Love is in the mountain air

STEPHANIE HOLMES
Last updated 05:10 30/03/2014

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On the Peruvian island of Taquile, there's no call for internet dating and the only use for Tinder is to light a fire. This remote community in the middle of Lake Titicaca has its own method for matchmaking...it's all about which side you wear your pompom.

At 3800m above sea level, Taquile is one of 72 islands in the lake and - for those prepared to make the extensive journey to this South American outpost - is well worth a visit.

First, Auckland to Santiago, then Santiago to Lima, followed by an internal flight to the high altitude airport of Juliaca, then a two-hour minivan ride to our final destination, Hotel Titilaka on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

It's not just the jetlag or the altitude that make the journey seem surreal - our senses are assaulted every step of the way; from the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Lima, to the panpipe-playing, colourfully dressed band who entertain as we wait at Juliaca baggage claim, to the stunning scenery of the Andean Altiplano as we drive towards the hotel.

Travelling on the Pan Americanas highway from Juliaca to the lakeside city of Puno, dusty yellow plains stretch into the distance, dotted with mudbrick houses and skinny sheep roaming next to shaggy-haired donkeys.

Allowing plenty of time to acclimatise to the high altitude is recommended but with only a short time to spend in the area our group has gone from Lima, at sea level, straight up to 3800 metres. We're all taking medication to prevent altitude sickness but it still takes a while for the body to acclimatise.

Like a dry slap, the symptoms can hit you out of nowhere. One minute I'm happily dozing, snug in blankets provided by our driver; the next I'm on the verge of passing out, shouting for him to pull over, narrowly avoiding throwing up.

Sitting by the roadside, trying to focus on the fading sunlight on the dusty paddocks, my body feels jittery, struggling for breath. A few sips of sugary coca leaf tea helps (yes, it's the same leaf that cocaine is derived from, but in this form it's legal) and thankfully it's only a short drive further around the winding roads until we reach our home for the next few nights.

"Welcome to Hotel Titilaka. May I take your blood pressure?"

It's not the standard hotel greeting but at this altitude, it's essential. After my roadside episode, I'm not surprised to find my blood pressure is worryingly low.

The staff aren't fazed though - it's a common occurrence and there are complimentary oxygen tanks to hand, from which guests can imbibe freely. You can even have one delivered to your room if you want to lie down while breathing deeply.

We're here for only two nights, which is a shame as Titilaka is one of the most tranquil lodges I've had the pleasure of staying in.

There are windows, viewing platforms and decks everywhere - so all eyes are focused on the shimmering lake. Whatever the time of day, the light always seems perfect - illuminating the breakfast room in the morning, casting romantic shadows at dusk, and allowing uninterrupted stargazing at night.

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There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied during the day - excursions to local attractions like the Uros floating islands or closer to home, kayaks, paddleboards, mountain bikes and guided nature walks.

The high altitude means even the simplest task can take your breath away - climbing a flight of stairs leaves me wheezing and light-headed.

But there's a treat waiting when I get there. In my beautifully appointed room, in my cosy bed with sumptuous linen, there are hot water bottles under the covers and somehow - even with temperatures as low as minus 6 degrees Celsius outside - they are still warm when I wake up in the morning.

The hotel has been designed with comfort in mind - at every turn there's a sun-dappled daybed or comfy armchair beside a wood burner - and with only 18 rooms, it's easy to find a solitary space away from other guests.

Excursions are tailored for exclusivity, too. Andean Experience operates itineraries to Hotel Titilaka and its sister property, Hotel B in Lima.

Their aim is to create trips to Peru that are a bit different from the norm - smaller hotels, fewer guests, and more chances to be immersed in the rich local culture without having to battle through crowds of other tourists.

Which is how we end up getting a lesson in love on Taquile island. With the hotel's whitewashed walls glinting in the morning sun against the carved mountain terrain, we head out by boat across the lake.

Titicaca covers an area of 8300 square kilometres with 60 per cent situated in Peru and the other 40 per cent belonging to neighbouring Bolivia. The highest navigable lake in the world, it is also known as the sacred lake of the Incas.

On average, it's 100m deep, but in places it can reach depths of 300-400m. A striking dark blue, the area is home to 70 different bird species and plenty of fish, including a very tasty rainbow trout found on Titilaka's daily changing dinner menu.

We moor on the southern side of the island. This is the furthest point from Puno, a gateway city used by many tourists as a starting point for exploring the lake.

Those who do visit Taquile usually head to the main town on the northern side, so we have this landing point to ourselves.

Our oxygen-deprived lungs huff and puff up hillside steps to reach a vivid green field where weaver Juan and his family greet us.

The men wear black pants, white shirts and bolero jackets; the women sport cream cardigans, colourful woven cummerbund-like belts and indigo skirts full with petticoats, their inky black hair hanging down their backs in one plait.

Our guide, Armando, explains the heritage and traditions of this proud culture. Who knew so much meaning could be attached to hats and pompoms?

He explains that the hat worn by Taquile's residents is called a chullo and it's not just for keeping warm - it can also be used to indicate mood.

If the pompom is worn to the right it means the wearer is happy, to the left means unhappy, if it hangs behind the head, it means they are feeling neutral. A red hat means a person is married; a red and white hat means they are single. Widows revert to red and white hats when their partner dies.

If a single woman adds big colourful pompoms to the end of her hat, she is signalling her availability. If a man takes interest, he can't just ask her out - he must first pass a test set by her parents to prove he is a worthy suitor.

Never mind bunches of flowers - on an island where textiles are of great importance, his dating task involves weaving.

The island's young Romeos must weave a hat and present it to the prospective girl's parents. The father fills the hat with water - if it's woven tightly enough to hold liquid without leaking, it proves he is a talented craftsman and a worthy match.

The father then tightly rolls the hat - if it stands up straight without drooping, it's also a good sign. The innuendo is not lost on Armando, who delivers this last line with a bashful smile.

The girl has to prove her worth too. She must weave a belt for her suitor incorporating 12 icons depicting the 12 months of the year.

Possibly the hardest task of all, however - and one I'm sure would put the fear of God into women all over the world - is cooking a meal for her mother-in-law. If the pair pass all of these tests, then they are deemed a good match.

Who knows, Armando's stories might be embellished to entertain the visitors, but one thing's for sure - when he is finished and the residents lay out woven handicrafts for us to buy, there's a strong interest from the tourists in the pompom-adorned chullos.

So if you see anyone with a bright, colourful pompom hanging jauntily to the left of their red and white hat this winter, you'll know they're happy, single and looking for love. Who needs Tinder anyway?

The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines.

FACT FILE

Getting there: LAN Airlines has seven direct flights each week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima, Peru – the gateway to Lake Titicaca.

For more information or to book, contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373 or visit lan.com.

Staying there: In Lima, we stayed at the delightful Hotel B in the bohemian district of Barranco. A 1920s Belle Epoque-style mansion boasting Italian marble, exotic woods, high ceilings and expansive terraces, it has been restored and reopened in mid-2013. As well as luxury accommodation, Hotel B houses a comprehensive art collection and is linked to the Lucia de la Puente Gallery, where guests can also browse.

Due to flight delays we arrived too late to truly enjoy the hotel's claw-foot baths and cloud-like beds but had a welcome night's rest before leaving for Lake Titicaca and a longer stay at Hotel Titilaka.

Visit hotelb.pe for more information about Hotel B, titilaka.com for more on Hotel Titilaka, or andean-experience.com about tailored itineraries.

- Sunday Star Times

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