Lake Titicaca is a giant body of water sitting way up in the Andes between Peru and Bolivia, at 12,500 feet in elevation. Generations of schoolkids have snickered at the name, but it’s a truly beautiful place with thin air and brilliant light. With hundreds of miles of shoreline there are obviously many areas to visit the lake, but the most popular place to get some lake time are the islands. From Puno we caught a collective ferry/tour boat (the lines are pretty blurred) that visited the Uros floating islands, Amantani Island and Taquile Island.
The Uros floating islands seem to be the most famous place on the lake and are a huge tourist attraction, drawing in hordes of sightseers every day from Puno, which is a short boat ride away. They’re not natural islands, but are constructed out of the abundant reeds that grow in the lake. They’re like giant reed matts; it kind of reminded me of walking on the worlds largest hay bale, combined with a waterbed. When a boat wake came by the ground moved up and down with the wave. We were told that the Uros people began building and living on the islands during Incan times to escape persecution, and they’ve been there on and off ever since.
Now the islands are a tourist spectacle. I found them interesting for about ten minutes, seeing the way they’re made and the way people live on them, and then I was ready to leave. Everyone was selling trinkets, selling boat rides, selling looks inside their huts… it was as artificial as experiences get. We’d been talking to a Peruvian girl during our boat ride who was messing with a cell phone and wearing western clothes, and when we arrived she put on an indigenous-looking dress and headed to another island to sell crap to tourists. Another woman ordered us to look inside her hut for five seconds, then called us to her trinket stand: “buy something, you’ve been to my home!” Before we left some women lined up and sang Row Row Row Your Boat in three languages. Just bizarre, and sad to see what rampant tourism will do to a place. These people are very poor and I don’t begrudge them a living or a chance at tourist’s money, but the result here is terrible from my perspective. I’m glad I saw the Uros Islands, but definitely wouldn’t return.
Next stop was Isla Amantani, which was another two hour boat ride across the lake, and a world apart from the Uros islands. Those extra hours away from Puno are a godsend, because they weed out a lot of tourists and have kept Amantani a tranquil, beautiful island. Its very pastoral and there are small batches of crops growing everywhere. There are no roads, vehicles or dogs, so it’s a tranquil place. Tourism is still a very important source of income here but it’s managed very differently and very well. There are several different villages on the island and they rotate whose turn it is to house visitors in inexpensive homestays with local families who also cook for their guests. Almost all the tourists who visits the island stay overnight, and you just show up and someone will take you to the family whose turn it is to host someone.
We ended up with a very nice family that cooked us tasty, simple meals over an open fire in their bare-bones kitchen, serving us endless cups of tea and housing us in a simple but pleasant little bedroom. The only electricity in the house was for a single bulb in the kitchen, powered by a small solar panel and battery. It’s customary to give your host family a gift, so we brought ours some rice, sugar, and cooking oil, and they seemed pretty happy. During the day we helped the grandparents shell beans from the garden, then someone showed us the way to a trailhead to walk up to the top of the island where there are two ruined shrines for Pachamama and Pachatata (Mother and Father earth). It was stunningly beautiful up there, with views of all sides of the island and its extensive terracing, and out to the lake and beyond.
On the way down we watched a huge lightning storm make its way towards us across the lake. We sat and watched the show for a while but soon decided to make our way back home, which was a good decision. Soon after we arrived we found ourselves in the kitchen sitting out one of the biggest storms we’ve been through, with torrential rain and hail that had us plugging our ears to block out the deafening sound under the tin roof. Huge booms of thunder were exploding all around us, water was finding its way through the roof, and our host family was just calmly doing their thing. Apparently extreme weather like this is a regular event here. We waited out the weather by playing endless games of hangman with the kids and drinking cup after cup of coca tea; a fantastic evening. When the storm tapered off we walked to our bedroom through an inch of standing water and hail slush and fell quickly asleep.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and caught the boat onto Isla Taquile, about an hour back across the lake towards Puno. Taquile is another very pretty island, but seemed less tranquil than Amantani. Everyone here, both men and women, knits seemingly twenty four hours a day, both for clothing for themselves and to sell to tourists. We saw lots of people knitting while they walked. The quality of their products seemed very good, with some fantastic designs and colors, and Denae bought some nice wool gloves. We walked around for a couple hours, bought a sandwich for lunch, and met our boat for the long, slow chug across the lake to Puno.