Sightseeing Lake Titicaca

Trip Start Nov 08, 2011
Trip End Feb 21, 2012

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Flag of Peru  , Puno,
Friday, November 25, 2011

At 3,800 meters, Lake Titicaca is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. 'Commercially navigable' meaning that it's of a substantial enough size for boats to transport things across. According to Wiki, it’s also the largest lake in South America. Well, except for Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, I guess, which has a larger surface area. Oh, technicalities. Safe to say, it’s very big.

The best way to appreciate the lake is to sail its slate blue waters. The sight is mesmerizing, like one of those Magic Eye puzzles, although I wonder what shapes and images might pop out at you if you stared long enough. I simply felt sleepy.

The lake is home to many indigenous groups who live on its islands. On the Peruvian side (it’s split between Peru and Bolivia), one can visit the islas flotantes or floating islands of Uros, Taquile island, and Amantani island. Chris and I signed up with a tour that visited all three over two days, including an overnight homestay on Amantani.

I’ve heard a lot about the Lake Titicaca island-hopping experience: exploitative, commercialized, disappointing, I think a lot of people find it overrated. After all, some of the islanders derive all of their income from tourism, which, as you can imagine, has impacted the authenticity of the experience. I would agree in some ways. But at the same time, it was a unique experience, eye-opening, and definitely worth doing.

Here’s what we saw.

On the morning of the tour, we were picked up at 7am by the tour company, driven to the port with a vanful of fellow travelers (there were about 25 of us), and ushered onto our boat, a small tourist craft (I don’t know boat jargon, so bear with me) with an observation deck on top and in the back. And a bathroom where the water swirled continually.

We first stopped at the Uros islands, which took about half an hour to reach.

In theory, the floating islands of the Uros are really cool. By tying separate chunks of totora (a reed native to the lake) roots together into acre-size pieces, the Uros people literally make their own islands to live on. They have to continually cover the island with fresh reeds as the old reeds dry up which creates a soft floor that they then build their huts on. Sixty burnished islands make up this remarkable community.

In actuality, we found the whole experience to be quite mercenary, where every aspect of daily life had been turned into a means of making money. Living gift shops.

When we arrived, our guide gave a brief talk on how the islanders created and maintained their island. Then, without notice, we were split up and pulled into the hut of one of the islanders. Chris and I along with another girl suddenly found ourselves sitting awkwardly on the bed of a Uros couple making forced conversation. With these civilities over, they pulled out their wares lurking in the corner and started trying to sell them to us. Crude tapestries, tacky miniature reed boats, the usual slew of tourist crap that can be found in any tourist stall in Peru. The whole exchange was very uncomfortable.

Somehow, we stumbled out of their clutches only $7 poorer. Even now, I’m not sure why I picked the things that I did—I guess it was like returning to sobriety and discovering a new tattoo on your body. Afterwards, we had the choice of taking our regular boat for free or a traditional Uros reed boat for a fee to another island. Chris and I picked the latter. Many picked the latter by mistake because the islanders were ushering us rather frantically onto the craft as if there were no other choice. The second island was much bigger, with some shops and restaurants geared towards tourists. 

I think we were all relieved to leave the Uros islands behind. 

It took about three hours to reach the next island, Amantani. Just past a double peninsula, I stared and stared at the twin pieces of land jutting into the water, but they never seemed to get closer so I finally gave up.

Amantani is one of the most untouched islands on Lake Titicaca. It didn’t open up to tourism until the 80’s, and even now, visits are mostly composed of homestays, which the ten communities on the island rotate so that each family has the opportunity to make some extra income. The rest of the time, the islanders engage in traditional activities: shepherding, farming, etc.

On our visit, we stayed with the 'green’ community, green because all the women wore green skirts. We were greeted by our host mothers at the dock, a shock of brilliant skirts, colorful striped sashes, embroidered white tops, and black mantas embroidered with gay-colored flowers. Each group was introduced to their "mamá" before following her back to her house. Our mamá, Patricia, was dignified and serious. 

As she led us up the hill, I kept turning around to marvel at the scenery, the crisp land that met with the pacific water of the lake. The day was sunny and warm, and I could almost believethat we were on some Greek island, the Mediterranean Sea and climate having been transplanted to a lake in the middle of South America.

There were three of us, Chris, me, and Vanessa, coincidentally the same girl who’d been pulled into the Uros island hut with us. It was good we had a Vanessa. Though painfully shy (she was only 20 after all, Swiss, and was apparently volunteering at an orphanage in Cusco for half a year, a story we thought she had made up because it was too absurdly wholesome to be true, and yet her sweet, ingenuous demeanor, angelic voice, and delicate fluttering of eyelashes made it so we couldn’t not believe her), she could speak Spanish fluently, a skill we worked her hard at.

Patricia’s house was set on a plot of farmland complete with sheep, a donkey, and rows of neatly-tilled quinoa. The house was two stories tall, built around a courtyard, and made of clay with a corrugated tin roof (nope, no whitewashed walls and bright blue Santorini doors). Thinking we’d be sleeping on the ground, reading by candlelight, using the outhouse, we were astonished to be shown a cheerful yellow-painted room on the second floor with two beds and colorful curtains that flapped in the breeze. And an electric light too. It wasn’t as rustic as we imagined, but the outhouse did just fine in reminding us of where we were.  

While Patricia prepared lunch, Chris and I explored her land and met her children, David, 3, Tanya, 4, and Mary, 7. The two younger children were outgoing and very cute. With their sunburnt ruddy cheeks, large eyes, and little knit hats, they were picture-perfect.

Lunch was served in the family’s kitchen, a dark cool room with a wooden table and chairs in the corner. We were invited to sit at the table and Patricia served us quinoa soup, rice cooked with fried trout and potatoes, and muña tea (muña is one of those cure-all herbs that the islanders use for everything: stomachaches, altitude sickness, etc. It tasted like mint.). Conversation with Patricia was very strained because of the language barrier and communication, mainly through Vanessa, was extremely formal. I guess you should expect that when you’re in a stranger’s kitchen eating her food.  

In the afternoon, the whole group hiked up to Pachamama, the highest point on the island where a religious site had been constructed long ago (and consequently was falling into ruin). We made it up in time to catch a panoramic view of the island shadowed in the bronze hues of sunset. We finally met some fellow Americans too, who we chatted with fondly, all of which combined to make us, or at least me, very happy. 

Back at Patricia’s house, we met Patricia’s husband(?) and all of us congregated in the kitchen for dinner, a stir-fry of mixed vegetables and potatoes served with rice and muña tea. It was much more awkward than lunch because, while we sat at the kitchen table, the rest of the family sat on low stools in the corner by the fire. Not knowing what to say, we ate in silence.

After dinner was the "discotheque" held for the benefit of the tourists. Everyone donned the traditional dress of the island, lent to us by our host family, and gathered at the community center where dancing and general merrymaking occurred. Chris and I didn’t stay very long because what really drew our attention were the stars, a whole skyful of them, untainted by light pollution and moonlight and thick like soup. I can't think of the last time I saw such a sight—everyone seemed transfixed.  

A restful night’s sleep later, we were awoken at 6:45 in the morning, served breakfast straight away (one-and-a-half pancakes each and, you guessed it, muña tea), then escorted back to the dock to catch our boat to Taquile. We thanked our mamás and gave them hugs. Our final view was of a line of green-beskirted women, one hand waving us good-bye and the other shielding their eyes from the sun.

We arrived at Taquile about half an hour later and were told to follow the path from the dock, which ascended up the hill and around and around until we eventually ended up at the town square. The morning was crisp and all around us were signs of island life: pastures with sheep, fences made of stacked boulders, terraced farmland, the occasional islander in his or her traditional dress. Again, I couldn’t believe how Mediterranean everything felt.

And then we reached the town square and were immediately bombarded by groups of children selling trinkets, friendship bracelets, themselves even (little boys would jump into people’s photos unbeckoned and then ask for money). They were sweet but very insistent, so we sweetly but insistently refused their offers. 

Our guide taught us a lot about Taquile customs—married women wear one type of manta while unmarried women wear another type, for instance—and island life—such as how restaurants are allowed to be in operation every other week. The community seemed very well-run and organized. And idyllic too, because after lunch, on our walk back to our boat which had moved to another dock on the other side of the island, we were greeted with the most sweeping, exhilarating view of land and water yet. It was breathtaking. It was sublime. It made all 500 steps of the downward walk to the pier endurable, even for people with bad knees. 

Finally, back on the boat, most people conked out over whatever surfaces were available, and for the next two hours, until we arrived back in Puno, naptime prevailed. 

And that pretty much summarizes our island getaway. Like everything else, it had its good moments, its bad moments, and of course, its beautiful. 
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