Lake Titicaca and the Floating Tourist Traps

A memorable experience on Lake Titicaca, despite the mass tourism.

Read about the entertaining tourist exploitation of Lake Titicaca, the floating islands, Amantaní and Taquile in Peru.

 

Puno, rising even higher than Cusco at 3,800 meters, is Peru’s gateway to Lake Titicaca. Before heading on to Chile, Laura and I decided to check out the renowned city, lake and floating islands.

We booked our two day, one night tour through our hostel in Cusco, who told us things that didn’t make much sense at the time, partly because he spoke in Spanish and partly because I didn’t know what he was talking about. According to the brace-faced man behind the EcoPackers tour desk, we’d go on a boat to the lake to see the floating islands of Uros, then Amantani, then sleep at a host family’s house (no they don’t have wifi), then see the island of Taquile the next day. Sounds good to me. I only knew I wanted to see Lake Titicaca, because, well, the name is funny and famous. Having not done my research, the other places, I assumed, were worth a visit. So, we took our first night bus up to Puno, the higher altitude already forming a tight-gripped fist around my heart before the bus came to a stop at around 5 am next to the giant, glittering lake.

After being ushered to Jumbo travel agency/house, we waited around and had breakfast, all more or less in silence, the people who either lived there or worked there making sparse contact with us. Then it was time to go, so at our “tour guide’s” behest, we stashed our cumbersome backpacks in an upstairs bedroom that we assumed we would slumber in that night and made our way to the port. Our minivan filled steadily with tourists from other pick up locations as we made our way through Puno’s lively, somewhat dirty streets. Looking out from my window, I almost wondered if Puno was holding a casting call for authentic Peruvian women. Small, stout old ladies in wide brimmed hats, velvet pleated ankle-length skirts and two long, black braids down their back were everywhere, waiting in line, carrying children or groceries on their backs, selling juice. It was a sight, to be sure. I wondered what they would have thought of my cargo pants and hiking boots and tank top.

The port was already bustling at 8 in the morning. We climbed across the decks of small tour boats that bobbed and swayed with the weight of each of us, green pond scum covering the wavy water like a carpet.

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As we sailed along the highest navigable lake in the world, shared between Peru and Bolivia, our upbeat tour guide began to tell us what to expect. The soft rocking of the boat and the guide’s steady monologue had me dozing, until I heard him say that we’d be staying with a family on one of the islands. Come again? I waited impatiently for him to stop talking, annoyed at how chipper he could be when I was so tired and now worried. I walked over and clarified that we would not be spending the night in Puno, and asked if we were to head back to Puno before night fell. He dismissed me by saying that we would not.

“But, we left all of our things in Puno. We thought we’d be spending the night in Puno. We were told that we’d be spending the night with a family in Puno,” I said, each word I spoke coming out angrier and crankier than I intended. The guide was unsympathetic and explained calmly and cooly that everyone else knew what the deal was, not his fault we didn’t. I marched back to my seat next to Laura, also cranky and frustrated, let out a steady blue streak from my mouth, and then began to laugh with my friend at our bad luck while we cursed the tour guide in Cusco who misinformed us.

After living for two weeks in the jungle, I was used to being a little dirty. What’s one night without a change of underwear or socks, or brushing your teeth? What concerned me was my lack of female, ehhhemmm, products. I brought with me but one tampon, so I asked the guide if I could buy some on the island, both shocking and horrifying him. No, I couldn’t. There wasn’t even running water on this island.

“Well, fine, I’ll just bleed everywhere,” I said loudly. The guide ran away disgusted. TMI, readers? Sorry, I’m not sorry. Don’t worry, there were other females on the boat who were sympathetic to my cause.

Back to the lake. Explorer Jacques Cousteau, searching Lake Titicaca in the 1970s for Inca treasure, discovered that the lake is 284 meters deep and filled with “little monsters,” giant frogs, now identified as Scrotum frogs (LOL), that could be up to 12 inches long, weigh up to 10 kilos (you like that combo of Imperial and Metric systems?), and have lungs like fish.

This sacred lake of the Incas is filled from five different rivers that run from the Andes. While foreigners are not meant to drink the water, the people of the 80 floating islands, about 20 thousand Aymaru speakers (a pre-Inca language), do so without a problem.

The name Titicaca, according to our guide, but debatable according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, means “Gray Puma,” titi meaning puma, and caca being the color of stone. Legend has it that looking down from above, the lake takes the shape of the sacred puma. But how did pre-Inca people know the shape of the lake? Hhmmmm.

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It was quite gray, at least in the early morning. However, as we glided farther out towards the floating island Uros, and the sun rose higher up, the water turned turquoise and then a royal blue. They call them floating lakes because they literally float. The islands are made by man of reeds and anchored to the floor of the lake by eucalyptus tree sticks. The president of Uros Island, who leads the 25 people who make up the 10 families who live there, described how to make a floating island in Aymaru, a pre-Inca language with lots of hard consonants. This was just for effect. The people of the floating islands all speak Spanish because they learn it at the six floating schools funded by the Peruvian government.

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To make a floating island: you must remove the roots and soil of the reeds that grow in the lake’s shallow water and leave them in the sun to dry, giving them a cork-like consistency which makes them buoyant. Then you must cut blocks out of the dried soil to use as a platform for the island, then unite these blocks with eucalyptus sticks and rope. Interwoven reads cover the floating soil, and voilà, you have a floating island. Houses are merely shells which can be lifted and moved by four men if necessary. The kitchen is made of clay and rests in the center of the island. And if the anchors break, to prevent the island from ending up in Bolivia, the people create a sail which they stick in the middle of the island and pray for wind to take them home. When they need to use the restroom, be alone, or head into town, they have little reed boat taxis that can fit up to 30 people. I rode in one called the Mercedes Benz.

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While Mr. President spoke, I watched as barefoot women in pastel-colored skirts, straw hats, bright vests, and wind/sun burnt cheeks went about spreading out homemade cloths on the floor for sale or tending to children or handling dead birds, all the while their long braids with little balls at the tips swaying. Apparently, in addition to a mostly fish diet, the people of Uros also hunt birds and eat eggs. They used to barter their fish with the mainland for potatoes and corn, but times have changed, and Puno wants money, not fish, so Uros has opened its shores to tourists, selling their way of life alongside textiles and crafts. A few of us doubted that they actually lived there and wore those costumes every day, but it was still a cool attraction.

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The next stop was the island of Amantani, where we would spend the night. This is a real island, not a floating one, large and looming and tiered with ancient steps for agriculture. The island has nothing but the basics. There is no running water and any electricity is run by solar power.

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Straight off the boat, we were assigned a host family. My host mom was named Maritza, and she was adorable, probably in her twenties, and two months pregnant by one of the tour guides, Ruben. They walked us up the hills, past bahhing sheep and hoeing farmers, to our individual houses. We filed into a lovely, flower-filled, sunny courtyard, and were greeted with hugs and kisses by Maritza’s mother and father, two sweet-hearted individuals with faces, hands and feet like burnt leather.

Maritza sitting with her mother and father

Maritza sitting with her mother and father

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Our host home

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The walk to the host family’s home

 

With our family was a nice German man, a kind Canadian couple, and a happy Ecuadorean couple. After we settled into our comfortable rooms, we settled down to a lunch of quinoa soup, about four different types of potatoes, some rice, and fried salty cheese. After, Maritza served coca tea and some sort of mint leaves.

As I walked with the herd from the house to the hill we were to climb to watch the sun set, I marveled at the communities on the island, and how they seemed to know nothing about the world around them. But, then again, the world probably knows nothing about them. The ten communities, each with their own two springs, are made up of Adventists and Catholics, still with a strong base in Indian culture. For example, the hill we climbed for about half an hour was called Pacha Tata (Father Earth), and the locals hold Pacha Mama rituals on it, offering Pacha Tata potatoes, beans, corn, and other produce from the island. They believe in the mystic energy of opposites and the cosmic energy of life. Everything, from animals to rocks to earth, holds life, and there is a counterpart to everything.

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While it all sounds quite magical, there is a down side. The island schools finish at the high school level. Children then go to the mainland for university, and often don’t want to return. The shrinking communities lead to intermarriage, and, you guessed it, genetic disorders.

Still, I’m not sure if I’d like to leave the simple life on this beautiful island. From the top of the hill that has become the home to an organized rotation system of carrots, potatoes and green beans, the biggest lake I’ve ever seen spread out blue and shining like the sea. Women selling alpaca sweaters, jewelry, and chocolate bars exchanged words in Quechua while sheep grazed the sides of the mound and bahh’d hilariously. As the sun set, I realized with a kind of nerdish glee that it was setting in the east, and therefore rises in the west, because we were in the Southern Hemisphere! A few of us Northerners then tried to figure out which way was North and which was South, and I wished I had paid more attention during my high school earth science classes.

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The sun set quickly, and we made our way back down in the twilight, our flashlights illuminating our paths towards the rocky bottom. After dinner at our home- more potatoes and rice with a smattering of peas and carrots- our hosts gave us traditional Peruvian garb to don for the party at the local community center/dance hall. The girls put on flowy pleated red skirts, peasant tops, and colorful fat-sucking belts while the men wore ponchos and knitted caps. Laura and I twirled around the courtyard singing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, much to the amusement of our new family.

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We left the solar power lights of Maritza’s home and walked in the dark to the festivities. Lightning illuminated the star-filled sky, unaccompanied by rain, as I stumbled about staring straight up in wonder of the astrological scene expanding infinitely above me. I felt like I had stepped into a fantasy world, which only continued when we got to the dance hall. A group of local teens made up the band that played traditional music and had us all, gringos and Amantani residents alike, holding hands and jumping around, twirling our skirts and giggling like school children. My starch-filled belly could only be active for so long, and soon I knew it was time to retire to bed.

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After a 7 am wake-up call, a breakfast of crepes (yay, more carbs!), and hugs and kisses to our new family, we were back on the boat and on our way to our last stop, Taquile Island.

The island looks much like Amantani, except perhaps slightly more technologically orientated. Stone paths and arches decorated with stone faces wind about the hills. Leathery men and women walk around carrying heavy loads without the use of horses or mules to assist them. 2,400 Quechua speakers make up the six communities, each with an elected president, that inhabit the land. Covered in agriculture stairs, for lack of a better word, that were hacked into the hillsides in pre-Inca eras and were continued by the Incas, and then the Spanish, Taquile Island, originally Intika Island meaning sunflower, is named after conquistador Pedro Gonzalez de Taquila.

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UNESCO recognized Taquile Island as the home to the best weavers in Peru in 2006. In fact, they are so serious about their tight stitches that men can’t get married if they don’t work hard at their threading and weaving skills. The males begin their knitting lessons at five years old and work to knit a hat of good quality by their teenage years. You can tell a married man from a single man by his hat. Single men’s hat are red and white, while married men wear red hats. When the time is right, the single men peacock their hats by allowing the woman of their choice to pour water into the hat. The more water the hat holds, the closer the stitch, the better the weaver. Romantic, isn’t it? And what does the lucky lady do to earn her new beau’s heart? Why, after three years of living together and sharing a bed to see if they are compatible, the female cuts off her long hair and makes her man a belt that he wears every day, under another belt that she also made him. So sweet. I had tears in my eyes as I listened to a married man showed us his silky black braided belt. Tears of laughter, actually, as Laura and some English couple and I giggled silently like a couple of naughty kids in Math class. To top off these strange ways of life, the native man showed us how to make a curiously well-working and nice-smelling shampoo out of a plant, which he used to more or less bleach some dirty gray sheep’s wool, and how married men greet each other. Instead of a handshake, they open up their married-man’s weaved purse, and put coca leaves from their bag into their buddy’s bag. All very neighborly stuff.

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This crash course of Taquile Island life was the side show to a 20 sole lunch of bread, soup, grilled fish, and you guessed it, potatoes and rice. The family who owned the restaurant in which we dined also performed a graphic song and dance about hoeing the fields. Charming. All that was left was a sleepy two and a half hour boat ride back to mainland Puno and I could be reunited with my backpack. Overall, a good experience, but crazy touristy.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

2 comments

  1. Francis.R. · November 27, 2014

    I’m native of Puno region so I came to say you “one dollar please” lol, just kidding with the dollar part. I totally agree with “the floating traps” tittle, that made me sad the last time I went to Uros, when child I didn’t notice very well. I don’t know what happens with the people who works in the touristic business, they can be derogatory and angry folks. For example (I’m native so we have the same rules) you cannot pay with a mistreat (the guide and the ones that arranged the tickets) to persons that are using their service (tourists) if they do it then they are breaking our first rule of correspondence. Kindness is paid with kindness.
    In defense of the people that you saw speaking Spanish I have to say you that for example the language of my family should be Aymara (I think you could have shortened “Aymara Aru” that means “Aymara language” when you wrote “Aymaru”), but the school just teachs in Spanish, and teach nonsense as Spanish History or African animals (?) but don’t our religions, languages or native animals (!), so it’s not that we’re just using Spanish when you are not seeing us XP, but the “education” forces us to abandon our beliefs and culture if we want to work or study science et al. So I don’t like much to use Spanish as a way of protest.

    I love specially the composition of your photograph in Amantani Island with the ichu (our yellow grass) at the centre of it, in symmetry with the distant island with the light barely touching it in middle of the big shadow 🙂

    • womanwanders · November 27, 2014

      Francis, thank you for reading and thank you for your insights. Very funny joke about the one dollar please! I do want to clarify to you however that I completely believe that the people of the island speak Aymara Aru (thanks for the correction). I only said it was for show because they all speak Spanish to introduce the fact that the Peruvian government pays for floating island schools, but of course, only if it means the children will be taught Spanish. I was happy to listen to the President speak in his native tongue even though he could have done otherwise. It is not every day that you get to hear such an old and rare language.