Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in world, standing 3,800 metres above sea level, and therefore a place likely to cause altitude sickness. We have already succumbed to this on two occasions already, in San Pedro de Atacama and during out salt flats tour, and were keen to avoid it for a third time.
Whilst we still feel lethargic and little breathless at times, overall I think that our planned route post Salar de Uyuni have been relatively conducive to minimising the impacts. Anyone unaccustomed to altitude heading to S.America would do well to research and plan to reduce its impact because it is most definitely unpleasant.
The statistics on the lake are impressive: 165km long; 60km wide; upto 274m deep; a surface area of 8560 sq km (only 71 sq km of which is land); and containing 896,000,000 cubic metres of water. It also forms the part of the border between Boliva and Peru, with the lake split 60:40 in the Bolivians favour. It feels more like an ocean than a lake (the English Channel would fit inside the length approximately 4 times).
We are nervous ahead of our planned trip to lake. This nervousness is mainly based upon the polarised reviews on our old friend Trip Advisor of what we are about to do for the next two days, which range from “experience of a lifetime” to “the worst day of our month long trip to Peru”. Sometimes you have to make your own decisions and hope they work out.
Our plans are twofold. First we have a one night “homestay” booked with a family on the Uros Islands, and then we follow this up with a day trip to Taquile Island before returning to Puno (which is actually quite a nice place once you get used to it and I was perhaps too hard on it on our first day there).
The Uros islands are an extraordinary archipelago of 80 small islands located a 20 minute motorboat ride from Puno. What makes the islands remarkable (and unique in the world) is that they are floating man-made structures.
Indigenous people have lived on them for circa 500 years when they took to the lake in boats to escape the invading Spanish, and soon found that their boats were not big enough to sustain a long term habitable environment so made their own, and they are truly amazing!
They are located relatively near the edge of the lake where the depth is around 3-5 metres, and are constructed from blocks of reed root systems tied to together (which amount to 1.5m depth) and then cut reeds just laid on top to create a layer that you walk on (about 1m in depth). They are then anchored to the lake bottom with rope and that is it. They then build simple wood / reed one storey structures and live in them.
Maintenance of the islands is a full time job. They apply new reeds to the surface about 3 times a week to account for the fact the organic matter degrades (which in reality means a constant daily process of adding new reeds to one part of the island or another), and the lifespan of an island is around 20-25 years after which time the root base material starts to give way and they sink.
When then that happens to simply build a new one and lift the buildings across to your new home (during the islands life the buildings are lifted once a year by hand, and have 1 metre of reeds placed underneath them, which slowly reduce back to ‘ground’ level over the next 12 months).
Each island is generally home to family group (three to four generations) and across the islands there are around 1,600 people. They have a church, a kindergarten and a primary school (kids travel to Puno for secondary education), and a couple of ‘mobile’ shops that move from island to island.
The lifestyle is heavily subsistence with fishing, farming (they grow crops on them), textiles being exchanged on a bartering system, and the clothing and appearance of the people seemingly unchanged over the centuries. The only real changes being solar powered light bulbs, gas canister cooking, motor powered boats and tourism.
The latter is clearly big business for the islanders. This unique existence is of significant interest to tourists (like ourselves) and has no doubt had a significant impact. The most popular way to visit the islands is on an organised tour during a day, whereby I think you get taken to an island or two for a short period of time, and by some accounts you get ‘hassled’ to buy things everywhere you look.
Instead we choose to stay on an island with a family and spend the night (arranged though http://uroskhantati.com). This turns out to be a wonderful decision and we have the most enchanting 24 hours with a family on their island. It’s still clearly a tourist activity, but we are the only guests (there should have been others but an inaccurate weather forecast of rain put them off) and have the island and the family to ourselves.
The tranquil nature of their existence is striking and we are taken out on a reed boat and shown how to cut the reeds they need, how they fish, and how to (badly) punt a boat round. We then are fed a delicious meal of soup, fresh trout and fresh fruit before we relax in the sun watching them go about their daily activities and playing cards with their beautiful children.
We are encouraged to try their traditional clothing on and given further opportunities to find out more about their way of life. This does finish with a ‘showing’ of some of the fruits of their craft activities and we oblige and make a purchase (not too much of a hard sell and we liked something enough to buy, but if you didn’t then you might have felt a little uncomfortable).
More wonderful food and conversation before we retire to our reed hut to sleep (not much to do once it gets dark). Whilst it is lovely and warm in the daytime sunshine, the altitude makes the nights cold and we are advised to sleep in our hats, with a hot water bottle made from an old pop bottle and to use all 7 blankets.
One of the things we learn about their houses is that after they have been in the sun they are not completely waterproof, but that with a period of rain the reeds swell and then form a waterproof barrier. It rained during the night and I managed to get a few drips before the sealing action took place. I couldn’t move to avoid it due the immense weight of the 7 blankets which press you to the bed!
The second part of our Lake Titicaca adventure (which we learn means Puma as from above there is a very rough Puma looking outline) is a visit to Taquile Island. Sadly time constraints mean that we cannot do another home stay (though we understand it is worthwhile if you can) and we settle for the day trip option.
The worlds slowest boat takes you across the lake and we get a precious few hours on the island. Whilst it would be preferable to have longer we do at least get a feel for the place.
The scenery is beautiful, and surprisingly similar to a Greek island. There are no forms of transport other than walking on the island, partly because at 2km by 6km at its largest its not necessary, and partly because the ‘roads’ are steep, narrow, made of cobble stones and regularly require steps to cope with the topography.
We have lunch at a local restaurant with the most amazing view out over the lake (all restaurants serve the same meal and guides agree to share the custom around) and learn about the fascinating clothing. The island is famous for the the fact the men knit, and hats and clothes are a key part of the tradition. Interestingly the colour and how you wear your clothes indicates your romantic status i.e. those too young wear different colours to those that are old enough to be looking for love, and married and unmarried people also where different clothes. It is a bit like the plumage that birds display when looking for a mate.
All too soon we need to leave and get the boat back to Puno and find that there it is full of locals resplendent in their colourful clothes. We sit at the back and share our sweets and enlist the help of a young girl to play cards on the slow (but less choppy) journey home.
The lifestyles of the people we met are as far removed from the one we are used to back in the UK as it is possible to imagine and I am glad that our initial concerns were misplaced and our two days on the islands of Lake Titicaca were wonderful and will probably be one of the cultural highlights of our entire trip.