Imagine living on an island that floats. Lake Titicaca is home to the most unique living conditions we’ve ever seen. The Uros people build their islands out of reeds that grow abundantly in the lake. A trip to the fascinating Lake Titicaca is a must when traveling in Peru.
On the way to Lake Titicaca we stopped at the important Inca site, Raqch’i. Tall, two story walls are all that remains of the temple for Inca god Wiracocha. As is the case for many Inca sites, it is built with the position of the sun in mind. Two outer walls of the temple complex were built so that during solstice, the sun would precisely rise between them. It’s not a large site, but worth a stop if you’re in the area.
The highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca (3,812 m) also has one of the most interesting villages floating on its surface. The Uros people have been living on floating islands made from totora reeds for hundreds of years. They began this practice to escape the Inca Empire and continue to live on these islands today. There are over 60 floating islands spread along the reeds. The islands used to be in the middle of the lake, 14 km away, but a storm in 1986 devastated many of the islands so they have since moved closer to the shore. A one hour boat ride from the city of Puno brings you to a group of reed islands. Visiting these islands gives you a glimpse into their fascinating world.
Our boat was met by colourfully dressed women who welcomed us onto their island. Stepping on the island was like walking on an air mattress. The islands are remarkably stable, but there is definitely a sponginess to your steps. The Uros people live a very simple life. We watched one lady grind corn by hand with a grinding stone. Others cooked a stew and bread over an open flame. A flat stone under the fire ensures they don’t burn down their island. They shared their bread with us. It was delicious.
The islands are made using the totora reeds which are woven together and applied in layers. The end result is an island that is up to two meters thick. These reed layers are strong enough to hold weight, but light enough to float. They are tied to long eucalyptus poles and anchored to the bottom of the lake. As you can imagine, the islands require constant maintenance as the bottom of the islands suffer from rot. New top layers of reeds need to be applied every 2 to 8 weeks. An island can last a remarkable 30 years.
Since the reeds are in ample supply in the lake, they are used for more than just to build islands. The Uros people also use them to build their boats, homes and eat the white tender shoots. There is even a reed ‘hotel’ on one of the islands where you can stay overnight.
As with most tourist sites now, the islanders also sell handicrafts to tourists. Some complain that they are very aggressive in their sales, but we didn’t find that. We found them to be very pleasant, but also shy.
From the floating islands, our boat motored across Lake Titicaca, passing large areas of totora reeds and many natural islands. The 40 km journey took over to 3 hours. Amantani Island is a hilly, dry island whose villagers are from a pre-Inca culture. Our boat was met at the dock by women from the host families dressed in colourful, traditional outfits. Many were knitting as they waited, something they do all day long. There were about eight people on our tour, therefore four host families in total. After our arrival, we were served a delicious lunch of potatoes and vegetable soup with fresh mint tea. The husband in our family was the principle of the school. We ate our meals in the only classroom and slept in a small room at the back.
The island’s primary resource is farming. Terraced gardens fill in the space between adobe homes. They grow potatoes, quinoa and vegetables and raise small animals including goats. It’s very peaceful on the island as there are no vehicles. It’s a tough life though. There was no electricity in our home for light or heat. Generators provided electricity to a couple of businesses and the main hall in town and a few homes now have solar panels.
Our host family’s son, Carlos, was very curious about us. He only knew a few words in Spanish as the islanders speak Quechua. We probably knew less Spanish than Carlos so communication was difficult. We tried to explain how far away we lived, but I think it was too much for him to imagine. He replied by saying that his dad had gone all the way to Puno on the other side of the lake. Carlos was very proud to tell us that he had been to the next island. It made us realize how fortunate we are to be able to travel and see the world. We gave Carlos one of our headlamps since they have no electricity. He was so excited by his new gift that he played with it all night. Thinking about it later, we should have also given him extra batteries.
That evening the village held a party for the eight of us who were staying on the island. They sold beer and snacks and kids from town played music. Carlos from our family was in the band. It was very cute. The tourists were given traditional clothes to wear. Since the island is at high elevation it gets quite cold at night so we put them on over our clothes. We looked ridiculous, but in the end it was a lot of fun.
Tips for visiting Lake Titicaca
There are many different tour operators in Puno offering a wide variety of trips to visit Lake Titicaca. Trips vary in the length of tour and combination of different sites. We booked our tour a couple of days in advance and didn’t have any problems with availability. Homestay tours are reasonable at $40 – $100 USD per person. Rooms at the homestay are basic but clean. It is cool in the day and chilly at night so bring long pants, a warm sweater and a jacket. Also, bring a flashlight as there may not be electricity. Even though there won’t be much physical activity the lake is at high elevation, therefore you need to be acclimatized.
After leaving Titicaca we drove through the Colca Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world at a depth of 4,160m. It also very long stretching almost 70 km. Colca Canyon is very scenic with pre-Inca terraces covering almost every inch of canyon wall adding an interesting texture to the landscape.
A local market was selling some of the hundreds of types of potatoes and corn that are grown in Peru. We were told that this part of Peru has three growing seasons.
There are many large Andean condors flying overhead. We stopped at ‘La Cruz del Cóndor’ and were lucky to see a few soaring above. In the morning as the air warms, they swoop down into the canyon below and circle back up with the warming currents.
There are many hikes in the canyon, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to hike here.
Getting to Colca Canyon
If you don’t have your own vehicle you will have to join a tour to visit Colca Canyon. There are local buses from Arequipa, but it would be difficult to visit any of the sites. You have to purchase a Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket), check to see if it’s included in your tour price.
Coming Next: Alpamayo Circuit Trek
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
If you like what you read, please comment or share (with credit) using the links below.