Islas Flotantes

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Somebody where I used to work told me that Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, was a bit of a dump. A comment like this certainly biaises perceptions as to how the town might be. However we want to go there to see the Islas de las Uros, the floating reed islands just off the coast from Puno.

The day doesn´t start off well when we arrive at the bus stop in Copacabana to find out our luxury bus is overbooked (20 Bolivianos or GBP1.40 each). There are seven wildly gesticulating and shouting Israelis who have also been refused a seat. They are demanding their money back and the demure Bolivian staff are not coping particularly well in the face of the verbal onslaught.

We certainly can´t muster up the venom of the Israelis; we just want to find out if there is another bus, so we can continue our travels. Eventually I manage to attract the attention of one lady who has extricated herself from the shouting match. She leads Rachel and I down to another bus just down the street. One of the few advantages of Bolivia´s simplistic transportation system is that all buses to major destinations always leave at the same time, so there´s an alternative. We get on board and find a seat.

Five minutes later the Israeli´s get on, still angry and shouting at each other. They are upset because they wanted seven seats together at the front of the luxury bus. Now they are distributed around the back half of a lesser vehicle. As the bus sets off they soon all fall asleep and forget their troubles.

Shortly we arrive at the Bolivian-Peruvian border. Now for one of the disadvantages of Bolivia´s simplistic transportation system: all buses to major destinations always leave at the same time, so there´s massive queues at Immigration. Nonetheless the large queues seem to encourage a level of enforced speed in the staff handling the forms and the passports.

At the Bolivian immigration, a drunken Frenchman is outside shouting obscenities and making stupid comments about France and Bolivia. Another Frenchman who gets off the bus with us bows his head in shame. No one knows why the madman is hanging around the border pissed out of his head.

I look at the Israelis involved in the earlier shouting match. Toughened by military service and the conflict at home, the girls look masculine and brawny and their faces are set with a determined look. I am reminded strongly of the 'hard' girls at my secondary school who used to get involved in fights, but I can´t quite put my finger on what it is about these Israeli girls that makes them look so different.

We walk a few hundred metres into Peru. Following a tip from a sober Frenchman who had travelled for many years in South America, I have listed my occupation on the immigration form as ´Policeman´. It reminds me to do likewise whenever we check into hotels. According to the Frenchman, it can significantly reduce the chances of theft from your room. As expected, the immigration official raises his eybrows, says ´wow´, and proceeds efficiently. Rachel is now a ´Lawyer´.

On the bus, the conductor makes the most of his captive audience and tries to sell us a room in his hostel in Puno for 20 Sol each (about GBP3.50). We agree to take a look at the room, especially since he has agreed to provide free transport from the bus station which is a couple of kilometres out of town. The conductor also tells us we can visit the Islas Flotantes that afternoon also for 20 Sol (about GBP3.50). Whats more he adds he can get us bus tickets to Arequippa, our next destination, for 25 Sol (about GBP4.30). All in for 65 Sols (about GBP11.00) he says. A little negotiation and the all in price drops to 55 Sols (about GBP9.00). Rachel likes the idea because it means we get out of Puno the next morning. However we don´t like the idea because (a) the hotel could be a dump (b) its late in the afternoon and there isn´t much time for the tour and (c) the guy looks like a bit of a shark.

We take the taxi up to the town centre of Puno and Rachel takes a look at the rooms. They are indeed not that pleasant, and the shark is nowhere to be seen, and the hostel staff know nothing of the negotiated deal. So we decide to abandon plan A and find our own hostel and do the tour at a more leisurely pace.

We walk round the corner and arrive at Hostel Europa. The diminutive unsmiling man behind the counter agrees to drop his room rate to 20 Sols each (about GBP 3.50). Rachel checks out the room and gives it the thumbs up. Phew, I think, at least we are not gong to spend the rest of the day looking for a decent place.

Feeling hungry, we walk out into town and to find a place to eat. We find San Pablo Restaurant which is warmly recommended in Lonely Planet. Outside there is a sign that says ´Restaurant Touristico´. Ignoring our best instincts never to eat in a restaurant that caters specifically for tourists we go inside. Its completely empty. Further ignoring our best instincts never to eat in an empty restaurant we take a seat. We discuss the menu in detail with a young lad who informs us that there is a ´menu turistico´ for 15 Sols (about GBP3.00) each. Plunging further into forbidden territory, we order from the ´menu turistico´: a soup, followed by steak for me and trout for Rachel. The soup is a disgusting instant noodle mix with a few chunks of liver-tasting meat in it. Rachel´s fish isn´t very fresh, and my chips taste like they were made three days ago. Working our way though it as best we can, we consider that we have learned our lesson.

We book up on a tour to go and see the floating islands with All Ways travel for a discounted 20 Sols (about GBP3.50 each). In the morning they collect us from lobby of Europa hotel, where we reluctantly leave our backpacks. Rachel says the lady on duty looks the type to rifle through them and steal anything of value.

There are about 12 of us on the tour and we drive down to the docks and board a small craft, remembering to sit on the upper deck to avoid being fried inside the boat. The shallow water of the harbour is pea green because of the thick layer of algae on the surface.

After a rendition of some Andean music by some local buskers we finally set off, ploughing a blue channel through the thick green algae. As we are cruising along we soon see the natural coloured roofs of buildings appearing in the green reeds ahead.

We arrive suddenly at the first floating island and it is such a shock to step off the boat on to a floating mass of reeds. The island is only perhaps 100 metres across and round the edge are a variety of small homes built of dried reeds. The islanders are dressed in bright woollen clothing and the ladies wear the ubiquitos bowler hats. They shake our hands and welcome us on to their island.

Our guide gathers us round and gives an explanation of how the islands are made. The locals hack out chunks of growing reeds together with their roots from shallows around the edge of the lake. Each lump is probably about one foot square. These growing reed chunks are transported to deeper water where the island is to be built, and are bound to one another using rope and reeds. To the top of this floating platform, reed stalks are laid in alternate directions to create a thick matt. Wooden stakes are used to secure the position of the newly floating landmass. Frequently (and more frequently in the wet season) new layers of reeds are added to the top of the island to preserve its bouyancy.

A young female islander with a pretty smile gives each of us a few reeds to look at. They are very long - between 2 and 3 metres - and as thick as my thumb. She demonstates that the outer layer of the reed can be peeled away to reveal a soft plant tissue that can be eaten. It tastes of nothing, a bit like a cross between lettuce and celery, but apparently is good for teeth whitening, and as a remedy for a huge number of other common ailments.

We walk around looking at the primitive houses, reed boats, and the outside cooking stoves. One lady is peeling potatoes (presumably traded with the mainlanders), whilst another prepares the meat of some of the local ducks by drying it in the sun. The islanders have access to a large number of fish that live in the lake including the introduced trout and kingfish, as well as the tiny indigenous fish that seem poor eating in comparison. I see one islander has a pair of tamed cormorants for catching the smaller fish. On some parts of the island the ground feels very shaky; a bit like walking on am unstable Scottish bog. I feel that I might break through the surface at any minute an disappear unnoticed into the murky aquatic world beneath the island. I carefully manoeuver back to more solid ground.

According to our guide, the islanders live to 85 years on average, which I find hard to believe. The girls usually get married about 14 or 15 years old, and often have more than 10 children. The most common medical complaint in older years is rheumatism, and despite the strong sun, skincancer is rare. The islanders make most of their money these days by selling crafts to the tourists, and there is no shortage of opportunities to buy from the colourful array of goods.

We feel a bit like intruders as we walk around, prying into the private lives of people. Can you imagine a bunch of foreigners in your back garden gawking at you as you prepared Sunday lunch? Still I remind myself that the islander's main source of income these days is tourism, and we do our bit by buying a few postcards and paying for a short ride to another island on a reed boat.

We visit a total of three islands on our little trip. After 1.5hrs I feel like I´ve spent enough time in the human zoo, especially since I am not particularly interested in the vast array of handicrafts. It has been quite an amazing morning: despite the fact that it is touristy, the way of life on the islands is shockingly different to anything we´ve seen before.

We head back to the mainland in the boat, eat a cheap meal in a Chinese (Chifa) restaurant, grab our bags from the hotel (which of course are untouched), and head down to the bus station for the 5 hour trip to Arequipa.

I can confirm my ex-colleague´s description of Puno - it is a bit of a dump. But, there are much uglier towns in Peru, for example Juliaca, just an hours drive away and also on the shores of Lake Titicaca. However, we have heard Arequipa is a colonial gem and we look forward to exploring it further.
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