In southern Peru, at 3800m (12500 ft) altitude, lies the highest navigable lake in the world: Lake Titicaca. Centuries ago, the Aymara people, who were less aggressive than their neighbours, were chased off the shores of the lake and took refuge on some of the islands. And if there weren’t enough islands, they made their own! Hence, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.
We organized our visit through our guide/agent, Jesus, in Cusco, and the plan included another overnight bus ride. However, he convinced us that it would be comfortable because the seats are wide and recline to 160 degrees. It sounded pretty good and Cam had bought some sleeping pills (amazing what drugs you can buy over the counter in South America). The trip turned out to be not as comfortable as I had imagined or hoped that it would be (the driver seemed to hit the brakes every time I was about to nod off!) but we made it to Puno by about 6am. Our tour to the islands was to start at 8.
We set out on a little boat that chugged along slowly through a channel cut through the reeds. These are the reeds that provide just about everything used by the folks on the floating islands. The matted roots are used as the floating base of the islands, and the reeds themselves are used to build up the island (more layers are added every 1-4 weeks, depending on the weather), and to build houses and boats.
This floating island was clearly set up for tourism and it was unclear whether people live there permanently or just go out for the tourist season. My sense is that most live only part time on the island and part time on land. However, their culture is very much tied to the floating islands and one of the larger ones even has a school. It would be a stark life. No trees, limited space, and surrounded by water that is too cold to swim in (9 degrees Celsius). Even the fishing in Lake Titicaca is not great as the native fish species are quite small. Our guide told us that several decades ago, Canadian trout were introduced to the lake! They grow larger than the native species but don’t seem to represent a significant part of the local diet.
On our way to stop #2 (a “real” island called Amantani), we realized that our boat was definitely having problems: the motor cutting out every 10-15 minutes was not normal! However, the driver managed to get it re-started each time. Our stop at Amantani was very special as it included a homestay with a local couple. Teodocio met us at the dock and lead us to his home where we met Maria, his wife. There were 6 of us staying at their home: our family plus Meubles, a Brazilian soil scientist, and Jork, a German millwright. Although still subsistence farmers, cultivating potatoes, beans, and corn on ancient terraces, the homestay program is increasingly the main source of income for local families. Each participating family gets to host guests about once or twice a month. They have made additions to their home in order to accommodate tourists. We had a nice room (3 beds for 4 people), and there was a bucket flush toilet downstairs. The 2nd floor walkway, just outside our door had no banister and exposed re-bar, so nighttime trips to the bathroom required some caution!
Maria prepared a lovely lunch for us of soup, rice and chicken (a common menu in this part of the world!) We worked at communicating with our hosts (who spoke limited Spanish) and our fellow guests. I tried to dust off my Portuguese to speak with Meubles, but it has mostly morphed into Spanish. He spoke Portuguese to me which made me feel like my brain was turning inside out. Jork comes from the former East Germany, so his English is not quite as polished as other German travelers we have met. It was an interesting meal table! We wished that Maria and Teodocio would join us, but I guess the table wasn’t quite big enough and they felt that their role was to make and serve the food.
After lunch, we met our group at the local soccer field — quite an impressive stadium that serves the entire island (pop. 4000). We then hiked up to the top of Pachatata (Father Earth), one of the 2 main peaks on the island (the other one being Pachamama or Mother Earth). At the top are the ruins of an ancient Tiwanaku temple. We were greeted by many women selling their textiles (but had forgotten to bring our money!) and watched a beautiful sunset. The temperature dropped substantially and we were reminded that we were still at high altitude.
We came home in the pitch black to a nice dinner, followed by some local entertainment at the community centre. Maria gave Cam and me traditional outfits to wear (the kids decided to skip the dance and go to bed).
We bade farewell to Teodocio and Maria the next morning and re-boarded our boat.
After a few more false starts, our guide admitted that this boat was outfitted with a car engine rather than a boat motor and that was part of the problem! We ended up having to transfer to another boat in mid-lake in order to make it to our next island stop. Taquile Island is known for its textiles — particularly the weaving (done by the women) and knitting (done exclusively by the men!)
A walk across the island and a final boat ride completed our island hopping (at least for now!)
We returned to Puno for a night and enjoyed the lively street life. Ate yummy street food of grilled meat and potato skewers followed by deep-fried dough dipped in honey (the closest thing to a donut we have had for months!)