The Uros people live a traditional lifestyle on their floating islands. // © 2011 Janeen Christoff
I can’t decide which part of Peru’s Lake Titicaca was the most amazing — the scenery or the people. Lake Titicaca is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia and spans the two countries. At 12,500 feet, the lake is the highest navigable lake in the world. It is also the largest lake in South America. While these facts make Lake Titicaca an amazing place to visit, the most memorable moments will certainly be had experiencing the people and the unique cultures of the area.
Anchored on the Peruvian side by the cities of Puno and Juliaca, which are known for their folkloric festivals, these cities serve as a great jumping-off point for exploring the lake. Our group headed to the remote Titilaka Hotel, located past Puno on a small peninsula surrounded by farmland. Through the hotel, we arranged excursions to see some of the islands of Lake Titicaca.
The Titilaka Hotel has its own boat, and our guide, Julio, took us first to the Islas Flotantes, or floating islands. These islands are quite possibly Lake Titicaca’s top tourist attraction. Constructed by the Uros people out of tortora reeds, there are approximately 44 floating, manmade islands that were originally created centuries ago for defensive purposes and to escape the Collas and Inca tribes. Now, several hundred people still subsist on the handmade islands. On the largest island there is actually a school, a playground, a post office and a variety of tourist shops, but more authentic islands are home to a few humble structures made from the reeds and house approximately 20 inhabitants.
We arrived at the island of one family and met its president, Alex who told us about the day-to-day activities of the island and explained that each island lasts approximately one year before it has to be rebuilt. Just about everything on the island is made of tortora reeds, including homes and elaborate boats that are now mostly used to give rides to tourists. These days, islanders earn a living by bartering for supplies with fish and woven goods as well as on tourism.
Some hotels, such as the Titilaka Hotel, offer private excursions to the Islas Flotantes. Clients can also head to the docks in Puno where several operators offer boat rides to the islands. Private boats are approximately $20 and a group trip costs about $3.
The next stop on our Lake Titi-caca tour was the island of Taquile. Inhabited for thousands of years, Taquile is a four-mile-long island with a population of approximately 2,000. The Taquile people are unique in that they live their lives mostly free of modern-day amenities, and their customs have changed little over the years including a deeply ingrained tradition of weaving. Men and women also continue to wear their traditional clothing. Men wear woven hats that resemble a stocking cap. The color of the cap denotes a man’s marital status. Women are also striking in their multilayered skirts.
Here, we met Juan, who was our host for our traditional lunch. Our private boat took us to a small stretch of beach where we wandered out onto the terraced land of Juan’s farm and climbed up to his house, perched on the top of a hill and overlooking the lake. Juan’s house was likely a little less traditional — he had a solar panel to power electricity in the kitchen — but he showed us some of the more traditional homes on his land, which belonged to his mother and father.
After a lunch of quinoa soup, potatoes — an island specialty — trout and alpaca meat, we watched the women weave on traditional looms and learned about Juan’s own visits to America where he had demonstrated the weaving traditions of the Taquile people during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
We ended our lunch on Taquile with a stroll along the terraced hillside and down to an isolated beach on the other side of the island where our boat awaited. All you could see were local people tilling a terraced field or tending to sheep. It was like visiting a land that time forgot and one that I would like to return to.