Lake Titicaca is more than just the funny name you heard as a kid and couldn’t help giggling at. It is the sacred lake of the Incas known as the place where the world was created when the God Viracocha rose from its waters and created the sun, the stars, and the first people. Lake Titicaca also claims fame for being the highest navigable lake in the world at over 3,800 meters or 12,500 feet.
Its location is a beautiful one too. It’s in the high Andes in a basin resting on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Depending on who, and more appropriately which country, you ask the lake is split in ownership 60/40. Peruvians will tell you that Peru lays claim to 60% of the lake and its waters while Bolivians will tell you that they actually own 60% of the lake with Peru only laying claim to 40%. From the lake you can see the white capped Andes Mountains in the distance and you certainly feel the effects of the altitude being at such a height.
Puno, Peru on the Shores of Lake Titicaca
I arrived in Puno, Peru a few days ago ready to ride out the Mayan end of the world (that didn’t come….duh) where the Incas believe the world began. Puno isn’t much to speak of. It’s a bustling city with markets, lots of tuk-tuks, honking, and a 3 block tourist drag. I had heard good things about Puno before I arrived, some even saying they liked the city better than Cusco, but those peope should have their heads examined. It’s really just a jumping off point to explore Lake Titicaca so don’t plan a lot of time here.
The Islands of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is still home to people that live as they have for hundreds of years. On the Peru side of the lake, there are a few lakes that are worth a visit: Uros, Amantani, and Taquile Island. Each island has its own unique characteristics, from the way the locals dress, the houses they live in, and the customs they follow.
The Floating Tourist Trap Islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca
I’m sure years ago before tourism found Lake Titicaca, Uros and its people were truly something to behold. Unfortunately, by enjoying a place tourism can also change that place. That’s what I think has happened to the island of Uros.
So why is Uros a tourist destination? Well, the people that call this island (or more appropriately many islands) home made their island. The islands are actually floating on the water’s surface made from many layers of stacked reeds.
The people of Uros built their homes here as a defense mechanism. Essentially if they were threatened by enemies, they could float their islands to a new location making it difficult to locate and defeat them.
It’s very interesting to see but it’s not lost on most visitors that these islands aren’t truly inhabited anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there may still be some people that live there day to day, but for the most part you’re visiting a tourist attraction replica of what life used to be like.
That being the case it’s still pretty amazing to see, let along walk on, think squishy and soggy with each step. To keep the islands afloat a new layer of reeds is applied to the top every fifteen days and with just these reeds as a foundation, huts, people, and animals are all fully supported.
The Ancient Island of Amantani on Lake Titicaca
Amantani is a different story. It’s a regular island but with a ton of rich history. The inhabitants of Amantani are descended not just from Inca backgrounds but from Pre-Inca civilizations. While some technology has made its way to the island, life here is still very simple.
I spent the night with a local family in their upstairs Hospadaje (similar to a hostel just typically family run). This is one occasion where my Spanish both came in handy and was also utterly frustrating. I can now speak just enough to have a little bit of small talk but anything more in depth is difficult so it was challenging to truly connect with the family. Even still it was an amazing experience to stay in a true home, eat local food, and get a small taste of what daily life is like for regular people on the island of Amantani.
During the stay I had a few meals prepared in an extremely small kitchen/dining area barely big enough to comfortably sit 4 and still leave room for food preparation. In most American homes this room would be more the size of the master bedroom closet than a kitchen and dining area. All of the cooking was done on a small wood furnace which did an amazing job of preparing our meals of rice, vegetables, soups, and pancakes for breakfast. The people of Amantani are vegetarians but I certainly didn’t feel lacking in my diet while I was there.
For anyone visiting Amantani it’s a must to brave the continuous uphill walk to visit Pacha Ta Ta and Pacha Mama. These are two sites built on the highest points of the island in tribute to Father and Mother Earth. They were used in ancient times as observatories of the night sky and also for various rituals. One tradition upon visiting Pacha Ta Ta is to walk around the temple 3 times with 3 coca leaves in hand and finally make a wish and offer the leaves to the temple. I did and made my wish….I’ll let you know if it comes true.
My host family and others on the island treated us to a Fiesta with dancing and best of all the chance to try on some of the local typical dress. Before doing so I remember thinking how cold the women on the island must be with only a skirt, blouse, and shall on along with their homemade sandals. After getting dressed I realized just how warm alpaca fur really is. With the typical clothing on I was burning up even though it was pretty cold and rainy outside.
The Unique and Lasting Traditions of Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca
Taquile Island sports an even more unique culture and one that I truly enjoyed. Because the islands leaders have consciously limited the amount of tourism, their customs and value systems have remained intact over the years.
They believe in a judicious means of governing and spreading opportunity to the people of the island. There are different sections or provinces on this small island each with its own leader. This leader changes once every year so many people have the opportunity to take the position.
In addition, with tourists coming to the island, rather than having a fully competitive market they work on a system of rotation. Each family with their restaurant or craft business has their turn at hosting a group of tourists and sharing from the profits of this industry. When we arrived at the island we were greeted by one of the leaders who told us where we would be going and where we would be eating. Luckily our assignment for lunch was fantastic….the best meal I’ve had in Peru so far!
The most unique and frankly endearing characteristic of the island was the dress. Unlike the rest of Peru, the people of Taquile Island have their own unique style with a bit of role reversal thrown in. On this island, the men actually do all of the weaving and each piece of clothing actually has its own specific meaning.
For the men, there are 4 different styles of hat that they could wear. They wear a hat everyday (tourists or no) because it says something very specific about their role in the community. A hat with red and white sections is actually a sign that the man is single or not yet married. These men will also be wearing a broad white belt making it very clear to prospective women that they are available.
If a man is wearing this hat but has a colorful belt on, it means that the man is engaged to be married. Even engagements work a bit differently here. Because the Taquile islanders (just like their Inca ancestors) have no concept of divorce and very little concept of courtship, when a couple decides to marry they live together for a year or two before they actually get married. This is more of a courtship period though neither party is really able to back out at this point.
If a man is wearing a red hat and belt then this signifies that he is married. The fourth style of hat has pom poms draped from each side over the ears and is covered with a black hat. This means that the man is one of the leaders on the island….and married as you have to be to serve in this role.
The women also have symbolism in their clothing. All women on the island wear shalls with pom poms dangled from each of the four corners. Those women with their shalls across their head and face are single women. Women either wearing their shall around their shoulders or using them to carry children or goods are married women. Married women also drape the pom poms to the side of their dresses.
The pom poms that drape from the four corners of the shall are also used to communicate. Each pom pom has a different colored center and represents answering yes or no. So if a man asks women to marry him, she shows one of the corners to indicate her answer.
If only things were so simple and clear in other parts of the world!
Things to Keep in Mind for Your Lake Titicaca Visit
For your visit to Lake Titicaca be prepared for a great experience but also come with your eyes wide open. If you visit during the rainy months you’ll have to have a strong stomach as you could endure two 3-4 hour boat rides in ocean like waves like we did on the way to Amantani. Even I was about to get sick and I don’t usually have sea sickness issues. It can also get pretty chilly so either pack warm or be prepared to by some of the local goods. It’s actually a good way to help the islanders by buying your hat and gloves there instead of packing them. You’ll also want to bring a flash light, preferably a head lamp, as electricity on the island is limited to those with solar panels and many of the bathroom facilities will be outside.
Also, if you plan to stay with a family on any of the islands, don’t forget to bring some small gifts. Items like cooking oils, cooking utensils, children’s toys, or school supplies make good presents and are greatly appreciated by the families opening their homes to you.
If you’re an adventurous traveler, I recommend skipping the tour options and going it on your own that way you can go at your own pace and get a more authentic view of the islands.