Travel Writers: Huayno: The Dance of the Andes

By Stephanie Smith

Location: Isla de Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Craig and I disembarked from the small boat onto Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca. A dozen petite ladies (dressed in colorful layered skirts, embroidered blouses, veils, and automobile tires reincarnated as sandals) eagerly welcomed us. We were introduced to our hostess – a smiling woman named Valeria. Unlike most islanders who speak only Quechua, Valeria’s family was fluent in Spanish as well. Although our Spanish was marginal at best, we were able to communicate basic ideas.

Valeria led us to her house and showed us to our bedroom, which contained three twin beds, woolen blankets, a table, and a solar-powered lightbulb and radio. After we settled in, Valeria beckoned for us to enter the kitchen, an 8’x12′ adobe structure with a ridge vent in its thatched roof. Our eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. I heard water boiling and a squealing sound …was she boiling something alive? She gestured and said “Cuy.” Guinea pigs running around on the floor. It is traditional for cuy to reside in the kitchen, and to be eaten on special festival days. Luckily for them, today was not a special festival. They scuttled around our ankles, chattering profusely. The iron stove had a fire beneath it and several holes in the top, where pots were balanced with shims. We marveled at the durability of Valeria’s hands as she removed a cast iron pot from the stove by its handles and repeatedly stuck her fingers into the stove to adjust wood. Valeria expertly prepared lunch, coiling a potato peel into one long, delicate strand. She served us a meal of quinoa (grain), potatoes, hard-boiled egg, and a fresh tomato and onion salad. She tossed a sprig of minty muna plant into boiling water for tea.

Later, when Valeria’s husband Elias returned from farming potatoes, the four of us ate dinner together in the kitchen. Then Valeria arrived at our room, arms loaded with a pile of traditional garments. Craig donned a poncho and wool hat with ear flaps. Dressing me was a bit more difficult. Valeria is much shorter than I am, and she had a hard time reaching to fasten my many layers: petticoat, flouncy red skirt, white blouse with brightly colored embroidery, woven belt, and black veil. We all got a laugh out of the effort it took to dress me; at 5’10” I felt like a giant!

We walked to the recreational center, where locals and tourists were gathered in the light of a lone camping lantern, listening to the music of two traditional bands. Valeria grabbed me immediately and taught me to dance the huayno. For the next couple of hours, Craig and I were run ragged by locals eager to show us a good time on the dance floor. As we were whirled around the room we seemed detached from our bodies. Though our heads were light and our stomachs felt overly full due to the altitude, our bodies continued to dance and run and twirl, picking up the rhythms of the dance as naturally as we had been welcomed into the lives of these sweet, friendly people.

Text and images © Stephanie Smith, all rights reserved.