes and hares. Later we see a wild hare as we walk back from the chacra loaded with fava beans for the sheep. Leonarda throws a rock to scare him off. It’s as big as a dog. He jumps whimsically over an impossible height and runs away.

   There are eucalyptus trees hovering above the houses, and their scented wood is used for burning. One of these limbs gets used as a stirring stick, tainted black on one end as the dye is prepared for the fabric. It boils softly over the fire next to tonight’s potatoes. While it boils, we follow Juan up the hill, passing the deep pink cantuta flowers that hang downwards from a bush. He cuts a piece of the Aguacolla cactus, then peels it with a machete like a cucumber. Sliced up and watered down, it becomes a gooey texture like aloe vera. Back in the house his wife and daughter have been heating up two flat stones over the eucalyptus fire. He splashes a few drops of water on the surface; they fizz, indicating the temperature is right. He and Leonarda spread the aguacolla liquid over the freshly dyed fabric, which will ensure that the color won’t fade. The spool is folded carefully and pressed between the hot stones overnight. Juan brings it in early next morning accompanied by sounds of bleating sheep and a dog barking. It is deep black and perfectly ironed, immaculate.

   This black fabric is now precious and ready for embroidery; which is done mainly at night after Juan returns from his community construction job. He and most other men in the area are undertaking the task of installing bathrooms, leaving their houses at dawn to make progress on the 140 bathrooms that need to be built brick by brick. They all return home around five in the afternoon, trading their orange uniform for pants, a shirt and a chompa, ready to get to work on their artisan projects. In this case, hat making. 

   Embroidery work is done at night, after dinner, under the weak light of a headlamp. DVD’s of traditional dance contests play in the background, meanwhile the family chatters about the baby’s attempts to make her first steps. She wobbles crosses the room from her mother’s arms to her grandmother’s. All six hands are busy- embroidering by hand, passing over their stitches with the sewing machine, weaving straw together. The underlying structure is made of straw that has been sewn together into a ring with corners, which is then secured with felt-like wool. Leonarda spreads out a lliclla blanket on the ground and perches atop it (the very same one Claudia used earlier to carry her baby girl and bring back produce from the market). Now she cuts colorful wool into short pieces, organizing them on the surface: bright green, fuchsia and neon orange all mixed up with pure white. Claudia synches them together with a string, like a belt. She tightens the fluorescent bale with her teeth, and a pompom appears. Together, man and wife erode the surface of the pompom with a metal-toothed brush so the colors blend into each other and the finish is smooth. 

   Outside, the darkness has deepened and the moon is still hidden. Starlight reveals a black and white landscape sprinkled with faint windows. The barking of dogs from every house can be heard throughout the night, restless. Later in the night our alarm goes off, reminding us to wake up and intend to film the nocturnal scenery. It is below zero, and we despair as the warmth from the heavy blankets dissipates from our limbs. We soon realize we are unprepared for this kind of filming, lacking a timer and other gadgets. This night, the Milky Way was clearly defined in the sky, the stars so many shades of light, the contour of the village so delicate… all this will not be on film. We switch off the camera, gaze up for a while and return to the warm beds we share in the packed room.

   This is not a tourist destination, even though most people seem to have a tourism business open, willing to host or feed passerby’s for a bit of extra income. They are accustomed to the few tourists that make it out here in the summer, who walk around and give a few coins after snapping photos, not wanting to be ungrateful. It is difficult and lengthy to explain that our documentary is not in a position to give money to the subjects, but rather collaborate from a place of reciprocity. This is a sour point that keeps coming up. Juan Apaza is one of the few who understand quickly, as he tunes his charango (made from an armadillo shell). He tells us about the four apus or sacred mountains mirrored by the four corners of the montera, how the melting ice on the volcanoes is represented by the two pompoms, and the protection that the chin strap symbolizes. Back in the day the montera used to be flatter and plain, mostly black with a few embroidered designs. Now it has evolved towards brighter, fuller embroidery with geometric shapes, birds and flowers. The corners are becoming increasingly curved. This is, we are told, the artisan’s doing, exaggerating characteristics to distinguish this montera from that of other regions. How will it keep changing over time?

   We hope to return once the film is done. We yearn to come back and show it to these people who shared their ascetic life with us, who took part in the workshops we offered, and shaped the stories that have now been documented. We wish for them to see it and recognize themselves on the screen, their labour acknowledged, their lifestyle well portrayed. We have a lot of work ahead of us to realize this dream, to make them proud. It is a good horizon to walk towards. But for now, we have a long day’s journey to our next destination.


   Tomorrow we start fresh in Moquegua.

Listen here to the podcast "Espinas, confección y el amor" recorded with local voices during our workshops in Siale, 2017

podcast espinas
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