24 April, 2010


for some reason Jill had been much more excited about Lake Titikaka than i had, but then again she had done most of the planning for this trip and seemed to know better what to expect. i had heard of some islands that were alleged to float on the lake, and Jill was talking about staying overnight on an island in the lake, so it all sounded fine to me and i was just interested in having been to what is commonly referred to as the "highest navigable lake" in the world.

my brother told me all he wanted from Peru was a picture of me not laughing in front of a sign for Lake Titikaka; since he's my most faithful reader, here you are. below, some of the many tourist boats that ply the (generally more clear) waters of the lake; here in the harbor the algae was so thick we saw birds walking across its surface.

clearly the qualifier "navigable" gives away that it isn't actually the highest lake in the world, and i still haven't found a source to indicate what exactly constitutes a navigable versus a non-navigable lake, but the Wikipedia article gives a clue, calling it one of the highest "commercially navigable" lakes in the world. indeed, there are a lot of boats that ply the icy waters, most of which seem to be part of the tourist trade, but the lake is a huge one, straddling about 60 miles of the Bolivian border and sprawling over more than 3,000 square miles of the earth's surface.

Jill and i feeling chilly on the boat out to the floating islands despite all the sunshine. below, i have followed the indigenous spelling for Lake Titikaka, as our tour guide told us that the Spanish, in spelling it Titicaca had managed to both strip the original of its meaning and add some offensive scatological references as a way of demeaning the native peoples. so ruthless!

and it's a beautiful lake, with generally clear waters and nice views of the high Andes on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. but, boy, is it high up there. by comparison, Snowbird, the ski resort at which i spent many of the days i should have been in high school, is about 11,000 feet above sea level on top of it's highest peak; Lake Titikaka and Puno on its shore sit at around 12,500 vertical feet, well more than twice the elevation of the Salt Lake valley. that produces some rather odd climate characteristics, in that it was quite hot when we were standing in direct sunlight, but really very chilly if the sun became obscured by a cloud or we stepped into shade, hence the warm clothes despite generally bright skies in most of the pictures.

as we reached the edge of the large Puno harbor, we came into sight of the quite extensive complex of islas flotantes, or floating islands, which are also known as the Uros Islands, after the indigenous people who built and inhabit them. all in all, there are 42 of these structures on either side of a channel that leads out to the open lake, and our tour boat took us to the one named Isla Santa Maria. we were told that the islands were built by the Uros so they wouldn't be taxed by colonial and later governments, and while there used to be many of them, the people find that their children typically want to work on the mainland so there are fewer and fewer inhabitants and islands all the time as tourism and light trade become the only things keeping the islanders afloat. keeping the islands themselves afloat, on the other hand, are thick mats of totora reeds that are layered and continually replaced on top of large sections of totora root beds that are harvested just for the foundations. stakes are then driven all the way through the islands to fix them in place in the lake, but they can be moved if necessary and can of course be altered in size and shape.

above, Isla Santa Maria of the Uros floating islands in Lake Titikaka, clockwise from top left: the watchtower that gave a good overview of the artificial archipelago; Jill and i eating the amazing all-purpose totora reed; the dragon-like boat of the Santa Marians, which they allowed us to ride... for a small fee. which actually seemed very small when then made a frail looking little lady take one of the oars to row us; a general overview of Santa Maria showing its houses and height above the water; the handicrafts the islanders were most interested in selling to us; and a handy schematic of how the islands are built that our tour guide pulled out to show us. below, a video of the friendly departure song the islanders sang to us.

for some reason i had thought these were the islands we would be staying on, but was somewhat relieved to find there were more traditional islands for that purpose. in actuality, the islas flotantes are pretty sturdy feeling, although your feet sink in a good inch or two with every step, as if you were walking across a field of very thick grass. almost everything on each island is made of the totora reeds, including the houses and, on our island, most of a watchtower; they even had a boat made almost entirely of reeds which they said would last anywhere from six to nine months before having to be replaced. as if all that weren't enough, you can even eat a good portion of the versatile totora reed, though it seemed like eating styrofoam made of water, so its nutritive value probably isn't too high. there were a few things not made of totora though, including a discreetly placed solar panel that generated some power for the one TV on Santa Maria. even here you can't get away from TV.

above, the setting sun glares through one of the many stone archways that straddle the pathway up to Pachamama, one of the island's two peaks, the other being Pachatata. the former is Mother Earth, the latter Father Earth. below, scenes from our costumed dance party show Jill being dressed by our hostess Grigoria.

but we didn't stop trying (to get away from TV), and we eventually succeeded. about three hours further out into the lake we finally came to a tiny harbor on the southeast side of Isla Amantaní, and were there introduced to our hostess for the next 24 hours, Grigoria. as a Quechua speaking island native Grigoria didn't speak much Spanish, much less any English, so she smiled and bobbed and then took off like a mountain goat up the steep slopes to her house, which was about halfway to the pinnacle of hilly Amantaní. when we got to her house, which was made of adobe bricks like the other buildings scattered around, we met her daughter, Yovanna, who spoke good Spanish and a couple of words of English and so helped us to communicate. she showed us our room which was on the second floor up an outdoor ladder, and which had a door just about high enough for my legs and belly to get through; unfortunately, and even more uncomfortably, both of the beds in the room shared this same, um, shortcoming of being too small.

but we were only at the house long enough to get some hostess-provided lunch, which consisted of several different varieties of small potato, in almost all colors of the rainbow, some fried cheeses and a soup or stew that was filled with a local grain called quinoa (say keen-wa). owing to my earlier sickness this was the first time i had eaten in almost two days, and it was a ginger effort at that. Grigoria had deeply weathered hands with dirt deeply encrusted in large cracks, and as she placed the bowls on the table i watched her thumbs dip into the broth of the soup. though it made me think twice about beginning to eat again, my second thought was how humbling it was to see how this woman lived and all the hard work she was doing to keep her home and family going while her husband and son were away working on the mainland. with no electricity she cooked in a tiny candlelit kitchen over an earth stove and made almost everything her and Yovanna needed to live, including most of their clothes. and i was glad i ate the soup: it was delicious and just what the doctor ordered to get me back up to strength, and one of the first things we did when we got back to the States was find some quinoa to have in our own pantry.

above, some scenes from Grigoria's house, clockwise from top left: me on the staircase ladder that led to the top floor; a view of the house itself, which was actually one of the larger ones we saw; some of the many varieties of potatoes available were lying around in the courtyard; a soup Grigoria made us with quinoa, a very filling and proteinaceous grain native to the Andes; the view from the house down the hill towards the lake, looking east towards Bolivia; along with the quinoa we were served some of those potatoes and a bunch of fried cheeses, probably made of goat (or maybe llama) milk; Grigoria's tiny kitchen, in which she prepared us meals in earthen pots over a clay oven; and Jill shows that the door to our room really wasn't made for a pair of 5'9" foreigners. below, the night sky was so awesomely clear and dark that the stars seemed to go on forever and the famous Southern Cross constellation could hardly be missed.

not long after our life changing lunch, we took a hike with the rest of our tour group up to the top of one of the island's twin peaks known as Pachamama and Pachatata--Mother Earth and Father Earth, respectively--just in time for a rather spectacular sunset on the lake. then we came back down and were geared up in some traditional costumes Grigoria had for us so we could attend a dance at a local hall that seemed to have been built just to hold such dances for tourists. the small band made up of local teenagers cranked out the Andean beats and pretty soon i needed to escape the stifling heat that was building up inside by taking a wander outdoors. the darkness was profound and the night sky shimmered with a literally endless array of stars and galaxies, and despite the deep cold i had a hard time wanting to go back to the frivolities. when the dance was over and we were back at Grigoria's, Jill and i crept out of our room for as long as we could stand the chill just to take some more of it in. it was one of the most fantastic, serene things i have ever experienced.

scenes from Isla Taquile, above, clockwise from top left: the men (or boys) do the knitting on this island, and indeed can be seen at their avocation almost constantly; Jill and i joined the band for a little music making--naturally i took the pan flute; Jill tries coca leaf tea; i have better luck with the fish; a young Taquileño with the trademark cherubic cheeks. below, Taquile is not without its own archway fetish. Peru is in the background this time.

the following morning we bid our farewells and made for our boat which was to take us south to Isla Taquile, another indigenously peopled island but this one with just a touch more modernity (and, very sensibly i thought, no dogs). there was a pretty touristy presentation of music and dance by some islanders, who seem to be mostly famous for their hats, which are knitted by the men, and a lunch at which we finally got some coca leaf tea, which was much better in the anticipation than the actual experience. coca tea is made by steeping coca leaves (yes, the ones used to make cocaine, though apparently it takes several tons of leaves and a lot of kerosene to come out with a kilo of the drug) in hot water, and is supposed to be very good for helping acclimate to high altitudes, but frankly it tastes like dirty grass clippings and is not at all pleasant. a better option is muña tea, made by steeping a sprig of a very common plant that has a reasonably pleasant (especially with a lot of sugar), almost minty taste, and we were even advised that this was actually better for altitude problems than its more famous coca cousin.

on our way back to Puno we saw a few private boats out, this one looking vaguely like a Middle Eastern dhow or felucca. it was a beautiful sunny day out on Lake Titikaka.

well, whatever drink you end up liking, our trip to the many and varied islands of Lake Titikaka had been educational, enlightening and altogether very enjoyable, dirty wet grass notwithstanding. i had kind of felt that after Machu Picchu much of our trip would be a bit of a letdown, but found the lake quite the contrary and actually competing for my favorite part of the whole journey. the floating islands were novel, but i really think it was the homestay that Jill arranged on Amantaní that did it for me. it's hard to compete with the sheer awesomeness of something like the Lost City of the Incas, but there was something about the serenity of an island with no electricty, miles from anywhere, with perfect views of crystal waters and clear starry skies that i will never forget.

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