Lake Titicaca is one of those iconic geographical locations that you hear about as a kid and just can’t forget. At 3800m, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. It is also the largest lake in South America, it’s nowhere the size of one of the Great Lakes, but it’s pretty damn big. The lake reaches depths of more than 250m, so it’s extremely deep as well. Lake Titicaca is shared by Peru and Bolivia, each country claiming about half of the lake. We thought about making a trek to the Bolivian side of the lake, but since four of us are U.S. passport holders that would have required over $600 in reciprocal visa fees and yellow fever vaccinations, so it wasn’t worth it to us to visit just for a few days.
We took this 8-10 hour side trip recently when the boys had a week long school holiday. It’s the first big trip that we have made in over two months, so you think I would have had it meticulously planned, well, not quite! We left on a Sunday morning, actually, it was afternoon by the time we made it to the Cusco bus station. Rather than wait for the 10 pm bus by our trusted favorite bus line, we decided to take an earlier bus by a less reputable company. Bad idea. The bus was not the high-class, elite, direct bus with personal tv screen, earbuds, pillow, blanket, and meal included. It was one step up from a chicken bus and made multiple stops, which turned an 8-hour ride into 10. At least we made it in one piece and learned our lesson!
We had heard that Puno was an unimpressive city and it certainly lived up to that reputation. Puno is a city of about 200,000 people and its location on the lake is really its only claim to fame. There are two plazas in the center of the city that are connected by a pedestrian avenue. We stayed right down the street from one of them and were lucky enough to be there when there was a book fair going on. This was one of the highlights of the trip. We ended up with 7 new books. In my defense, we haven’t been to a bookstore in ages and we have donated most of the ones that we came with!
On our first day, we took a boat tour to the floating islands of Uros. There are about 60 small, manmade islands with around 1500 total inhabitants. Each island is built by those that live on them using the reeds that grow upon the lakeshore. Most of the islands contain three or four families who work together to build the island and their houses. Each island takes about a year to build. The roots of the plant naturally float and this is the base upon which the island sits. They then cover the roots with layers of reeds laid out in a criss-cross pattern with 3-6 feet of dried reeds laid atop the floating roots. After they anchor the island in place, they then construct the houses, which are also made of reeds. The houses are quite small, one room cabins, with a family bed made of (once again) reeds. Many homes have solar panels to provide the inhabitants with electricity. The kitchen is simply an adobe fireplace built atop a large, flat rock to avoid catching the island on fire. Each family has a boat made of reeds as well. There is a floating island with an elementary school, but secondary students are shipped into Puno to study.
This is truly a fascinating way of life, at least until you dig a bit deeper. As soon as we got off our tour boat we were encouraged to buy some handicrafts made from the island inhabitants. The island’s president then gave a presentation which explained how the islands are built and how they live. While this was informative, the whole thing was a show put on for tourists. Someone asked why the people first began to build the islands, and the speaker said: “for the tourists.” When we clarified a bit and asked about their history, sadly they had no response, it seems that the history of their people is lost to them and their sole reason now for living this way is tourism. Tourism is their only source of income since the lake water around Puno is too polluted for fishing. At the end of the presentation, the island’s inhabitants sang songs in 3 languages, which added to the feeling that we were visiting animals in a zoo. This left us with a bad taste in our mouths.
The next day we hopped on another boat, this time for a longer journey. We headed to the island of Amantaní for a homestay with a local family. The boat ride was four hours long the cabin reeked of diesel, and the deck was cold and extremely sunny. But it was lovely to get way out on the lake and truly see how immense it is. The island of Amantaní contains four different communities and in addition to a house, each family also has a separate plot of land used for agriculture. It is quite touristy, many families participate in a homestay program, but it didn’t have the fake feel of Uros. We were met at the dock by our hostess in her formal native dress. She quickly guided us to her house, which was much nicer than I expected. There is no electricity on the island, so many houses have solar panels to provide electricity and many also have solar hot water heaters. Fernanda, our host, promptly served us a fantastic lunch on the second-floor balcony which overlooked the lake. We ravenously devoured the best vegetable quinoa soup that we’ve had here as well as rice, fried cheese, and vegetables.
After lunch, Israel and I climbed to the top of the hill to check out the ruins. They weren’t terribly impressive, but the view from the top of the island was. We were able to see the different communities laid out as well as all the farm plots. The brisk night air came quickly, yet surprisingly we were able to keep warm. We ate dinner in Fernanda’s toasty kitchen with the family. The boys didn’t even have to be reminded to eat everything served, they loved Fernanda’s cooking. We turned in early since the boat was coming to pick us up at 7 am, and it was too cold outside to enjoy the star filled sky. We were shocked that we were warm enough since the temps get down to 2°C, maybe it was the 6 heavy blankets on each bed.
The boat picked us up promptly at 7 am and brought us to the island of Tacquile. Tacquile is similar to Amantaní in culture and topography. To visit the town we had to climb more than 500 stairs and then hike about a mile over an ancient stone trail. Visiting these islands is like stepping back in time. There are no cars or refrigerators, the people live off the land, farming their own food and knitting their clothes from the wool of their sheep. Tacquile is famous for its knitting men. Usually, in traditional Peruvian societies, the women knit, but on the island of Tacquile, the men are the knitters. We enjoyed meandering around the island for a couple of hours and even got to see a wedding procession. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture, but it was quite a sight to see everyone dressed in their finest. We had an early lunch and then hopped back on the boat for the long ride back to Puno.
We thoroughly enjoyed the islands of Tacquile and Amantaní and we would have stayed longer on each island if that were an option. On the boat ride back to Puno we decided that they were enough and that we had no need to stick around any longer. So we hopped on the night bus back to Cusco. We made sure this time to use our favorite bus line, Cruz del Sur. After two action packed days of travel and activity, the boys and I slept pretty well on the luxury bus. I’m glad we made the trek, but everyone was right, you only need a few days to explore the Peruvian side of Titicaca.