Local Communities on Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca not only has a funny name, but it’s the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. In addition, various local indigenous communities make their home on its several islands (including some that are man-made!)

Pretty much everyone in Puno offers multi-day boat tours to the islands, including homestays with local families. Chris and Em had done this back in 2007 when they were in Peru, and it sounded like fun. However, we’d heard that some of the places didn’t give a fair amount to the families, and also, we thought we could do it cheaper!

Turns out we could. We headed down to the docks, asked around, and found passage on a collectivo ferry doing a 2 day tour of the three main islands, Uros, Amantani, and Taquile. This was only s/30, and added to the s/30 we’d pay directly to our host family, the whole trip ended up only being about $20. Well, ok, a little more counting island entrance fees and buying some near obligatory handmade items from locals.

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We hopped on our boat, quickly discovering that though it was a collectivo, every other person aboard was also a tourist doing the exact same thing as us. Oh well, at least we got to talk to some people. We headed out into the bay, moving at quite possibly the slowest speed a boat has ever traveled over water. No wonder it takes three hours to get to any of the islands!

About 30 minutes into our trip, we started moving through a channel, hemmed in on either side by endless floating mats of totara reeds. These are what the locals use to build the famous floating islands. They’re also used to build fishing boats, and the stalks can even be eaten. Truly multi-purpose.

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After about two hours in the back of the windy boat, with the sun getting higher in the sky, we arrived at the Uros islands. Each island is constructed of dense mats of floating totara reeds, tied together and anchored, and then covered with layer upon layer of dried reeds.

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They were quite a bit tinier than I’d thought, being only about 20-40 feet across. Each has a few houses for about 7 families, and we were quickly introduced to the local chief, a young man who was able to speak to us in Spanish, aside from the indigenous Aymara language.

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Obviously tourism is a big deal here, as they had a whole talk for us, explaining how the islands are built, including lots of props. In addition, each house was selling a myriad of textiles, bracelets, and wind chimes. I heard that it was pretty annoying, but I didn’t mind. Maybe coming prepared helps. We ended up buying a small mobile of a bird and sun, made of totara.

While we were there, we also saw the boats built of reeds, supposedly used for fishing, but I suspect only used for tourist rides (we opted out). Around the backs of the houses you could see the motorboats that were probably actually used.

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After wandering around the tight confines of the island and laughing at the antics of a chubby baby paraded out in front of us, we hopped back on our boat and began the endless three hour journey to Amantani, where we’d be spending the night.

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The sun was out in full force by now, and we curled up in balls on the back sun deck, covering our faces, and trying to stay out of the diesel fumes.

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When we finally arrived, we were ushered onto the docks and assigned in groups to the local women waiting for us, smiling and continually spinning wool.  Our lady, Rufina, greeted us happily, promptly turned, and started walking up the steep steps leading into town. We followed behind, weaving our way through a welcoming arch, lots of simple homes, and endless plowed but bone dry fields.

Our house was on the edge of town, and we arrived and promptly flopped down in our cozy little room while our mama made us a delicious lunch of quinoa soup. Amazing! We also got a glass of muña tea, a tasty minty herb that Chris and Em raved about.

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As we were eating we chatted a bit in Spanish and learned that she has five children, most who still live at home (including the daughter who is married with a baby). Her husband Andre came home from working in the fields and we chatted with him as well about living on Amantani and the difficulties of growing cereals and potatoes when it’s dry for eight months, then torrential rains for four. It was very interesting to get his perspective, and it was pretty clear that money, or lack thereof, was a pretty big thing as there’s no way to make any on the island.

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After lunch, we had the afternoon free to explore, so we decided to hike to the top of the local hill, Pachatata (Father Earth). It’s about 15 m lower than the other hill, Pachamama, but sooo much closer to us. And still, at 4000 m (1310 ft) high we were breathing hard by the time we reached the top.

On top of each hill is a temple that is only used once a year. On the solstice (if I remember right), the people of the 10 villages of the island chose two runners, one for each hill, and they have a race. If the runner on Pachamama wins, it means it will be a good year for the harvest. Seems pretty easy to rig, if you ask me. Anyway, then an offering is made at the temple of each summit.

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When we were there, we got great views looking out over the island, and the wide blue expanse of Lake Titicaca to the Cordillera Blanca mountains of Bolivia in the distance. We scurried about, avoiding the sales pitches of entrepeneurial youngsters, snapped a few pictures in the rapidly setting sun, and heading off back down the mountain, passing villagers in their fields along the way.

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When we got back home, we had an hour or two to relax yet before dinner, and we promptly curled up on one of our beds and napped. When we awoke it was to the smells of an amazing dinner of lentils, rice, potatoes, and a few veggies. Apparently these are rather rare as they have to come in from the mainland once a week. We learned that they only leave the island once or twice a year, and that it’s very hard to earn any currency, as there isn’t much crop surplus, and besides, all the communities and islands grow the same things. So to make money, people usually have to end up leaving for the mainland to work in tourism.

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In the course of the conversation we also found out that children tend to live at home for so long because they build their own homes, but it takes a lot of money to do it. So they save up for a long time. Andre and Rufina built their house twenty years ago, and they said they put up the whole first few rooms in a single day (or at least that’s what we understood). Then it was a long wait to build onto that to make it to large compound it is today.

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As we finished eating, Rufina brought out a roll containing her various handmade goods. There were a variety of hats, scarves, and gloves. We felt like we pretty much had to buy something, and were happy to do so as the quality was great, and we wanted to help out the family as well. Alina picked out a nice pair of grey and white gloves. I already had a hat from another family which Chris had bought for me on his earlier trip!

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After dinner, it was time to get ready to go to the evening’s fiesta. This was to be a party at the town hall put on for the visitors, with locals providing the music. And it turned out that Andre and his son were 2/3rds of the band! To make things even better, we were all to dress up in traditional local attire, and we’d be taught how to dance when we got there. Fun!

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I counted myself lucky that my garb consisted of a woolen poncho and a floppy eared hat. Alina had it much harder. First a very heavy skirt. Then a white embroidered blouse, and a wide belt/sash wrapped tightly several times around and tied. Finally a black embroidered shawl.

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The daughter helping her dress laughed when Alina complained about having to wear it all after just having eaten. But she looked so cute!

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We headed off into the night, following Andre through the dry fields until we reached the small concrete building of the town hall, where the other members of our boat party were waiting, and the band (big drum, very tiny guitar, and typical Peruvian pan pipes) was warming up. We were all smiles looking at each other somewhat awkwardly dressed.

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The first song started and it was like a middle school dance. Everyone sitting awkwardly around the edges of the room, not doing anything. But then some of the locals, including our boat driver, started grabbing people and whirling them around.

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Pretty soon we were all doing a group dance that moved around the room, pretty much chaos. The rhythm started slowish, and gradually got faster and faster, and by the end of a dance, we were pretty much all sweating in our heavy wool garb.

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Check it out on video!

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We got a good six songs out of the band before lame tourists decided to head to bed. Alina and I stuck it out to the end and returned back to our casa with Andre and his son, and headed to bed. In the morning Rufina prepared these delicious fried breads, kind of like non-sugary elephant ears.

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Then we headed down to the docks and hopped onto the boat for our third island stop, Taquile.

Unlike Amantani, where the different villages are pretty well spread out over the island, with each having its own small port, Taquile is built more centrally. While there are houses everywhere, it all comes together in a central plaza at the center of the island, on top of the mountain. For us, this meant a half hour or so uphill walk, along a scenic and well-constructed stone footpath that passed many houses and farms.

Once we arrived, we could see that the tourism industry was much more established here. People had set up snack stalls everywhere, and the was a homemade textiles shop set up where all the locals could peddle their wares en masse.

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The most interesting thing on Taquile was the customary dress of the men. They have typical black and white outfits, and hats that they weave themselves that denote whether they are single or married. Even the young boys wear the unmarried hats.

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After a while sitting around in the square watching life pass by, we heading across the island to the docks on the other side, where our ferry would be waiting.

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We used the opportunity to gather intel from other passengers on the other places in Peru that we’d be visiting next, notably Arequipa and Huaraz. Stay tuned to find out what happens when we get there!

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Logistics (October 2013):

Here’s what we paid per person to do a 2 day / 1 night tour of the islands independently

2 day collectivo ferry tour of Uros/Amantani/Taquile: s/30

Homestay on Amantani including lunch, dinner, breakfast: s/30

Tips for the band at the party: s/2-5 (we paid s/15 because they were our hosts)

Amantani island entrance fee (for upkeep): s/5 (but we got a 2-for-1 deal)

Taquille island entrance fee: s/7

In addition, we bought a little mobile on Uros for s/5 and a pair of wool gloves from our host family for s/20

It’s a good idea to bring a gift for your host family as well. Various guides recommend all sorts of things, including cooking utensils! We brought a bag of pasta, and a bar of chocolate. They seemed to enjoy them. After visiting, I would recommend bringing fresh fruit and veggies, as those are much more rare.

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