Lake Titicaca-innocence preserved
‘Titi’ is a large cat, puma you can say, ‘caca’ is grey. Titicaca was named after the large grey cats that inhabited its shores many years ago,“ claimed our guide Caesar. The world’s highest navigable lake stretched to the horizons in a roll of deep velvety azure which contrasted against the sky in a feast of blues. Titicaca was our last destination on a two week tour of Peru. After the lushness of the rainforests, rugged beauty of the Andes in the highlands, the gentle waves were Peru’s next offer in lavish variety.
A motor boat manned by two ‘captains’, as rules dictate nowadays, was to be our transport for the next two days. As we left the shores of rather non-descript Puno, there soon appeared stretches of floating reeds with long slender green stems. The boat cut through a channel between the reeds. In less than an hour we had reached the floating islands-Uros.
We passed by the ‘touristic’ Uros, a set of model islands neatly manicured for tourists with elaborate reed boats out of picture postcards. A few more minutes and we had moored near a ‘non touristic Uros’, an island that housed the families of three brothers. Children ran around excited,teenagers helped anchor our boat near their island, warm welcomes and enthusiastic handshakes made their rounds as the islanders expressed delight at visitors.
The eldest brother and his wife quickly monopolized our attention. We had arrived around midday, when lunch preparations were at their peak. ‘Titicaca chickens’ were being plucked in pots ready for the boil, fires were burning. Our host gave us a demonstration of how the islands were built- first blocks of reed roots were strung together to create a foundation. This was followed by multiple layers of reeds laid at right angles to each other, to give the island thickness and body. Reed houses, kitchens, a tall observatory and a gate were then set on the base. Finally eight anchors were placed to give the island stability (‘or else we might go to sleep in Peru and wake up in Bolivia’, laughed our host). His wife Amanda gave us a tour of the kitchen and bedrooms. Impressive wooden beds and layers of blankets had been squeezed into the reed huts. More gobsmacking were the up to date music systems and a television that had found its way into the living quarters.
This was followed by an exhibition of merchandise, mostly elaborately detailed embroidered handicrafts. Our host then offered a relaxing reed boat ride around the island for 15 minutes for 10 soles each. Midway through our ride we were entertained by his son’s demonstration of school learning in the form of enthusiastic nursery rhyme singing.
Back on the island, I climbed a rickety rather wobbly ladder to the observatory ‘tower’ for a view around the island. A few final photographs and it was time to say bye to our hosts. Caesar explained how the people of Uros held no documentation for their identity. Hence to the government of Peru, they have no existence. Their children rarely go to high school, much less to University. But they remain happy and content with their lot with no dissatisfaction.
We left the fields of reeds and floating islands behind to continue for another hour and a half to Amantani- a bigger island where we would spend the night. A variety of birds, snow-capped mountains from Bolivia made for satisfying photography. My husband had left most of the planning to me and all he knew was that we were spending the night on Titicaca. On the way to Amantani, he confirmed with me that it was a real island we were staying in and not a floating reed one. For a brief moment on Uros, he had wondered whether I had arranged for a night stay in a reed hut on a reed island.
Amantani came into view in terraced steps of gold, brown and green contrasting against the blue of the lake. We were greeted at the pier by our homestay host Constantino and guided along rural trails to a pleasantly neat two storey house with terracotta coloured walls. Our room was spacious, with two beds and several layers of blankets. The window looked out over the water in a sparkling view of mountains and lake.
We were introduced to Irdousia, the ‘mama’ and Ruksana the eldest daughter of the household. Lunch was a bowl of quinoa soup followed by plates of fried cheese, various potatoes and vegetables, washed down with fragrant herbal tea. The skies were turning an angry grey at this stage, so we gave up ideas of further hiking and rather cosied up on the bed, positioning ourselves near the window to witness storm over lake Titicaca and sunset if we were lucky. We watched the skies and water change colour- grey to tinged with gold or silver, rays bursting to form haloes over the mountains. Soon it started raining in earnest but cleared in time to give us a golden sunset.
Just before dinner, Ruksana appeared with a bag of merchandise- finely knitted caps, gloves, sheep and llamas. After some homely shopping, we settled down to a meal with the family, this time rice and a mixed vegetable stew.
Soon after dinner, Ruksana’s sister appeared to dress me up in local garb- a black full skirt, embroidered white blouse with long sleeves, a tight belt and a heavy black veil with embroidered edges. My trousers and walking books stuck out from below my skirt but this was acceptable for a tourist. And then it was party time. Ruksana, her sister, Ceasar and I walked to the plaza and then a few steps away from it to a small hall where the music and dancing was in full swing as we arrived. A live band of islanders were playing traditional instruments and singing folk songs. The dancing was a mish mash of traditional with tourists doing their own steps- but everyone was having a great time.
Initially feeling a bit tired and cold, I had hesitated to come to the party. Once there, it was difficult to leave when the drums rolled. Looking at my watch, I gave myself one more number before calling it a day. On the way back, we were rewarded by one of the best night skies I have ever seen.
Millions of stars and the Milky Way were signs that the skies had cleared.
The next day dawned absolutely gorgeous. A few wisps of clouds floated in a tranquil blue sky. Waking at dawn refreshed, we were greeted by the relaxed morning proceedings of the island. Islanders went around their daily tasks with none of the hustle bustle that marks modern life. Something appears to have remained untouched and naive on the Titicaca islands. Caesar gave us further insights over breakfast about Constantino’s strong voice for the islanders in negotiating terms for homestays with travel companies, how our wiry host was a leader amongst his people- respected and listened to.
Over delicious sweet fried bread with honey and tea we listened to stories of how the islanders helped each other to build houses, sorted rotas for tourist stays to make sure that everyone benefitted equally, how they preserved their tranquil world away from the interference of Peruvian mainland. Tourism has failed to spoil the freshness of the Titicaca settlements.
After a group photograph with the family, we exchanged hugs and kisses as we said good bye. We walked to the plaza in daylight, passing by the island’s impressive school grounds. Then as we descended to the pier, we walked by a colourful local weekly market, painted in the colourful striped hues of Peru we had come to be so familiar with by now.
Bidding farewell to Amantani, it was now time to visit Taquile, a 40 minute boat ride away. Similar terraces and colours marked the island which was of more moderate proportions but equally picturesque. Taquile is even more untouched compared to Amantani. The local population has an almost communist approach to economy and division of wealth and labour. We hiked for an hour up to the main plaza. On the way we encountered shepherds tending their flocks and knitting simultaneously as they strolled the rocky roads effortlessly. Shy girls in colourful skirts and pompoms on their veils passed by with quick steps and hardly a look in our direction. Matrons in black skirts were more social and confident. Caesar explained how the dress could indicate matrimonial status- colourful skirts for maidens, black skirts for wives, different caps for bachelors and married men.
From the plaza, I accompanied Caesar for another hour’s hike to Masuni Tata which holds the ceremonial tombs and temples of pre-Incan kings. Not much is left of the ruins but views are breath taking and a temple is the most intact structure on the island. Pretty arches frame views of the lake throughout the walk.
Lunch was at a restaurant where we requested trout which was served with chips and vegetables. Too soon it was time to turn back to Puno.
The two hour boat ride back, sitting on the deck with sunshine warming our faces and Titicaca sparkling around us framed by mountains, is my favourite boat ride to date. We passed through the reeds again, retracing our route. We waved to the people on the Uros, we looked out for birds within the reeds, we simply sat back and lazed.
Puno loomed at a distance; I just wished this boat ride could go on forever.