Lake Titicaca is shared by Peru and Bolivia, and at 3,812m above sea level, is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. According to Andean legend, Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun, with Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna both accessible from the Bolivian side of the lake. For me though, staying overnight with a local family on Amantani Island in the middle of the lake was definitely a highlight.
Early in the morning I joined 12 other tourists (Germany, Austria, Spain, Peru, Chile, Denmark) on a slow boat out onto the lake. The famous floating islands of the Uros community were our first stop. The Uros started making and living on their floating islands in the lake to escape the Inca, and then just stayed. Stepping onto the reed (totara) island from the boat was a little weird. The island moves and sinks with your footsteps – reminding you that this island is in fact made from nothing other than reeds…
The leader of the community gave us a demonstration on how the island was constructed – a basis of reed roots, tied together and then layered with cut reeds in a cross hatch pattern for strength. The reeds are constantly added to from the top as they rot from the bottom in the water, so the ground is always soft and springy. The island is then anchored on all four corners so it cannot drift away in the middle of the night, and the community find themselves in Bolivia. The tourism board would like you to believe this community lives on these islands full-time, however the neighbouring island had just finished a tourist visit, and now there was no one to be seen on the island – their motorboat was also mysteriously missing… (To be fair there are other Uros communities who live on the lake fulltime using traditional methods and do not accept tourists).
A further 2.5 hours boat ride from Uros, we reached Amantani island, one of the 40 permanent islands of the lake. About 4,000 people live in ten communities on the 15km2 island. We were divided into small groups and each assigned a “family” for the next 24 hours.
I shared my “mother” with 2 other solo travellers (Germany and Austria) which was fun as we all got on really well. As is common in backpacking travel, after almost 48 hours together I was sad when we had to part company after the tour finished!
Jumping off the boat I had forgotten all about the altitude effects – mistakenly thinking I was now totally acclimatized – and following our “mother” up the steep slopes from the dock to the family houses, I could again feel my heart trying to beat its way out of my chest. After a lunch of yams, potatoes and fried cheese we rested for a while and then met the rest of the group at the basketball court so we could walk up to the ruins on top of the mountain Pachamama (4,100m) to see the sunset. Yay, more hills!
The light on Amantani was incredible, and once my heart had once again decided to beat normally, I had a fantastic time trying to capture everything with my camera. What I found incredible was that it was possible to buy woollen hats, gloves or chocolate bars on the way thanks to enterprising local women who had carried their products up on their backs in aguayos (brightly coloured shawls/blankets slung across shoulders and used to transport firewood, babies, grass for animals, or really anything else), and had everything beautifully displayed on the stone walls on the offchance of a sale!
Once the sun went down, it started to get very cold. Thank goodness for my brightly coloured Peruvian alpaca hat with ear flaps and pom poms (which I am sure made all the difference). We headed home to a delicious simple meal of vegetable stew and rice (made using a LPG gas camp stove, a pot and a frying pan) and then being 7.30pm, we were exhausted! By 8:15pm the three of us were tucked up in our beds with the lights off. As there is only generator power and no TV, wifi or even cars or dogs on the island, sleep was the best option – and we managed a solid 10 hours in the incredible silence! (Catching up after all those different beds and overnight buses).
Early the next morning after breakfast everyone headed back down to the dock with our “mothers” to catch the boat. It was sad to say goodbye to such peace and tranquility, however we all agreed that one night was probably tranquil enough for us.
Our next stop was the island of Taquile, famous for its resident men that knit. Again it was a steep walk up to the top of the island and then more or less a flat walk to the main square. Taquile felt more touristy than Amantani, and although the knitted products were excellent, at this point we all owned woollen hats and gloves so not many sales were made.
After a lunch of grilled fish, rice and potatoes we descended 530 stone steps to the dock to the boat home. Clambering down all I could think was how glad I was we hadn’t come up this way!
Another 2.5 hours later we arrived back in Puno. My friends and I had stayed on the top of the deck chatting for the ride home due to the beautiful sunny weather – however once again I had forgotten about the effects of altitude, and now have a very very tanned face and arms and a peeling nose. Always a great look.
Doing a boat ride onto Lake Titicaca is pretty touristy – most people just spend the day visiting different communities but I think it’s definitely worth taking the time to do a homestay where you can interact with local people and experience a way of life totally different to your own. Returning to my hostel in Puno and having electric lights, microwaves, hot water and TV at the touch of a switch – as well as the ability to buy fruit (not grown or available on Amantani) has made me appreciate the conveniences I have on hand.