Puno – Lake Titicaca & Floating Islands in the Clouds
Ever since I can remember, my mother has had a thing about Lake Titicaca (pronounced Titihaha). Maybe it’s the name, maybe it’s a thought-relic from school geography? In any case, we count ourselves fortunate to be heading there from Cusco. We had dreams of living on floating reed islands, but we’d previously been disavowed of the notion of a purely cultural experience: friends and the web told us that the Peruvian side of Titicaca has been touristificated. The word was that Puno is not great and that the locals like a drink or four (note to self: seems to be an inherent contradiction there).
We arrive mid-afternoon after a journey through high mountain plains. At first view from ground level (ground here being 4000m high), the lake doesn’t seem that big. However after checking in to our hotel we take a walk up to a viewpoint (slowly, since at 12,000ft it seems a little tricky to breathe) and the scale soon starts to become apparent. We are next to a small ocean in the clouds! Lake Titicaca is 190km long and 90km wide.
So what of Puno, the town sitting alongside? Actually we quite like it. During the day it is hot and sunny. At night it is freezing: the chilly wind cleaves right through you. The main street to the plaza is lively with gringos and locals alike. It reminded me a little of a UK high street around Christmas time (if that makes any sense in June): cheery people wrapped up, bustling and busy. Plenty of eateries, plenty of tourist shops, tour agents and bars. Due to environmental conditions we are forced to adopt a nightly habit of taking in a hot wine or two as defence against the cold. We are also forced to beg for a heater for our room, since Peruvians seem to regard heating as being for wimps. Or maybe they are all wrapped up in an Alpaca blanket in their homes in the evening. We haven’t determined the reason…yet.
And so to Puno’s tourist raison d’etre: lake trips. We booked a day tour that would purportedly take us through a flotilla of 78 floating reed islands before a visit to the Uros reed islands and, finally, lunch and an afternoon on the isle of Taquile. As is often the case in South America, all is not as advertised. Point 1 on the agenda is entirely bypassed, so we didn’t get to see the real work-a-day islands. Still, let’s go with what we did get 😉
All the boats take off around 7:30am through a channel lined by reeds, clear skies and still water. The reed beds to our left go on for miles and probably cover an area the size of a small English home county. As we clear the channel, we start to see small fishermen’s boats silhouetted in the rays of the low sun. After an hour or so, I ascend onto the roof of the boat and slowly the Uros islands slip into view. Before long we’re directly alongside, being greeted by the inhabitants and disembarking.
The islands are entirely constructed of reeds with a few additions: solar panels, television and some lights. It’s hard to know the size, but perhaps they’re twenty to thirty metres diameter. Walking across is spongy and comfortable. We’re immediately corralled into the centre to sit on reed benches and watch as the island president explains the construction of the floating islands:
- Root balls from the reeds are cut up and stakes inserted. These provide the main float.
- The balls are fixed together and reeds layered over criss-cross ways. Each layer is left a week or so before the next is added perpendicular.
- Voila – a year later you may have an island
- To prevent unplanned excursions into Bolivia, they’re anchored to stakes in the lake
- Our island has a population of 27.
- The small huts on the islands are constructed of reeds too.
Explanation over, we’re informed that they help support themselves through crafts. If we don’t want to buy any of the stuff presided over by runny-nosed tiny girls, we can take a trip on a reed boat for 10 Soles each. That’s the option everyone chooses. Impressively they fit 20 onto the boat a real life reed boat complete with Jaguar prow….and filled with 2000 empty plastic bottles for flotation. I’ll choose to believe in this as a practical modern upgrade rather than as inauthentic. It still felt very cool to be punted around the two islands by a chap in a presidential, woolly, bobble hat.
As we round the back of the island, we see a row of speedboats, which I suspect are used to ferry 27 people back home each night after the tours end. Call me cynical but I sense this way of life has all but evaporated, the last vestiges maintained for avid gringo-trailers like ourselves. And you know what, this time I don’t care…sometimes the cynic needs to realise that whatever the case, someone went to the trouble to build a big bastard floating island and houses on a lake at 4000m to make my day better. It worked, thank you, you very much deserve to spend your evening in a nice warm home on-shore watching bad TV…have a beer on me!
And so onwards to the isle of Taquile. As we pull up to the dock and before our hike starts our guide asks us to read the island rules:
Don’t take photos of people without permission
Don’t give the kids candy, as it is bad for them
Guides – be fair in choosing restaurants, i.e., circulate your business
Two costumed island elders look on to ensure an appropriate degree of sincerity is maintained. At this point, the sun is high and we have clearly been transported to a sun-kissed Greek island. The idea is to walk over the island via the plaza for lunch.
The walk is spectacular: beautiful terraces, roadside wild flowers, no vehicles and a stone built path to follow. In the fields: colourful locals, and occasionally we’re passed by people in various forms of traditional dress. More on that later.
We get to the plaza, where the knitting men hangout. Yes, it is the men who do the knitting here. It’s large, almost deserted: the knitting men’s co-op is on one side next to a ramshackle church. There is a signpost detailing distances to all the worlds major cities, except they all point in the wrong directions. A grizzled old man sits outside the church knitting. That guy could easily constitute the entire syllabus of a photography course by himself. We’re too chicken to ask him for a picture, but others do.
**Taquile Dress Code** It's all in the hats and skirts: - Long floppy wizard hat - White and red = guy is single - Red = guy is married or widowed within last three years - Rainbow coloured bobble hat - Guy is a community leader or son/relative of one - Ladies' skirt - Black if married (Alison says: "because they are in mourning") - Coloured if single - Belt pouches - Carried by the gents, they contain coca leaves. Standard greeting is an exchange of leaves rather than a hand shake.
At lunch, we get talking to Michael and Ita from Stockport, England and, during the remainder of the return trip to Puno, we banter happily away, soaking up the sun. As we blether on the top deck of the boat I can feel my skin start to burn.
Three hours later we’ve made new friends and we’re back in Puno, exhausted and happy. Most definitely time for a cup of hot wine and a free Pisco Sour! Not a bad way to say good-bye to Peru.