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A Day on Lake Titicaca: The Uros Islands and Taquile

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Following the Peru Hop route, the most southern stop is the city of Puno at 3800m (12,500 ft) perched on the hill on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world and South America's largest lake. Following my plan to reduce altitude sickness as I travelled to Cusco, I had started the pills prescribed by my travel doctor two days earlier and was planning to spend two nights in Puno. The main attraction for me was a tour on Lake Titicaca.

Puno is a regional trade hub in the area, as well as host to many traditional festivals throughout the year. In the middle of July Virgen del Carmen festivals are celebrated in every town. Most of its inhabitants are of Andean origin (both Quechuan and Amayan) and the city has a unique mixture of modernity and Andean traditions. Women in traditional clothing live and work next to their modern versions. Some families are living in traditional settings, while enjoying modern conveniences and media.

As we arrived in the main plaza in Puno, the streets were jammed with people milling about. It turned out that a funeral procession was just leaving the church and people were gathered for a process along the main streets.

After locating my digs I settled in, I went wandering... looking for food and the World Cup game. I found a small cafe and settled in with a heaping plate of rice and beans and soon found myself amongst fellow fans. It truly is a wonderful thing to watch a great match with a bunch of avid fans in a different country. I was teased as my team lost but sympathy was given in the form of a dish of ice-cream and a glass of beer from other fans.

The actual town is not touristy in any way with all tourist activities along the main shopping pedestrian corridor and at the docks. It felt very authentic as locals went about their usual daily activities. I came across a recruitment display by the local cultural university. It appeared that the focus was on traditional arts, crafts, dancing, and music. I thoroughly enjoyed one of the dance demonstrations.I was also able to listen to several local musicians performing traditional music. Puno is said to have festivals for every day of the year, so these young performers will have many opportunities to demonstrate their talents. There was a large crowd of locals. In Puno, there was an obvious lack of tourists. I wasn't ready for a full meal but this bread drew me in. The scent lured me down the street and I devoured the warm soft bread very quickly. Upon seeing my obvious delight, the bread seller insisted I needed another saying I needed to be bigger to keep warm. It worked. I bought another.

I came across another parade, I wasn't able to figure out what exactly was being celebrated. It appeared to be several little schools with each child dressed up in a confusing array of costumes. There seemed to be no theme. There were many little princesses and Elsas, but there were also some children dressed in traditional clothing. There seemed to be teams identified by the object on the top of sticks. All seemed to be having a fabulous time, accompanied by the local police band and followed by their adoring parents and grandparents taking many photos.

This arch looked interesting so I walked up a hill to see it. Puno is very hilly and is at high elevation. I was quite surprised to realize that I needed to stop and take a break, I was so winded. It was an incline, for sure, but I shouldn't have needed a breather. It was my first sign of possible issues with elevation. Once I got to the top, it led to another neighbourhood with a yard full of kids playing football. A young couple who had been at the café earlier for the World Cup match were also there and instructed me on which team to choose for this match.

Along the fence were several plaques showing the strong Chinese influence in Perú. It was interesting to see Peruvian-Chinese fusion dishes offered in most restaurants, and the many Chinese restaurants in every city.

Much like North America, there is a long history of exploited and enslaved Chinese workers who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some arrived to provide cheap labour as railway workers or gold seekers. Many others were bought from the Portuguese and worked on plantations. Slavery was abolished in the mid-1800s. The vast majority of these workers and adventurers spent the rest of their lives in Perú, never earning enough money to return to China.

After exploring various options, I decided to join a full day tour of Lake Titicaca to include visiting the Uros Islands and Taquile Island. I was fascinated by what I had read about these two places and it appeared impossible to see them without joining a group.

We were at the docks by 8am and we set off across the bay to the Uros Floating Islands. The islands have been created by the Amaya people from the materials in the bay. Some of these islands are set up for tourists with the 'residents' heading back into the city at night but many others are inhabited full-time by the Amayan people. It's possible to spend a night on one of the islands, hosted by a resident family. I didn't do this but I have read incredible reviews of the experience and will likely include it in a future trip.

There are many little floating islands all tethered together in a community that includes 2 small schools for the children. Each island has 4-10 families, with one person elected President for each island.

The Amaya people use modern motor boats and traditional reed boats to get into town once a week with fish and craftwork that they use to barter for their needs.

The Uros people live following most of the same traditions of the previous generations with a few modern touches provided by solar panels, provided for by tourist dollars and the trade they do at the weekly markets. The island's solar panels bring some modern conveniences such as television, lights, and internet. Traditionally the men make colourful reed crafts, while the women create tapestries depicting the lives of the women who live on the islands. A new island is crafted as families grow and expand and can be part of the courting process and determination of the suitability of a potential mate.

Vincente, the President, demonstrates how the islands are built, while our guide translates.

The “falla” or roots of the lake reeds are cut and tied together. The separate blocks will bond together within a few months.

Green reeds are placed on top, then they build their homes. Vincente called this “Trump Tower”. (They obviously know their news).

The whole family will spend their mornings together meeting tourists and selling their crafts. Their afternoons are spent fishing, crafting, and preparing for market.

Before we went on the reed boat, The ladies demanded a 'fee". Three of them sang us some songs and then required us to sing a song from each of our countries in return. The Canadians sang “Land of the Silver Birch”. A young American lad sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider".

Vincente rowed us to another island where a cafe was set up for us to get some coffee and snacks. The café is community run and proceeds benefit the locals. Did I mention how good Peruvian coffee is? Once coffee was over, we went back to the tour boat and made our way down the channels towards the open water.

We passed one of the schools. The schools on the islands are for the younger children. Once they become teens they must travel to Puno for high school. Education amongst the indigenous people is very poor. The quality of instruction varies greatly and inconsistently provided. The school completion rate is abysmal but having schools close by has been essential for achieving basic literacy.

Then off we went across the lake to a real island, Taquile. Taquile is a Quechuan island, and an archeological area. Taquile is home to a community of about 2000 residents. The Taquileños are specialists in textile arts, with the men renowned as master knitters. Women spin and dye wool and weave Chumpis, the wide belts with woven designs worn by everyone in the community.

We arrived at the dock and needed to walk up a very steep path to get to the main plaza located at the top of the island (4100m). Starting the walk didn’t seem too bad....

...but we were soon gasping and panting from the high altitude exercise. Two members of our group got very ill on the way up. I stopped often for photos using that as a handy excuse to catch my breath and slow my pounding heart.

*pant, pant*. Finally made it to the main plaza, which is in the same place as it was in Pre-Incan times.

Taquile has only opened itself to tourism since the 1970s. It didn't take long for non-Taquileans to control most of the industry. However, Taquileans created an innovative, community-controlled sustainable tourism model, that offer home stays, transportation, lodging for groups, cultural activities, local guides and restaurants. The community co-operates on all aspects of the tourist services. Funds raised from sales in the craft co-operative are shared. Even the access to tourists is rotated so each restaurant has an equal chance at profits. Each boatload of day tourists is assigned a particular restaurant which serves a simple meal, offering a fish or vegetarian meal.

Following a delicious trout lunch, we took a winding trail downhill and past residences to make our way back to the docks. Luckily most of the hike was downhill.

This lady was sitting in the sun, spooling her wool. I had a bit of a chat with her, with help from my guide. She’s 62 years old (did the guide translate correctly?) and has never left the island.

Three of her 8 children have left. The other 5 still live on the island with their families. Four of her sons are master knitters. She has “too many” grandchildren.

We soon arrived back at the boat and enjoyed a swift ride back to Puno in the warm winter sun. Many were napping in their seats after a full and interesting day. We arrived back at the port just in time to enjoy the lingering twilight before the winter chill of the night set in.

Altogether it was a wonderful day. The weather co-operated by burning off the chill and morning cloud fairly early and then was brilliant and warm until dusk. Warm days always make a boat ride pleasant. I learned a lot about the indigenous people of Perú, something that I missed in my education. I was intrigued and awed by how they combine their traditional life-styles with the modern world around them.

Have you explored this area? What interesting things did you discover? Tell us in the comments about an experience that taught you something new?


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