Just saying the name Lake Titicaca out loud is enough to bring a smile to your face. Don’t worry – Spanish speakers find the name a little ridiculous themselves, and many Peruvians were quick to give an explanation of how it’s actually taken from a Quechua name and has a different pronunciation, which no one seems to use.
Getting past the ridiculousness of the name, Lake Titicaca is a seriously interesting place. It is the largest lake in South America, and at an altitude of 3812 meters, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is nestled in the Andes and shared almost equally by Peru and Bolivia – with each side claiming that they have the ‘better’ part!
We got to the lake by taking the Bolivia Hop overnight bus from Cusco, arriving in the port town of Puno early in the morning. We had a quick breakfast to wake ourselves up, then were bused down to the harbour where our boat awaited us.
We had signed up for a 2-day cruise that would take us out to the floating islands, then to Amantani Island, where we would do a homestay with a local family for a night. I have to say, when I set out my itinerary for this trip, I decided to go only to places that I’d never been before because I wanted to explore. Of those travels, my experiences at Lake Titicaca were definitely the most interesting and eye-opening! It turns out that Lake Titicaca’s islands were a bit of a refuge for people who were oppressed by the Spanish and even other native tribes, and as a result, the islands there today harbour some of the last existing indigenous ways of life.
Floating Islands (Uros)
Our first stop was the floating islands. These are exactly like they sound – man-made ‘islands’ of reeds that are bound together. Each island has a number of reed huts, each belonging to one family, and a high watch tower that is used to communicate with other islands. The inhabitants – members of the Uro tribe – were apparently unable to secure land of their own, so they resorted to creating these islands. They live off fish as well as the edible ‘heart’ of the reeds, which they can peel and chew.
We were welcomed ‘ashore’ by the ‘president’ of that particular island – a woman who looked to be in her mid-20’s. She gave us an explanation – through an interpreter – of life on the island, complete with model huts and dolls. Women wear very colourful skirts and weave tapestries for selling to tourists. To be honest, we didn’t really see any men on the island – we were told that they were ‘off fishing’. Different culture, same story…
From the floating islands, we were loaded into traditional reed boats that reminded me of the dragon boats of China – a long neck with a monster’s head as the bow. These boats were traditionally paddled, but after a few minutes of this, a woman came behind us in a metal motor boat and gave us an ‘assist’ the rest of the way to our destination – nearby Amantani Island.
To step onto Amantani was to truly step back in time. The island does not allow motor cars, or really machinery of any type. All agriculture is still done by hand, and the people are vegetarian, keeping alpacas for their wool but not meat. The island is divided into farms separated by stone walls, and two peaks rise in the middle – Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth). Stone temples sit at the top of these peaks, and their gateways are lined up with the sunrise and sunset. If you walk around the temple three times counter-clockwise, it’s said that your wish will be granted.
The people, Quechua speakers, offer homestays to tourists, and we were placed with a lovely family – mother, father, and 8-year old girl. Their two sons were off studying in Puno. They lived in a mud house that barely had any heating, and they had electricity from a solar panel that provided about two hours’ worth a day. As a result, they tended to cook by headlamp or candlelight.
The families of the island provide entertainment for their guests in the form of a traditional dance every evening. Everyone – tourists included – dress up in the local costume, which for women consists of a thick colourful skirt, a white blouse, and a head cover. A local band of teenagers plays both traditional songs as well as covers of more recent arrivals such as Despacito, and everyone holds hands and snakes around the room in a sideways congo line. In addition to it being good fun, it’s also a great way to keep warm in a cold place with no heating!
The next morning, our family walked us back down to the port so that we could board our boat for Taquile Island. Taquile is quite similar to Amantani in that no cars are allowed and the people practice a very traditional way of life. The first thing to note is that the men on Amantani knit – and not just any knitting, it’s world-renowned quality! The women make the yarn and weave. With all this textile production, they have incorporated it into their communication system. Men and women wear belts with different pom-poms displayed depending on what sort of message they want to convey. It’s all very elaborate.
Another thing I found fascinating is that they have a plant there that they call chujo that they use as a soap by crushing its leaves in water. They demonstrated its power by washing a piece of grey wool in a solution of chujo, and wouldn’t you know it, it was white in minutes! They threw the leftover water on a plant to demonstrate how there was no harm to the environment. If anyone is interested in going in with me on an eco-friendly cleaning product based on chujo, please get in touch!
Kelly’s Top Tips for Lake Titicaca
- Bolivia Hop was fine as an overnight option to get from Cusco to Puno – not as fancy as Exclusiva, but still reasonable. We also tagged on our trip from Puno to La Paz onto the same ticket, with a break in the middle for the islands tour.
- I would highly recommend the homestay experience – just note that if it is winter, early spring or late autumn, it’s likely to be very cold so bring lots of layers
- If you do a homestay, it’s customary to bring gifts of food (rice, beans, fresh fruit, etc) or school supplies for the children as a way to say thank you to your hosts
- Do not to leave anything on any of the islands – it will be very hard to retrieve it if you do! I accidentally left my wallet on Amantani and it was quite a headache trying to get it back.
- If you don’t speak any Spanish, it might be good to bring a phrase book with you to the islands to communicate with your hosts as the people’s first language is Quechua and second language is Spanish – English doesn’t usually enter into the equation.
- Save some money to purchase the weavings on Taquile Island – they are world-famous and reasonably priced.