We finished up our last day of work on Friday, which means our Peruvian life is quickly coming to an end! Early Saturday morning, Kyle and I raced to catch our bus to Puno where we would be meeting another Brittany teacher, Ieva, and some other friends. Apparently Puno is the second-most touristed city in Peru after Cusco, but not because of the charms of the city itself. People come to Puno from all over the world to see the beauty of the world’s highest navigable lake (and biggest lake in South America): Lake Titicaca.
Giggle-inducing names aside, Lake Titicaca truly is worth a visit. We spent the first day resting and acclimating to the extreme altitude of Puno at 12,566 ft. We booked a tour for the next morning to visit the islands of Uros and Taquile for S35 (less than $14), which was only S5 more than if we explored the islands using public transportation instead of with a guide. Normally, Kyle and I are all about independent travel because it’s cheaper and you don’t have to wander in a big group, but in this case we went with the convenience of not having to worry about how we were going to get to and from the islands.
The next morning, the six of us that traveled up together from Arequipa barely made it out of our hostel in time to catch the 6:45am van that would take us to the dock where we would begin our tour. We were loaded onto a boat with people from all over the world (our friends from Spain and Lithuania, me and Kyle from the States, and then people from Singapore, England, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Germany, Canada, Australia, Ecuador, and one person from Peru) and set off for the half hour boat ride to Islas Uros, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.
After being ushered onto one of the floating islands of Uros, we were greeted by the Aymara-speaking people of Uros and given a demonstration of how the islands are built by the president of that particular island. Totora reeds, which the homes, boats, and islands themselves are made out of, grow in abundance in Lake Titicaca. Once they reach a certain maturity, the roots float up to the top of the lake and make a cork-like substance (the dirt brick in the picture) that the forms the foundation of the island. Wooden stakes are driven into the cork, which is usually only a foot or two thick, and then nylon rope is tied around the posts to keep the island together. In antiquity, ropes made of woven grass were used to tie the cork together, but nylon rope has made the islands much more stable and secure for the islanders. Totora reeds are then piled on top of the island in a cross-hatch pattern, with a new layer replaced as a layer underneath rots away. The houses, also built of totora, are then placed on top. Totora is also eaten regularly on Uros, and we were each given a reed to peel like a banana and chew on the root of to try. It tasted a bit like styrofoam to me, but I suppose you get used to the flavor since islanders of all ages were eating it.
We were then invited in groups of three into the islanders’ homes to get an idea of how they live. The men typically work on the mainland during the day while the women stay home to watch the kids and cook in special ovens on the island. Both men and women make beautiful handicrafts to sell to the visiting tourists. The women embroider gorgeous textiles and and the men make mobiles of totora reeds of Uros families as well as model boats and paint typical scenes from Uros on pieces of cloth. You can find such handicrafts on the mainland at much cheaper prices, but they are generally of much poorer quality. It’s better to fork out for a trinket or two, since tourism is often the families’ only source of income.
Uros society has a long history since the Uros people are one of the oldest, if not the oldest tribe in South America. Hundreds of years ago, they chose to leave the mainland and create these floating islands in an effort to escape the warring tribes that surrounded Lake Titicaca at the time. They have been living that way ever since, although they don’t entirely eschew modern technology. Most Uros use motorboats to get around and there are even solar panels on the island to heat water tanks. The house that we visited was entirely made of totora reeds with a bed also made of reeds, but they also had a car battery powering a tiny television on the floor and a light strip on the ceiling. The Uros culture has survived because of, as well as for, tourism, but its heritage is starting to fade. The last Uros language-speaking person died in the 1970s, and now the community speaks Aymara and Spanish.
Most of our group paid S10 to take a totora reed boat to one of the neighboring Uros islands, but we took the motorboat and met them at a larger island with a tourist market and a place where you could get your passport stamped with a Uros island stamp (which is apparently against the law to modify your passport with non-country stamps, but we got ours stamped at Machu Picchu and would have done it at Uros but didn’t have them on us). Then we embarked on the two-and-a-half hour boat ride to the natural island of Taquile.
We landed at the eastern dock of Isla Taquile, were told to get off the boat, and then hike up a stone ramp to the top of the island where we would be served lunch by a local family. As if being in Puno wasn’t hard enough, the hike to the top of the island put us at over 13,000 ft above sea level (now officially the highest I have ever been on land, and I’m not eager to go back up that high again anytime soon) and left us headachy and woozy. The views were really incredible though, and it was amazing to see how nearly the entire island was covered in pre-Incan terracing.
As Uros islands rotate its visiting tour groups so that all families have equal opportunity to profit from the tourism, Taquile families rotate feeding the incoming groups for S20/person. The lunch was more than Kyle and I are used to paying for a meal, but it was delicious. Each person is served bread with a type of salsa like Pico de Gallo but made with the local spicy rocotto peppers, quinoa soup, and their choice of cheese and vegetable omelette or lake trout served with rice and fried potatoes as well as cup of coca and mint tea. Yum!
At lunch, we were taught about how the locals dress on Taquile and what each outfit symbolizes. Then men wear different hats to mark whether they are married or single, if they are part of the community-elected officials, and pass each other coca leaves that they carry in their colorfully knit bags. The culture of Taquile was explained a bit further to us as we learned that there are no police officers in Taquile, nor do the islanders pay any taxes or receive any support from the Peruvian government. They run their society by the ancient Incan rules of “Don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy” and “Today you help me, tomorrow I help you”. The knitting in Taquile is done exclusively by men and the weaving is done by women. The weaving of Taquile is supposed to be the best in Peru, and as a knitter myself, I was awestruck by the gorgeous craftsmanship of the men’s knitting.
After lunch, we had to go down over 540 stone steps to get to the western side of the island from which our boat was leaving. As to be expected, it was much easier to get down than go up, and the hearty meal complete with coca tea helped alleviate the worst of the altitude sickness. Once we got down to the dock, our tour guide jokingly said he would give us time to swim in Lake Titicaca if we wanted. A British guy and a Canadian guy both actually jumped in, but given that I am from SoCal, the idea of jumping in a 50 degree lake when it was less than 60 degrees outside didn’t sound all that appealing.
We spent the longgggg three hour boat ride back to the mainland on the roof of the boat instead of in the main cabin to enjoy the sun and open air. Our tour also seemed to play taxi for a few Taquile islanders, one of which climbed up onto the front part of the roof with no handrails and napped the whole ride there. We eventually got back onto the mainland at 5pm, exhausted but pleased with our trip. Island-hopping tours are really touristy, and it is hard to snap a good shot of anything with the hundreds of tourists milling about, but it was still a really educational and beautiful experience and one that I would suggest to anyone planning a trip to Peru.