With the beautiful mountains of Arequipa in the rearview mirror we headed further south to Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world! (Altitude 12,500 ft above sea level)
Puno is the port city of choice for most travelers although many folks find the town a bit…lacking. Upon arrival we wandered around with our Aussie mates looking for an inexpensive place to eat only to be greeted by nothing but “tourist menus.” We were also surprised that of all the places we´ve been on this trip, Puno was the most crawling with tourists! The town is nothing special but there are tons of tourist companies running boat trips to various islands on the lake.
The typical full day tour includes a stop at Uros, the floating islands. The islands are just as the name suggests – floating! The history goes that the original settlers fled the violent tribes of the mainland and set up shop on the lake. The islands are made of a reed native to the area and must be constantly maintained by the locals. There are around 70 floating islands and the particular island we stopped at was home to 10 families.
The island was very squishy underfoot and the thought of merely floating on the surface of the lake was kind of freaky! There are also various types of boats made from the reeds that the people use for transportation to and from school, the mainland, and for taking gringos on overpriced rides around the lake.
The people also use the reeds to make handicrafts for added income. I loved these mobiles but feared they wouldn´t make the journey back to the States!
The next stop on the tour was the island of Taquile. This is a regular island and is home to 2200 Quechua speaking inhabitants. The Taquileños are noted for their distinct native dress and their fine textiles. Male taquileños learn to knit at the age of six and female taquileñas make yarn and weave. UNESCO proclaimed the Taquile textiles some of the finest in the world!
The island is covered in Inca terraces that are still utilized for farming and grazing. The locals have distinct dress and use knit hats as a means of identifying marital and social status. For example, community leaders wear very brightly colored caps with colored tassles. Men carry a knit satchel containing coca leaves that they exchange when greeting other community members. Ladies wear long black shawls and their marital status is identified by the size of the tassles on their shawl.
On the day of our visit the islanders were having a grand party with dozens of bands and dance troups all playing their music as loud as possible at the same time! There was also plenty of imbibing taking place!
Overall it was a unique experience and we enjoyed the trip, even though the boats were painfully slow! The guide book notes that some people find the tours exploitative. We wouldn´t go that far because it seems to be the main source of income for the people but it was kind of cheesy to have the people of Uros singing pop songs and sending us off by saying “Hasta la vista baby!” In the end it was an enjoyable experience and a nice stopover on the route to Cusco.