In the small Andean village of Ollantaytambo a crime has been committed. A crime so scandalous, so abhorrent, every woman in town has gathered in the square to have her say. Huddled in two opposing camps, with much scowling and tut-tutting, it seems one woman has stolen, straight off the head of another, a much-coveted bowler hat. The mauve hat in question, stitched with the finest threads and gleaming with jewels, now sits rather smugly on the head of a grinning, wrinkled older woman. And she's not giving it back.
In the town's 700-year history, including its battles with the Spanish conquistadors, I doubt whether Ollantaytambo has borne witness to such a defiant act. From my perch at a sidewalk cafe I watch as the two tribes go to war, employing a full battery of tried and tested techniques. There is wailing, name-calling (I'm sure I detect strains of "liar, liar, pants on fire") and finally tears. Any doubts I'd had about the importance of hats in Andean culture are soon dispelled.
And then, just as quickly as it began, the melee is over; it seems the old woman was simply having fun at the youngster's expense. With the hat back on the rightful owner's head, calm returns to this crumbling town in Peru's Sacred Valley, a kind of halfway place built as the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti and a fortress to protect Machu Picchu.
Since arriving I've been just as fascinated by the women and their mountains of hats as I have been by the Andes themselves. "In the past you could tell which village a woman came from just by her hat," says Yashi, our young Quechua guide. "But today it's also about fashion." Looking around the marketplace I see what she means – from top hats and bowlers to hats that look like fruit bowls, Peruvian women certainly know how to wear a headpiece.
The bowler is a relative newcomer, appearing in the 1920s, when, according to local lore, a shipment of bowlers was sent from Europe to Bolivia earmarked for Europeans working on the railways. But the hats were too small for the workers, so they were sold to wholesalers in Peru and Bolivia who turned the mistake into a fashion statement. Today, the hats are made locally and come in all colours, from lime green to lipstick pink, the more outrageous the better. Most are adorned with gold or silver chains, trinkets, gemstones or feathers. All are worn at a rakish angle.
While the more flashy hats are kept for festivals, the day-to-day ones still reveal much about the wearer. "Traditionally, brown or green hats made from sheep's wool indicate an Andean women," says Yashi. "While tall, white ones made of thatch suggest a person of mixed Inca/Spanish heritage."
In the weaving village of Chinchero we meet a group of tribal women who still wear traditional dress, including a flat hat known as a montera. Shaped like a shallow fruit bowl, these red-felt hats are worn by Quechua women right across the Sacred Valley. In some instances the "dish" is filled with flowers or baubles; in others it is kept in place by delicately woven sanq'apa straps adorned with white beads.
Across the border in Bolivia in the city of La Paz, the Aymara indigenous women – known as cholitas pacenas – have elevated what was once a "lower class" look into a fashion statement, complete with fashion parades, modelling sessions and limited-edition collections. "The finest bowler hats can cost hundreds of dollars," says Yashi. "Or thousands of dollars for a complete outfit." Her wide-eyed expression tells me such exorbitant prices are unheard of in these parts.
Back on the winding streets of Maras, a small village not far from Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, we pass a woman and small boy driving a herd of donkeys. While the woman's skirt and jumper are dusty and worn, and her sandals made from recycled truck tyres, her tall, brown hat is brushed clean and set at a jaunty angle. Italian women might have their high heels and Parisiennes their designer scarves, but when it comes to headwear no one can beat a Peruvian woman.
Men, on the other hand, keep their kit simple: dark trousers (or track pants), woollen waistcoat and a hand-woven poncho, generally red in colour and decorated with intricate designs. The distinguishing feature is a beanie-style hat with earflaps, known as a chullo. The little boy we are passing has plump pompoms swinging from his ears, his bouncy stride making them jingle like Christmas decorations. "The first chullo a boy receives is knitted by his father," says Yashi. "The symbols and images, which can be traced back 600 years, usually portray local animals that hold high significance in Andean culture."
The next leg of our tour brings us to Cusco, where our arrival coincides with a festival. Cusco, like most Peruvian cities, has hundreds of festivals throughout the year, a chance for the inhabitants to pay their respects, dress up and parade around. Today it is Saint Rosa's turn (or perhaps Theresa or Frances, I'll never know) for a few laps of the city, her heavy wooden platform held aloft by a rotating team of a dozen men in a procession, which will last until dark.
Following the procession are troupes of male and female dancers. While the men seem to adopt an "anything goes" approach (think gorilla suits, embroidered calottes, ferocious masks), the women are the epitome of elegance. One troupe is dressed in mauve: mauve skirts, mauve shawls, mauve bowlers encrusted with lilac jewels, mauve eye shadow. Spinning like tops with their gold jewellery leaving a trail of glitter, they are a whirling, twirling work of art. No artist or photographer could ever hope to capture the sheer joy and life force of such a spectacle.
Then I see him, a young boy on his tiptoes, sneaking up behind a gaggle of girls resting in the shade. Inching closer he whips out one hand, knocks the hat off the nearest girl and darts away. Doubled over with laughter I think, and not for the first time, where would the world be without old ladies and small boys, the mischief-makers of every society.
LAN Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima, Peru. Travellers from Melbourne can connect to their LAN Airlines flight to Santiago in Sydney. Phone 1800 126 038, see www.lan.com.
SEE + DO
Scenic's (formerly Scenic Tours) 20-day "Icons of South America" tours Peru, Argentina and Brazil. It includes Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Lake Titicaca, Iguazu Falls and the cities of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro; from $12,795 a person twin share.
Earlybird offers out now for 2016 bookings made by September 30, 2015; buy one airfare and your partner will fly free, including air taxes. See www.scenic.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Scenic and LAN Airlines.