We Visit Lake Titicaca

We came to Puno to see its top tourist attraction – the Uros Islands – manmade, floating islands on Lake Titicaca, a large, deep lake in the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru. By volume of water and by surface area, it is the largest lake in South America.

The Uru or Uros are an indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia. They use the totora reed, which is plentiful along the edges of the lake, to make their homes, their furniture, their boats, and the islands on which they live. 

These women were waving as our boat pulled up. They demonstrated how the islands are constructed and invited us into their homes. The one-room home we visited had 3 beds for a family of 4 and clothes hanging on the walls. Outside was a large communal reed ‘sofa’ covered with textiles.

Just a few miles from shore are approximately 100 man-made floating islands. The larger islands house about ten families, while smaller ones house only two or three families.

The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive; if a threat arose the floating islands could be moved. Today, if they have problems with the neighbors they move their islands or cut them in half! 

The islands are made of totora reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that the plants develop and interweave form a natural layer that support the islands which are cut into blocks. These foundation blocks are anchored together by ropes attached to sticks driven into them and then anchored to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. Bundled reeds are layed crisscross to a depth of 4-8 feet. The reeds at the bottoms of the islands disintegrate fairly quickly and new reeds are added to the top constantly. Prior to using synthetic rope, the rope had to be replaced every year. Today, synthetic rope lasts 30 years.

The houses sit atop a foundation of additional reed bundles to stay dry. Most of the islands have solar power.

Each step on an island sinks about 2-4″ depending on the density of the ground underfoot. As the reeds dry, they break up more and more as they are walked upon. As the reed breaks up and moisture gets to it, it rots, and a new layer has to be added to it. It is a lot of work to maintain the islands.

Food is cooked on these pottery stoves placed over fires built on piles of stones. Extra bundles of reeds ready to be used as needed.

Much of the Urus’ diet and medicine also revolve around the same totora reeds used to construct the islands. When a reed is pulled, the white bottom is often eaten for iodine. 
Some of the islands have netted pools where they raise fish to eat. Birds are also kept for eggs.

This is Marta and although her thick braids are still black I was surprised that she was 52. They all looked older than their ages.

Tourism provides financial opportunities for the natives, while simultaneously challenging their traditional lifestyle. Their lifestyle is further challenged when young people leave the islands for their education and don’t wish to return.

The boats are also constructed of reeds and canoe-shaped, but with animal heads at the prow. In the catamaran style, two canoes are latched together with a structure. Paint preserves the reeds.

The Urus supplement their hunting and fishing by conveying visitors to the islands by motorboat and selling handicrafts. There is a rotation schedule for tour operators bringing tourists to the islands so all benefit equally. After showing us her home, we felt compelled to buy something without haggling from 17-year-old Rosa.

Taquile Island

After visiting the Uros Islands, our full-day excursion took us another 2.5 hours further out into Lake Titicaca to Taquile Island. 

Taquile’s fine textile are are renowned the world over and are protected as a UNESCO world heritage subject. On this tiny spot of land in the middle of Lake Titicaca the only ones who do the knitting are the men. 

The craftwork is divided between weaving and knitting; women do the weaving, while the knitting is man’s work. The tradition begins when they are young as boys on the island begin learning their trade at the tender age of 8. Chief among these crafts are the iconic Chuyo hats that many of the locals wear – and designate their marital status:   red if married and a white top if unmarried. Women can also be found making yarn and are the weavers of the Chumpis, the wide belts with woven designs worn by everyone in the community of Taquile. 

We docked and had to climb to the village. It didn’t look like it would be too difficult, but we were very winded at this elevation! The highest point of the island is 4,050 metres (13,287 feet) above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 metres (12,959 feet).

Taquileños run their society based on community collectivism and on the Inca moral code: “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. There is no police, there is no crime. They grow most of their food on terraced plots of land. If one was dropped out of a plane and didn’t know where they were, they might guess Greece or another Mediterranean locale.

The border between Peru and Bolivia crosses this huge lake. The snow-capped peaks are in Bolivia. Our boat dropped us off at one end of the island before picking us up at the opposite end so we could walk the length of it.

Our excursion included a local, delicious lunch of a quinoa vegetable soup and very fresh and flavorable trout while enjoying this fantastic vista of a Lake Titicaca.

These were just 2 of the many children on the island selling woven bracelets. I asked this little girl to pick out her favorite for me!

Time to head downhill to the marina and say goodbye to Taquile Island. This old man was sitting and knitting by the gate. The knitting is with 5 or so very slender needles making detailed hats so fine that they could carry water!

We comfortably traveled on the Cruz del Sur coachline from Arequipa to Puno in 6.5 hours. It was a very short stay in Puno. We booked the Lake Titicaca excursion for the next morning through our hostal which included roundtrip transfer to the marina. We had coffee on the Plaza de Armas and walked a bit before calling it a day. The following morning was another early start, this time back to the bus station to travel more than 7 hours to reach Cusco. 

We came to Puno. We saw the number one tourist attraction. We then left!

Much of this information is copied from http://www.atlasobscura.com and Wikipedia. 😌 (Hey! I’m on vacation!)

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