At 3820m, some say it’s the highest navigable lake in the world. Some say that’s a load of bollocks but whatever, when you’re travelling from Peru to Bolivia (or vice versa) Lake Titicaca is a handy place to cross the border and it’d be rude not to check out the islands on the way for that all important culture fix. Now, you can do this independently but you can also do a tour thus cutting out having to actually think for yourself. I gotta admit, the second option was appealing to me more right now, I felt like getting my tourist on, sitting on a boat being ferried from island to island whilst snapping photos, being told stuff and perusing handmade trinkets. I had to fight the urge to don a hideous, loud shirt, wear socks with my sandals and sling my camera round my neck.
So I was picked up from my hostel in Puno and taken to the docks where we jumped on the boat to be taken to the first set of islands, las Islas Flotantes. The floating islands. So called because they float. So that makes sense then. Originally home to the Uro people who wanted to isolate themselves from invading cultures the islands are now a buoyant tourist trap made entirely of totura reeds. Like, everything is made of totura reeds. The boats, the houses, the tacky souvenirs and yep, even the islands themselves and everything is geared towards the walking wallets that visit and purchase aforementioned totura related tacky souvenirs.
So we sat like good little tourists while we were told how the Uro people used to live, how the islands are constructed and have been for centuries, we were shown weavings and examples of their staple diet which also includes, you guessed it, totura reeds. Oh come on people, you can take something too far y’know. But when in Rome you do as the Romans do and when sat on an island at the edge of Lake Titicaca you eat reeds so we peeled the green outer layer off and took tentative bites of the crunchy, white insides.
Now, not that I’m any kind of food critic but I’d describe it as celery’s evil cousin; it doesn’t taste of much but the texture puts me off. As the others chewed on their reeds, nodding their heads and making the universal, language barrier breaking noises indicating culinary satisfaction I tried to work out the most subtle way to remove it from my mouth and deposit it with it’s dried brethren on the floor and as I did my eyes wandered over to an island across the water which had a little fire going.
The idiocy of having a camp fire on an island made entirely of kindling did cross my mind but soon trickled out of my ear before I thought to alert anyone as I tried to concentrate on island construction methods. It was only two minutes later when the fire was being frantically doused with buckets of water and hastily rebuilt with new reeds that it clicked in my sleepy brain that yes, a fire on one of these islands wouldn’t be intentional. I pulled my hat further down and pretended not to notice.
Out of the three islands we visited on this two day tour, the floating islands were definitely the most interesting and not only because they’re so photogenic. There’s a kiosk on a boat that floats from island to island which is just cool and as you leave the islands the women line up in their brightly coloured traditional dress calling out in unison, and I shit you not, “Hasta la vista, baby.” Cultures exploited and warped by tourism and commercialisation? What? Where? Hilarious. Oh, and just in case you were thinking of taking a refreshing dip in the waters around the islands just have a long, hard think about where the toilets are…
After a leisurely cruise across South America’s lake we docked at Isla Amantaní where we’d be spending the night. Accommodation is allocated on a rotating system and you stay with a family in their adobe house so off we went in groups with our hosts. I was with a couple of Kiwi chicks whose names currently evade me staying with a family with two kids. Of course, no South American adventure is complete without a walk up a hill before dinner and there are two hills on the island, Pachamama which is Quechua for Mother Earth and Pachatata, Quechua for Father Earth.
We had a wander up the latter for some stunning views over the lake towards Bolivia accompanied by two kids, one banging a drum and the other blowing a whistle, both of them stopping to ask for money before starting up again with the same, repetitive non-tune. You can imagine the amount of self control it took me not to send them tumbling back down the hill with their respective instruments inserted in orifices not intended for such use.
Dinner was the usual affair but the family didn’t eat with us. As we tucked into our food, we heard the woman crying. Like, proper sobs as the guy spoke to her gently in Quechua. Awkward much? We kept our heads down, making irrelevant small talk until we were asked if we wanted to dress up in traditional costume and go to the fiesta to meet up with the rest of the tourists from the boat. We headed to the hall albeit in our own clothes but it was just weird ay, everyone else was having a great time with their hosts and we tried our best but our host clearly didn’t want to be there and just sat in the corner with a face on.
Aaaaanyway, the next morning we extracted ourselves from the family drama and headed to Isla Taquile, our last stop before the long ride back to the mainland. This island has all kinds of exciting things such as hand woven textiles and really expensive trout. The textiles in the form of hats and gloves and the like are available from a cooperative shop in a square and the trout is overpriced because it’s carried by people from the water to its destination as opposed to mules. Oh, and because the restaurants are used on a rotating system so there’s no competition which means if you don’t eat there then, well, you don’t get a decent feed until the mainland. Well, islanders have gotta make a living ay.
So that was the Peruvian side of Lago Titicaca then. It was okay, the floating island were worth a visit if just for the retina-upsetting traditional costumes, the ladies’ take off of the Terminator and the unrelenting, jaw dropping tourist infrastructure but I didn’t really think much of the other two islands. Yeah, it was cool and I’m glad I went, the views from Pachatata on Isla Amantaní were fabulous. I just wouldn’t call it a highlight. Even though it’s got the word “titi” in its name. Ha.
Lake Titicaca, Peru
Stayed at: Homestay on Isla Amantaní