I´ve never seen a more beautiful blue

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Peru seems to like 2 day tours.  So we went on another one, this time to the islands of Lake Titicaca.  Aside from having a funny name, Lake Titicaca also has a host of fairy-tale islands that you can visit.  We signed up for an overnight tour that included the floating islands of Uros, Amantani, and Taquile.

We all piled into a boat.  Piled because there were about 27 of us and only 20 could squeeze into the interior portion.  Our guide was Esteban, who took turns speaking in English and Spanish.  That, I would have to say, is the one disadvantage to being able to understand Spanish.  I have to listen to everything twice.

We motored out to our first stop, the floating islands.  These things are pretty amazing.  The people of Uros, most likely because they felt pressure from the encroaching Incas, decided to move out onto the lake.  But the real islands were already taken.  No problem, they just built their own. 

The totora reed permeates every part of life here.  It grows in this corner of the lake, and is gathered in bundles for food, for shelter, and for transportation. 

The totora reed has a large root base, and these blocks are stacked to form the bottom of the island.  These may be up to a meter in height.  On top of these are placed the reed stems to a height of another meter or two.  The entire construction is floated on the lake.  Each islands holds up to 6-7 families or around 40 people.  As the reeds decay more are stacked on top.  Each island has a lifespan of around 25 years before it starts to break up, at which point it is banished to a graveyard.  There are over 40 islands, and a portion of them have been given over completely to tourism. 

There are as many boats heading to the islands as there were buses heading to Colca Canyon.  They work on some kind of rotation system so that every boat gets its own little island.  So we pulled up to one of these islands and were greeted by the women in their traditional dress.  Stepping onto the islands is a strange experience.  It has a soft, spongey feel and you sink in a little as you walk.  We gathered around and our guide gave us some information while the women set up their crafts in a semicircle around us.  The totora make the islands but they also are food.  The soft white stem can be eaten.  It tastes like celery, minus the flavor.  They eat and trade fish that they catch in the lake, as well as exotic trout.  At one point they opened up a plug in the island and dropped a line down to demonstrate how much water was under where we sat.  It was about 20 meters deep.  

We had the option of taking a reed boat to the next island.  It looks like a Viking ship and a lot of them have dragon faces on the front.  It was steered and rowed with a back and side oar.  It wasnīt the speediest form of transportation, but it was surprisingly steady.  On the other side we saw a reed sofa and a little museum that consisted almost entirely of stuffed birds.  We boarded the real boat and headed off to Amantani to spend the night.

Like almost everywhere on the lake (and Peru for that matter), the economy of Amantani was also dependent on tourism.  Here they took the tourists into their homes.  When we arrived at the dock a list was given over to the head of the community and he called off families.  It was like we were choosing teams for baseball.  We were assigned to Irma, and we followed her as she walked in silence up the hill.  Most of the island is uphill.  The altitude doesnīt help. 

We were shown into a rather nice room on the second story of their home.  Soon after we were served lunch and we had some conversation.  Irma lives in one of nine communities on the island.  They take turns hosting tourists.  She has two children, Jose and something that sounds vaguely like William.  Her husband, Bautista, is working in Puno.  He wonīt return for three months.  They speak Quechua but learn Spanish in school.  She is 33 years old...and she considers that old.  We are served soup, coca tea, and a plate of rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and...fried cheese.  Yes, a big thick slice of fried cheese.  Itīs good but I couldnīt eat it all. 

We meet in the square to take a walk to the top of the island.  Irma warns us to remember her name because tourists end up getting lost and canīt find their families.  Esteban tells us a little more about the island.  Almost the entire land area is sloped and terraced.  The people have divided the island up into four quadrants.  Every season they plant potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cereals in three quadrants while leaving the fourth fallow.  They rotate each season.  But they donīt trade for the other items.  Each family has terraces in each of the four quadrants, and grows all of the crops at once.  An interesting system.  He lets us try some coca leaves as we start off up the hill.

Hiking up hills at high altitude is not really that fun.  Erin does not enjoy it.  But the view is ample compensation.  The water has a brilliant aqua color and I canīt stop staring at it.  We reach the top of the island and have a 360 view of the lake.  One side is Bolivia and you can see huge snow-capped mountains.  There are two high points on the island.  One side is for Pachamama (mother earth) and the other for Pachatata (the male version).  This area is open only once a year when the entire population comes up here to participate in a ceremony.  It involves lots of coca leaves and llama fetuses.

We saw a boy walking up the hill with a big stereo.  Apparently the young children come up here to hang out.  The boys travel to Puno, work, and buy a stereo.  They bring the stereo up here and girls flock to the guy with the biggest stereo or the best music.  Natural selection at its best.   

The island has no cars and no electricity.  We sat in the dark and wondered what to do.  Irma came to collect us and we went into the kitchen room for dinner.  It is a separate mud-brick building and lit by 3 candles.  It feels very medieval.  I asked them to say some words in Quechua.  Thank you is about five syllables and slipped right out of my mind.  Erin didnīt feel well enough to eat dinner.  Irma went out side and picked a bud off a plant and put it in her tea.  The main dish for dinner was a bread-like nugget made with egg and sugar.  Its pretty good. 

After dinner we went to a pena, or dance.  Irma arrived with our clothes.  I donned a poncho and funny cap while Erin got into a dress, belt, and shawl.  We walked through the darkness and the stars were amazing.  So was the silence.  We went to the school hall and a band played songs.  Irma dragged us out to dance almost every time.  At one point everybody linked hands and we ran around in circles.  It was fun but tiring and hot.  Erin starts to ask if Irma would like a drink and she is nodding and saying coke before she finishes.

It rained heavily during the night.  We had breakfast and Irma walked us down to the docks.  She told me that it was the first rain of the season.  Lucky us.  We said goodbye and climbed back into our boat.

This morning we were heading towards Taquile.  It isnīt until we pull up to the dock that our guide informs us that weīll be leaving from the OTHER side of the island.  We began to huff and puff up the hill.  Taquile at this time of the year was prettier and greener than Amantani.  The blue is even more beautiful.  We made it to the main plaza and looked at a photo exhibition of the island.  Our guide told us that the hats the men wear denote whether they are married or single.  The women too wear dark colors when theyīre married and light colors when theyīre single.  Instead of shaking hands, the people on the island exchange coca leaves.  I had a delicious trout lunch and we started down the 500 or so steps to the dock. 

On the way back we could see the clouds racing in next to us.  The boat started rocking and he had some of us switch sides.  It started raining as we pulled into Puno.  We were lucky the weather held out.

If someone wants to take a class about how tourism affects native populations, this would be the perfect place to go.

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