Friday, April 15, 2016

Puno, Peru: Lake Titicaca, Peruvian Side (With Floating Islands!)

After departing from Copacabana, I continued my way up North to the other side of Lake Titicaca: to the city of Puno, in Peru.  Lake Titicaca is shared between both Bolivia and Peru (the Peruvian side has more of the lake, ~60%), but the differences between the sides couldn't be greater.

What It's All About:
Puno is a city on the Western edge of Lake Titicaca, located in Southern Peru. It's actually Peru's second most popular tourist destination (after Machu Picchu, obvs) - mainly because of the unique island communities you can visit nearby.  Namely, the Uros Islands (floating man-made islands made of reeds!), Amantani Island (a very traditional island where you can stay with a homestay family), and Taquile Island (famous for textiles, and where the men knit everything!) - are three islands in Lake Titicaca that you can access from Puno.  Conveniently, these are the islands I visited on my trip!

A local woman hauling crops on Amantani Island

The one downside is that everything is incredibly touristy. There are a bajillion tours that offer trips/tours out to the islands, and it seems like many things are set up especially for the tourists - it's one of those places where when tourists appear, the locals (all wearing very traditional wear) will break into traditional song and dance (which they obviously probably wouldn't do if the tourists weren't there), and then try and sell you souvenirs. It does feel a little like 90% of the reason these locals maintain their traditional lifestyle, is for the sole purpose of entertaining tourists.

That being said, I was super glad I visited. Regardless of the song-and-dance you're presented with as a tourist, it is honestly amazingly interesting to see how these people used to live and how many still live today. Some parts feel like you're taking a step back in time; and even if some parts are a little contrived, there are equal parts where you can see authenticity sprinkled in. And it is fascinating. So cool to see, and it doesn't hurt that Lake Titicaca provides a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop wherever you go.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • On the bus from Copacabana to Puno, I ran into a Dutch couple that had been on the Death Road bike tour with me in La Paz.  Kevin and Marleen are also traveling through South America for a couple months, and they are great.  Once arrived in Puno (4 hours later), I said good-bye to Nicky (he was headed further West to Arequipa), and Kevin, Marleen, and I decided to all head to the same hostel.  From the hostel, we booked a 2-day/1-night tour of the islands for the next day together.
  • The next day, we were picked up bright and early from the hostel and shuttled to a boat in the harbor.

On the boat from Puno!  Right behind me are Marleen and Kevin

Bye, Puno!

The Peruvian flag majestically waving at the head of our boat

  •  Our first stop was 30 minutes, out to the Floating Islands of Uros!  These islands are crazy - there's about 80 of them, they're man-made out of reeds that naturally grow in the area called totora, and the resulting reed islands float on top of the water.   The locals who live on the island have to constantly add layers of the reeds on top as the years go by, and each island will last for about 30 years - at which point they will create a new floating island and move to that one, as the old one will disintegrate into the water.

Arriving at one of the floating islands of Uros!  The various islands will take turns hosting the tourists that come out to visit, so that no one island is overwhelmed with tourism.

This island is home to about 6 families

Marleen and I on the floating island

We were given a demonstration of how an island is created (the process of making a new island takes about 5 years). They chop off these floating/buoyant chunks of land, then overlay it with the reeds. Each island is about 6 feet thick, and reed layers have to be added weekly, in order to maintain the island.  The reeds also bind together the chunks of floating land underneath.  The houses are also made of reeds and sit on top of the entire floating contraption.

Walking on reeds is weird. One thing for sure, there is definitely no running or exercising.

This is the island chief's home. The large silver pole is a solar panel, as they now get electricity into their homes.  

Inside the chief's home - just an area for sleeping. Now that there's electricity (a fairly recent development), the family also has a tiny black-and-white TV they watch sometimes. Our guide was explaining that having this access to the outside world has caused more children to want to move to the city and away from this traditional lifestyle (because living on floating islands you constantly have to add layers to and building new islands and not having easy access to anything is a tough life!)

Tourism is now the main industry for the people of Uros, as evident by the heavy selling of handicrafts and souvenirs

This is a boat made of reeds - which last about 2 years.  They kept calling this "the Mercedes-Benz of boats" and then offered us a ride on it around the lake (this is apparently a popular activity because you know, there's really not much else to do). And then once we'd taken a ride on it, they asked us for 10 Peruvian soles a person. 

Floating around on Lake Titicaca

Then we got back on our real boat (complete with sundeck!) and drove from the Uros Islands to the island of Amantani

  • From the Floating Islands of Uros to Amantani was about 2-3 hours.  After arriving on Amantani, we were quickly divided up into groups to meet with our homestay families we'd be staying with for the night.

Kevin, Marleen, and I stayed in a house together - this was our host family's house!

Our host family was pretty baller and had a second-story.  The bathroom, however......another story

More of the house

My room!

Our family made us lunch.  Which consisted of quinoa soup, and 10 million kinds of potatoes. I'm not even kidding. A major, major part of their diet is potatoes. There were regular-looking ones, purple ones, long thing carrot-looking ones, etc. Kind of like Forrest Gump, and Bubba is naming all the shrimp dishes - but potatoes.
Biggest regret: not getting a potato photo.

View from our seat in the kitchen. Yes, those are tons of guinea pigs running all around the floor. They seriously were running amok; squeaking like crazy and running into each other and darting in and out from under the table.  It was like watching our own version of the nature channel during mealtimes. Seriously.
We were maybe hoping they were family pets (as Peruvians do eat guinea pig, which they call cuy) - but were too afraid to ask. But our questions were pretty much answered when Marleen asked how many they had, and the wife shrugged her shoulders.
(Right before we left, we did ask - and yes, they are guinea pigs for eating).

Amantani was a gorgeous island - also no vehicles. It felt like we were living back in time.

Lavender! I think!

  • After lunch with our families, we met up with the larger collective group again (and our tour guide). We were supposed to go hiking, but first headed to the other side of the island to watch a local soccer match. There was some kind of tournament going on by age group and sex, and a bunch of the communities on Amantani had collected to watch.

The first game we got to watch was teenage girls - and many play soccer in their full, traditional skirts!  A bunch were also playing in their sandals, which I don't know how their toes didn't fall off.  This was incredibly great to watch.

A whole bunch of the towns show up to watch

  • After watching a couple games, we headed off on our hike.  There are two peaks on the island with Inca/Tiwanaku ruins - one is dedicated to the god Pachatata (Father Ocean), and the other is dedicated to Pachamama (Mother Earth).  The hike really wasn't that bad, except it WAS that bad, because despite having been at high altitudes for 2 weeks - the high altitude of Lake Titicaca made every step super difficult. It's like never getting to catch your breath properly. Marleen and I did manage, however, to wheeze our way to the top.

Views of the island and Lake Titicaca from the top of the peak

We made it without our lungs exploding! Hooray!

The archway entering the ruins of the temple dedicated to Pachatata

At the top, Kevin, Marleen and I bought choco and beer to settle in and watch the sunset

Sunset <3 <3

This is our entire tour group with the sunset

  • Later that evening, we returned to our host families for dinner with them.  After we'd finished our meal, our host mother suddenly popped in the door with an armful of clothes and indicated we should stand up.  She then proceeded to dress us in traditional clothing (over our 3 layers of clothing, might I add)(I feel the need to point this out because we looked huuuge in this clothing) and tell us she was taking us out for a party.

Marleen, Kevin, and I in our traditional clothing. You can see we all have our pants and tennis shoes on underneath. Also, the giant thick colorful belts Marleen and I are wearing = basically a corset that prevented breathing

  • So pretty sure this is one of the parts of our tour that was a complete song-and-dance (pun intended) for the tourists, but they basically had a "traditional dance party" with all the tourists and their local families. We walked out to a concrete structure, where they had a band inside - and everyone was dressed up in traditional clothing.

Here is the band - not sure how thrilled they were, considering they probably do this with tourists every night.

These three local women would sit there and gossip, then out of obligation, they'd get up for a song and drag a couple tourists out to the dance floor to dance with them. And then promptly go back to sitting in their corner.

Twirling with tourists

These embroidered shawls are super important to the women; they're usually gifted to them by their husbands when they get married. 

  • Olé! After a couple hours of ridiculous dancing like idiots (which again, feels like running a marathon in this altitude), we headed home around 9pm.  The island was pitch dark - we had to use our flashlights to navigate home, but the sky was studded with so many stars.  I will never, ever get tired of gazing at the night sky in these parts.
  • The next morning, we said good-bye to our homestay families, and were marched out to a brief farming demonstration (the main profession and way of life for families on Amantani).

This is the grandchild of our homestay family - he was the CUTEST. He's clutching in his hand a new shirt his mom had bought him the day before - it's a soccer shirt, and he was so excited about the purchase that he insisted on putting it on to show his grandpa ASAP.

Farming demo! They first had us break up the soil with traditional farming tools. Confession; we were all terrible at this. I want to send these people a tractor.

Then we tilled the soil (is that a thing? I imagine the word "till" means to make it plantable. But the city girl in me may just be making that up).

One last picture-perfect view of Lake Titicaca from Amantani

  • After being totally useless at learning to farm (I think the tiny plot of land we "set up for farming" would have been enough to grow like, 2 potatoes) - we headed back to our boat and bid adieu to Amantani Island. We sailed on over to nearby Taquile Island (you know, the textile/man-knitting island I mentioned) to explore for the day.

First, we walked to the main square on Taquile Island

On Taquile, which is known for its textile/embroidery, the men are taught to knit everything. If a man can't knit, he isn't a suitable partner for marriage. He even knits his own hat, the pattern of which indicates if he is single or married (the man with the white-tipped hat is single).  Umm why can't we have this system in the States. It would be much easier to determine who is a complete waste of time to talk to.

Lunch was trout from the lake! With a viewwww (of Marleen and Kevin's shoulders, that is)

During lunch, this Taquile man showed us various traditions, dances, songs, and the best - a local plant that creates shampoo!  It's the plant that's on the stone - you add some water and lather away. He demonstrated using some dirty gray llama wool that he scrubbed into pristine, white perfection

Views from the top of Taquile Island. The archway is adorned with carvings of the local men (and their traditional hats!)

  • Post the gorgeous lunch and local demonstrations, we all filed aboard the boat again and set off back home to Puno.  

Bye, Taquile Island!

  • Visiting the islands of Lake Titicaca was yes, touristy - but you can't beat the stunning views, and you definitely pick up a semblance of traditional life on the island. This in itself was so, so fascinating - I loved getting to stay with a family, and to see how different life on each different island was.  And the entire experience was so FUN.  Totally a worthwhile stop - thanks, Animaniacs, for sparking this interest in Lake Titicaca so long ago!

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Both the Bolivian and Peruvian sides of Lake Titicaca joke that they have the side that is "Titi," while the other country has the side that is "caca." #SouthAmericanjokes
  • "Titicaca" actually means "rock of the puma."  This is because Lake Titicaca is shaped like a puma, though it remains a mystery how the ancient people who named the lake knew that it was shaped like a puma (because honestly, this lake is huuuuuge).
  • In case you were wondering, Lake Titicaca is 100 miles by 40 miles, and ~900 ft deep.
  • The Floating Islands of Uros go back to 800 B.C. (eep!).   Also, the people who live on the islands have to take a boat 5 minutes away from their island to use the bathroom. This seems like a major pain. What if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night??
  • Just in case you think travel's all sexy and jazz, see Exhibit below, where I was eaten alive by bedbugs on Copacabana:


No comments:

Post a Comment