The Islands of the World’s Highest Navigable Lake: El Lago Titicaca

I knew that my Machu Picchu adventure would be pretty touristy – each year more and more tourists come and new regulations prohibit entrance without a guide, so I was hoping to do something a little more local when exploring Lake Titicaca. I found an agency, All Ways Travel, that would take you to various islands on a boat and then arrange for you to spend the night with a family living on one of the islands. This seemed so much more exciting than the day tours and it was really reasonable priced. The tour was $50 per person and then you’d pay $15 to your host family for a one-night stay and three meals. Done!

My host family. So cute!

I boarded the boat not exactly sure what to expect. I’d read that most families don’t have electricity or running water on the island, so I should be prepared for a bare bones stay. But for $15, could I really ask for more? It was also extremely cold there in the evenings and no heat, so I was advised to pack warm clothes.

I didn’t realize this until I was actually out on the lake, but Titicaca has two different types of islands. The first ones are natural islands, like Amantani where I would spend the night and Taquile, where I would also visit. These islands are larger than the look and have many different communities of people living there. Although they are part of Peru, island dwellers pay no taxes and have their own form of government, which is really interesting. The islands are very steep and mountainous and I found it difficult simply walking from the boat dock to my host family’s home thanks to the altitude, which gave me shortness of breath.

A real island in Titicaca.

The second type of islands are floating islands. These are literally islands constructed from reed that are anchored to the bottom of the lake and if they weren’t, they’d simply float away. Basically, there are very shallow sections about four meters deep that have a lot of reed. In between them there are longer sections of much deeper water. The tribes slowly build the islands made from chucks of dirt topped with criss-crossed sections of reed in the deep sections and then anchor the islands to the bottom of the lake in the shallow section. The reed continues to grow and the base strengthens and voila, you have an island. Reed is also used to construct houses on these small islands, furniture and more. Inhabitants also eat the reed and this not only nourishes them but keeps them from needing dentist visits, which is good, because as one might assume, the small island has no dental facilities.

Women on the floating island.

Although there was once just 20 or so islands, nowadays, there are close to 100. Sometimes families argue and the islands a simply split in half! Our first stop was one of these islands, called Uros. It was mind-blowing to see the primitive conditions in which the inhabitants live and really interesting to hear about their lifestyle.

A girl on the lake. I hope she is starting to learn to swim!

I saw a little girl sitting by herself and I wondered if she could swim. Apparently, there are many deaths of young children in the lake who can’t swim yet, which is really sad.

A floating island in Titicaca.

Then I spent another couple hours on the boat until Amantani, a “real” island.

Had to grab a solid nap on the boat first.

I was met at the dock by my host family, and I trekked up to their house (dying of breath). My conditions were better than I had expected – I had a bed in a small room with a door that locked with a window, separate from the house. There was a small bathroom, not an outhouse, but an outdoor room, which a regular toilet with the bucket and water you use to “flush.” This type of toilet situation is really common in Asia and didn’t phase me, in fact, the conditions were much nicer than I thought they would be.

My bedroom.

The family was six people, Alejandro, the dad, who did a variety of job like construction and farming, Blanca, the mom, and four children: the youngest, Flores who was about 4, Yesenia, 7, Matilde, 14 and Alejandro, 10. The two youngest girls were absolutely adorable, and the family couldn’t have been sweeter. This is one of the times in my life I felt so lucky (wait, lucky? I worked my damn ass off for 15 years to learn this language) to speak Spanish so I could communicate with the family. They were so patient in answering all my questions and open in telling me about their life.

Lori and Flores, the cute little girl in my family.

First things first, though. Blanca prepared a delicious lunch of quinoa soap, fresh grilled trout and different types of yuca and potatoes. Everything they eat is grown on the island, meaning it’s a lot of root vegetables and carbs, as it’s not easy to cultivate fruit there. Trout and other fish are local to the lake as well.

Life on the island.

Afterwards I headed down to check out the “town” which was the school, the library and the meeting hall. The library was pitiful, with only maybe 40 books, many of which were coloring books, for children. I added to the collection with a book I’d bought on the mainland, so they are up to 41, hooray.

I then decided to hike up to the tallest point on the island to Patchamama (it means mother earth) to check out the sunset. This was a wonderful and terrible idea. I huffed and puffed…is this what all these hard hours at the gym amounted too? Meanwhile, 70-year old women are jogging up carrying a babies and a sacks of potatoes…the altitude is seriously difficult to get accustomed to. After an intense hike, I finally made it to the top, where I bought a steaming hot mug of chocolate and a picaron, which is basically a Peruvian-style donut.

Sunset from the highest point of the island.

After I went back down (quite a bit easier than up, of course, although I needed to use the flashlight on my phone) and had dinner, corn soup and a veggie potato mix with rice. Then Blanca dressed me up traditional Peruvian clothing and we went down to the town hall to hear some traditional music. I felt a little silly slash wondered if this type  of cultural appropriation was making me an ignorant traveler, but if your host family tells you to do something, you do it!

The clock chimed 9 pm and this meant bedtime. After all, once the concert was over, there was really nothing to do. It was freezing outside, and there’s no TV. My room was super cold, and I was bundled up like a mummy to survive the night.

The outhouse. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom was CHILLY.

It worked out fine, though, as the family was up and moving around sunrise at about 5:30 am. They prepared me breakfast, a type of crepe and donut with tea and I said my goodbyes. I boarded the boat and headed to explore the island of Taquile, which apparently has a very interesting and intact culture. They are one of the few islands where all the inhabitants still dress traditionally every day.

Woman dancing in the plaza of Taquile.

They have special hats to wear noting if they are single or married, and there’s a tax if you want to visit the island  that is split between the inhabitants.

A woman weaving in Taquile.

After another intense hike, I was able to check out the main square, see incredible views of the lake and of Bolivia, which was just “across the way” and have some lunch—fresh trout with potatoes and quinoa soup.

Finally, I boarded the boat to head back to Puno, with a whole new appreciation for  this very special lake, its islands and its inhabitants.

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