View of Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Lake Titicaca: Cultural Islands

Jan 13, 2018 - Julie

After the whirlwind of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, we headed towards Bolivia via Puno and Lake Titicaca. Bordering both Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca (has a funny name, hehe, and) is the “highest navigable lake” in the world at 3,812m (12,507 ft) above sea level. Due to its cross-border location, both Peru and Bolivia claim to own “more” of Lake Titicaca than the other. Since we were on the Peruvian side, we heard that the lake is “60% Peruvian, 40% Bolivian.” I’m sure the opposite is said on the other side.

Puno

Right along the western shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno is one of the largest settlements along the lake as well as a port. There was a Plaza de Armas there, too, but this time we were staying right in the square. We could see it from our balcony (we felt fancy).

Julie overlooking Plaza de Armas, Puno, Peru
Julie overlooking Plaza de Armas, Puno, Peru

The main attraction in Puno was Lake Titicaca by far, so we made sure to spend our one full day in town on the lake visiting the islands.

Uros Islands

The Uros Islands are a group of floating islands close to the shore of Puno inhabited by the Uru people. The islands are entirely man-made out of totora reeds, a plant that grows abundantly in Lake Titicaca. The reeds are constantly rotting, so the Uru people are always piling more and more layers of reed to keep the islands alive and floating. It’s pretty insane!

Approaching one of the reed floating islands, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Approaching one of the reed floating islands, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We had the chance to step foot onto one of the islands. Our hosts, Olga Maria and her family, were really excited to have us visit (apparently they have a rotating schedule of tourists so each island only sees visitors a few times a month). Through our guide, they told us about life on the island, and the unique challenges they face given their home is floating and made out of plants.

Olda Maria, our host during the visit to the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Olda Maria, our host during the visit to the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

She had a mini model of the island to show us that was very helpful to understand how the island was set up. First the men collect bundles of totora reed root that were tied together to form the basis of the island that allows it to float. These bundles were then anchored to the bottom of the lake. Then piles and piles of reeds were placed on top to form the surface. Every half month to a month, more layers of reed need to be placed on top.

Small model of the reed floating islands, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Small model of the reed floating islands, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Wooden rooms were then placed on top of more layers of reed since these structures exert more weight. Fires were burned on stones as to not light the entire island on fire. Each island had a welcome arch, a watchtower, and the one we were on even had a tree (the only one)!

Overlooking a reed floating islands from the watchtower, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Overlooking a reed floating islands from the watchtower, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s crazy to think about how these people live on “land” that needs constant maintenance. The ground was definitely not solid the way we’re used to the ground being (and take for granted). The islands were designed to be defensive – should a threat appear, the islands are obviously mobile. Supposedly when the Incas invaded the area, the Uru people were driven out of the mainland. Now it’s much cheaper for them to “create” their own homes than to pay for housing on shore (though it’s a lot more work).

Wooden house on Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Wooden house on Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

To get around, the Uru people built boats out of reeds as well. They had two kinds of boats – first is a small one meant for two people (such as a romantic couple wanting private time in the reeds), second is a bigger one for more people… and tourists, haha. We went for a very slow ride (think Kerala house boat speed) on these funny-looking vessels.

Reed boats, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Reed boats, Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

One of the things we enjoy most in our travels is seeing how differently other people live, so our time on Uros Island was fascinating. It reminded us of Inle Lake in Myanmar and how those people dealt with living on water in their own manner. As differently as we may all live, we all have the same survival needs and want the same things out of life – that has been consistent everywhere we go. We are all united in our differences.

Taquile Island

Not to be confused with “tequila,” Taquile is a real island (not man-made) that is hilly and long and narrow. Descendants of Incas that speak Quechua known as Taquileños inhabit the island. Taquile is beautiful in a very simple and natural way.

Port of Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Port of Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

First, we enjoyed the natural scenery and geography of Taquile by climbing its slopes to the main square at the top. As usual during this trip, climbing in altitude meant a good amount of breaks (can’t wait to walk at low altitude again!). The views of the lake were really pretty from the island, pretty much in every direction.

View of Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
View of Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

The main square wasn’t lavish but what you would expect of an island of ~2000 people. There was a church, a school, a great viewpoint to overlook the island with the lake and mountains in the background, as well as a handicraft market.

Stone arch on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Stone arch on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It was during lunch where we really learned about the Taquileños as well as the island. Handicrafts and textiles are very common on Taquile and a big part of the culture. All the locals were dressed in traditional clothes and take part in its preparation – the males knit, while the females weave. Married men wore red hats, while unmarried men wore red and white hats. Children had their own version of hats. Equivalently, married women wore dark shawl over their heads, while unmarried women did not.

Women in Taquile weaving, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Women in Taquile weaving, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

For marriage, a man and a woman have to live together for two years before they can get married – if it works out well, they will be husband and wife forever. If it doesn’t work out, they can try with someone else. Divorce is not an option. Without commenting on the divorce aspect, the courtship model makes a lot of sense. If a couple can survive two years living together (especially on an island like Taquile), then it’s much more likely they can coexist together for a long time.

Married men have their wive’s hair woven into their colorful belts. Both men and women carry knitted bags with them. When two Taquileños meet, they exchange coca leaves from their bags with each other as a form of greeting, in lieu of handshakes/hugs.

A married Taquile man cleaning the alpaca wool, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
A married Taquile man cleaning the alpaca wool, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It was very cool to see all of this in person and meet locals. Our guide said that Taquileños have a long life expectancy (we did see quite a few locals who looked really old). I could see how that would be the case – relatively chill lifestyle (some fishing, some agriculture, some dealing with tourists), very healthy diet (lots of fish and quinoa and vegetables), and the calm and tranquility and beauty of the lake… what’s not to like?

Typical dance in Taquile displaying the cropping process on the island, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Typical dance in Taquile displaying the cropping process on the island, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We contemplated all of this on the way back to the boat with more of the serene lake views. A few sheep along the way were adorable and entertaining as well. Is the hustle and bustle of typical urbanized city life really better than this? We weren’t so sure at that moment.

Julie and Carlos on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru
Julie and Carlos on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We headed back to Puno pretty pleased with how the day went. While it wasn’t the landscape and wildlife wonders we’ve seen in other places in South America, it was so interesting to be exposed to other cultures and all the different ways that people live around the world. There is so much we can all learn from each other. Our minds have been expanded and we’re more cultured because of it.

Now to officially cross into the Bolivian side and onto one of the most anticipated parts of this trip – Salar de Uyuni!