Between rioting and strikes our trip to Puno to explore Lake Titicaca is a hit or miss affair. Some Governments around the world were advising against any travel to Puno and the surrounding areas. We feel lucky to that we arrive as the situation stabilises and are able to access this unique region.
Puno is our launching pad for the adventures and cruising on Lake Titicaca. Although our lake edge hotel is just average, they do arrange for us to get our 8kgs laundry done for just $21 (picked up and delivered back to us the next day) with each piece carefully tagged with red wool, ironed and beautifully folded. I digress – it is lovely when travelling (or at any time!) to have your laundry done for you like this and oh so cheap.
Henry, our guide, greets us early for our Lake Titicaca adventure. This lake is the world’s highest navigable lake and the centre of a region where thousands of subsistence farmers eke out a living. Fishing, growing potatoes or herding llama and alpaca are all part of daily activities.
All done at altitudes that leaves us gasping for air yet again.
It is also where traces of the rich Indian past still stubbornly cling, having resisted in past centuries the Spanish conquistadors’ aggressive campaign to erase Inca and pre Inca cultures, and, in recent times, the lure of modernisation.
Titicaca translates as “Rock Puma” as the shape of the lake is traditionally and locally interpreted as a puma hunting a rabbit. When Peruvians talk of turquoise blue Titicaca, they proudly note that it is so large it has waves.
Lake Titicaca is the most sacred body of water in the Inca Empire as the Incan mythology says that the first Inca king, Manco Capac, was born here. According to the Incan mythology, this is the place where the world was created from, when the god Viracocha came out of the lake and created the sun, the stars and the first people.
There are many theories.
Lake Titicaca is also the natural separation between Peru and Bolivia and has a surface area exceeding 8,000 square kilometres (3,100 square miles), not counting its more than 30 islands. The Lake is 3,856 meters (12,725 feet) above sea level so the climate is generally cold!
Regardless of season, the evenings and nights are very cold and often drop below freezing. However, in the day, the sun can be intense and sun block is definitely a necessity.
The best-known of the islands dotting Titicaca’s surface are the Uros; floating islands of reed named after the Indians who inhabited them.
Legend has it the Uro Indians had black blood that helped them survive the frigid nights on the water and safeguarded them from drowning.
The last full-blooded Uro was a woman who died in 1959. Other Uros had left the group of islands in earlier years owing to a drought that worsened their poverty – and intermarried with Aymará and Quechua-speaking Indians.
But the Indians who now inhabit this island – a mix of Uro, Aymara and Inca descendants – follow the Uro ways.
We were invited to their house to try on their clothes, get photos taken, pay money, and then go to their stall and buy their handicrafts; and pay money, take a ride in their canoe, pay money and so it goes on.
The Uros’ poverty has prompted more and more of them to move to Puno. That same poverty has caused those who remain to take a hard-sell approach to tourists and, besides pressing visitors to buy their handicrafts, they frequently demand “tips” for having their photographs taken.
These islands have become a major tourist attraction for Peru, drawing people for excursions from the lakeside city of Puno. The atmosphere is all a bit false and forced and it is clear that money is king (as of course it is in many places!). Despite many of the men purporting to be living like the yesteryear, we discover that many of the men actually work in Puno driving taxis.
Some tourists suggest that bartering with fresh fruit is better than money exchanges. However, there is continued criticism that tourism has not only opened the Uros Islands to the stares of insensitive tourists but has destroyed much of the culture as the Indians modified their handicrafts to appeal to outsiders or abandoned traditional practices to dedicate more time to the influx of outsiders.
The Uros islanders fish, hunt birds and live off lake plants, the most important element in their life being lake reeds they use for their houses, boats and even as the base of their five islands – the largest of which are Toranipata, Huaca Huacani and Santa Maria.
The man made islands were originally defensive as they could be moved if threatened by outsiders.
The bottoms of the reed islands decay in the water and are replaced from the top with new layers, making a spongy surface that is a bit difficult to walk on.
Even the walls of the schools on the bigger islands are made of totora. The soft roots of the reed are eaten, making it a pretty handy thing to have around.
The trip to Amantaní begins at the Puno docks aboard sputtering wooden motorboats operated by the islanders.
At the end of the three to four-hour trip, we are assigned to a host family, who met us at the dock and lead us up to their home.
A typical mud brick house with separate private room for us. They provided Kingfish and rice for dinner and very stale bread for breakfast. There is no hot water or electricity and as the night temperature drops you need very warm clothes for sleeping in!
Amantani is another of the small populated islands on Lake Titicaca with about 800 Quechua speaking families living in six villages on the 15 square kilometre island.
The island is dominated by two mountain peaks called Pachapapa (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth), which have ancient ruins on both peaks.
The island is covered with terraced hillsides which are divided by stone walls and planted with crops and most of the fields are worked by hand; there is no modern machinery here.
There are no cars on the island and no hotels.
Machines are not allowed on the island so all agriculture is done by hand. There are a few stores selling basic goods, a health clinic and a school.
There is little power, as the rising cost of petrol has stopped the generators and so most families use candles, battery powered torches or hand-cranks with a few homes recently installing small solar panels.
After our night with our host family on Amantani, the next day we visited Taquile – a hilly island located 45 kilometres east of Puno.
It is narrow and long and was used as a prison during the Spanish Colony and into the 20th century. In 1970, it became the property of the Taquile people, who have inhabited the island since then (current population around 2,200).
The highest point of the island is 4,050 meters above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 m. Like the other islands on the Lake, the landscape is dictated by the Pre-Incan ruins are found on highest points, and the terraced hillsides. This island also boasts a view over the white snow tops of the Bolivian mountains.
Like Amantani life on Taquile is still largely unchanged by mainland modernity’s. Culture is very much alive on Taquile, and is seen in the traditional clothes everyone wears.
Taquile is especially known for its handicraft tradition, which is regarded as among the highest-quality handicrafts not only in Peru but in the world.
Knitting is exclusively performed by males, starting at age eight. The women make the yarn and weave.
Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, and restaurants to tourists. Ever since tourism came to Taquile from the 1970s, the Taquleans have slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans.
In response and in order to regain control of tourism, the Taquileans have developed alternative tourism models. These include lodging for groups, cultural activities, and local guides, who have complete a 2-year training program and a local Travel Agency Munay, Taquile has been established.
The economy is based on fishing, terraced farming horticulture based on potato cultivation, and tourist-generated income from the approximately 40,000 tourists who visit each year. We are just 2 of them!
The Taquileños run their society based on community collectivism and on the Inca moral code (which we love):
“Ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla.”
(do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy)
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