Uros Islands & Taquile Island, Peru (day 13)

Trip Start Dec 26, 2009
Trip End Jan 17, 2010

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

At 6:45am a cab took John and I from our hostel down to the docks on the lake. We got on a boat with about 20 other passengers from all over the world, and with our island-hopping tour group (Edgar Adventures) we booked yesterday, set out to explore the islands of Lake Titicaca! Winds blowing, we made it about 200 feet and then... the boat died. We waited for them to try to fix it, but ended up jumping onto another boat. Our guide gave us a commentary on what we were seeing, and we were excited to find we weren't the only Americans on the boat. Half an hour later, we arrived at our first destination: Las Islas Uros, also known as the Floating Islands. It was very hot outside, and I had lost my sunglasses, but I didn't care because this place was amazing!

These islands are very unique because they are man-made out of reeds stacked together to float on the water which are tied to the floor of the lake. The people who live on these islands are from a long line of descendants who have been living in the same manner for centuries. Their ancestors built these reed islands out in the middle of the lake to isolate themselves from the violent Incas in Puno. The current residents speak the native Aymara language, as well as Spanish and even a little English (so they can barter with us tourists!). They make a living from fishing and tourism, and their homes are very uniquely crafted and decorated. These locally famous islands are made by combining layers of the totora reeds (which you can also eat) and they are constantly replenished on the top since the layers on the bottom rot.

As we walked around on the "island" we were greeted by a woman named Delia who took us on a brief tour and showed us inside her home. Other residents were pairing off with other tourists, doing the same. Delia introduced John and I to her family and pointed out different things. The specific island we were on had about 10 homes, and there are many other islands scattered all around. It was very kind of her to show us around, and so obviously we felt obliged to buy some of her handicrafts that she had set out on a blanket. I ended up buying a necklace for myself, a bracelet for Jenna, and a little blue pot for Christina. It might have been for show, but the locals all had traditional clothing styles and lived without technology inside reed homes. They had traditional reed boats too. Some people go on rides in them but I was happy to just take a picture! As we continued walking around the small island, we learned about the history of the people, how they built the islands, etc. and it was all very fascinating. The ground is somewhat bouncy or spongy feeling, and it is a very odd sensation. When you get near the edges you can see how it just cuts off into the water, and certain parts where the reeds are rotting you kind of sink into it a little.

The islands were very unique and definitely interesting, and although the one we visited is used to seeing tourists, apparently there are many more isolated islands where the people live in a very traditional fashion and prefer to not be photographed. Once everyone was back on the boat we began the 2.5 hour long ride to our next stop, the island of Taquile. During this time we started chatting with the other Americans on the boat. A very friendly San Francisco couple introduced themselves as Valerie and Jeremy, and we swapped our traveling stories. We ended up all moving to sit on the back of the boat so we could be outside and could enjoy the breeze and the sights. We were later joined by a hilarious guy named Jake who was from Ohio (small world) and has been living in Lima working as a teacher. He was on his summer break and was doing some traveling in the country. We all just hung out back there and had some really good conversations until we arrived to Taquile.

Once we arrived, we prepared ourselves to climb a steep trail leading up the side of the hill. It consisted of over 500 steps going from the dock to the high center of the hilly island. It wouldn't have been difficult except for the fact that we were at a very high altitude, and as usual I struggled. The views as we all walked were stunning though. You could see a panorama of the lake and mountains of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia in the distance. As we walked we were stopped by a couple different sets of kids trying to sell us crafts or get us to take their photo for some soles. They were all super adorable of course. According to my guide book, "the island is a tiny 7 km place with a Quechua speaking population. They are a self governing body within Peru, and maintain a strong sense of group identity. The rarely marry non-Taquile people and live lives unaffected by the modernity of the mainland." They have limited access to electricity, and have a very unique culture. John described the island as "a treat because the people continue to live largely without influence from the modern world."

Once we reached the main square we explored a little and John and Jake banned together to exchange "photo-sniping" aka stalker photo techniques. With their powers combined they got some pretty great photos of the locals in their traditional clothing. Our group then went up some more steps to have lunch on an outdoor patio overlooking the lake. It was very tasty, and during this meal I had my first try of mate de coca, or coca tea. It's made out of the popular coca leaves, which Peruvians chew to aid altitude sickness. It is illegal in the US, Chile and Bolivia because it is used to make, of course, cocaina! After we were finished, the owner of the restaurant and our guide explained to us the unique customs and practices of courtship and marriage that the islanders do. Here is what we learned:

Most of the unique handicrafts on the island are made according to a system of deeply ingrained social customs. The men wear tightly woven woolen hats (looking like a floppy Santa hat) that they take great pride in knitting themselves. If a man's hat is red it means he is married, red and white means he is single. When a man is interested in a girl, he will give her the woven hat for a night. To judge if he is a hard worker and proficient knitter, thus good enough to be her husband, a girl will pour water into the hat to see if it holds. If she likes it, she likes him, and she will then begin making him a thick, colorful waistband. These decorative belts are given to the men once they marry, and sometimes girls weave the hair from their head into the belts too. We also learned that if a guy is interested in a girl, he will get out a mirror and aim the reflection from the sun on the mirror at her face. If she is interested, she can come over to talk. If not, the girls have shawls with decorative pom-poms on the end, and they can use that to hit the guy if they don't care for them (like my outfit). Good stuff!! We got to try on some of the local ware, and also learned it is normal to carry around a little pouch full of coca leaves every day.

On the trek back down the island, we were stopped by many more children selling crafts. I ended up buying a llama ornament from this little boy, just because he was so cute. We also stopped at the famous stone arch which overlooks the lake and is very scenic. Some kids were there dressed up in local clothes making bank on tourists photographing them. John and Jake got photos of these kids, but thanks to their skills at photographing people without them noticing, they got the photos for free. It was funny to watch them bond over being paparazzi. The boat ride back was another long 2.5 hours, and the five of us Americans chatted some more.

It began to rain, and once we arrived back to Puno we all went separate ways but planned to meet for dinner in town. Later that night John and I met up with Jake, Valerie and Jeremy in front of the Cathedral and had some dinner and drinks at a local restaurant. It was a fun time, and at one point it was very hilarious because this Australian couple at the table by us ordered cuy, and once they got it they started screaming and freaking out about how gross it was. They didn't speak Spanish so the waiter was confused, thinking he cooked it wrong. Jake is basically fluent, so he sorted it out, and then him and John somehow convinced the couple to let them eat the rest of the guinea pig so it didn't go to waste. Boys being scavengers for guinea pig scraps- wow, just wow. Overall our last night in Peru was very fun, and it was nice to get to make some new friends.
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