According the local Andean legend, Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of civilization and has long been considered a sacred place among indigenous Andean people who believe powerful spirits live in its depths. It is South America's largest lake and the world's highest navigable body of water. Its deep azure waters seem to stretch forever across the altiplano. The lake has been inhabited for thousand of years with reed boats crossing the lake as early as 2500 B.C. The lake straddles the modern border between Peru and Bolivia.
Following an early breakfast in our hotel, we met our group at 7:45 am and departed for the harbor. The boat carrying approximately 30 passengers and 10 life preservers and maintaining a speed of only three miles per hour, featured indoor covered seating as well as eight seats on the open roof.
UROS FLOATING ISLANDS
Currently, there are 45 floating islands located about three miles from Puno in the Bay of Puno. The Uros Indians of Lake Titicaca made these islands by hand from totora reeds that grow in abundance in the shallow water of the lake. It is believed the Uros Indians created and inhabited the islands upon the arrival of the Spaniards. The islands first came in contact with the world in the 1960's and now they live mostly off tourism.
Our first stop was the Uros Floating Islands. According to our local guide, each island was inhabited by an extended family of approximately 5-6 households units. The island was constructed by reed blocks, including the roots, which were tied together and anchored in the shallow waters with eucalyptus poles. Each year additional reeds were layered on top. Walking on the reeds invoked a soft spongy sensation. If a family had major disagreements with other family units, their hut would be cut off the island and set afloat. Huts were made of reed, and children slept in a small hut next to their parents. School age children attended classes in Puno. Several huts had television sets. Following a demonstration and tour, women immediately brought out their wares to sell, followed by a welcome song sung in four different languages. We purchased a small wall hanging featuring the symbols of the island. The staged commercial aspect was overwhelming and was a huge distraction from an otherwise interesting visit.
Located twenty-two miles northeast of Puno, the circular island is a beautiful but barren and rocky place with about 10 villages composed of about 800 families of farmers, fishers and weavers. Ancient ruins clinging to the island's two peaks, Pachatata and Pachamama (Father and Mother Earth). Ancient looking stonewalls mark the fields and terraces of different communities while cows, sheep and alpacas graze the hillsides.
We then headed further out to our destination of Amantani Island that is located approximately 22 miles northeast of Puno, well outside of the bay. Thank goodness the weather and scenery were beautiful as the trip took about 4 hours. We sat on the top outdoor deck for most of the trip. The only rough water occurred as we exited the bay and moved into the open waters of the lake. Viewed from the lake, Amantani Island was picturesque with its shoreline of red cliffs, sheep grazing on hillsides, and stone fences separating small gardening plots. Families were busy completing the harvest. The women of the families that were expecting to host the tourists for the night were at the small harbor to welcome our arrival.
Olga, our host 'momma' led us up a very steep pathway to her home. Again, the altitude of approximately 12,500 feet had a huge impact on my performance, as I had to rest every minute or so during our climb. However, Dick managed the climb surprisingly well. We later learned that our host family lived at the highest elevation in the community. Carlos was assigned to also stay with our host family, which was fortunate for the purpose of translation.
We arrived at our home for the night at 2 pm. Olga served a tasty lunch of soup with quinoa, potatoes, and other small vegetables. The main course included 3 types of fresh boiled potatoes, sliced fried cow's cheese, and fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Following lunch, Olga showed us the many traditional hats she had knit. We purchased a brown and white hat for William, and we then gave her the bags of pasta and oil we previously purchased in Puno. Dick and I walked around the outside of the small home and admired the sunflowers, geraniums, snapdragons and many other varieties of plants I could not name. The family had completed the harvest of wheat, quinoa, corn, potatoes and fava beans. A small pen contained sheep and lambs. Powered by solar energy, the home was a small adobe hut with a small inner courtyard. Dirt floors and three rooms serving as family living quarters: kitchen cooking area with fireplace, eating area, and sleeping area. Host families were required to maintain separate sleeping quarters for tourists. Thus our room was an upper level attachment reached by a set of steep, rickety stairs. The room was large with linoleum flooring, two windows, one overlooking the lake, and single beds with many blankets. Two small chamber pots, one pink and one blue, were in the room. Located next to the house was a small outhouse containing a non-flush toilet and sink.
At 3:30 we started the steep climb to the temple of Patchamama, Father Earth, which was located at the top of the highest point on the island. We rested at a large outdoor soccer stadium before completing the hour-long trek. Again the path was narrow, strewn with rocks and very steep. The temple was enclosed by a stonewall and locked gate, that was only opened once per year during the Festival of the Sun to pray for a bountiful harvest. Sunset over the Bolivian Andes was a spectacular blaze of oranges and purples as storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. As we neared our home for the night, it started to rain.
I rested a short time prior to dinner while Dick sat in the dining area with Carlos and the father, who was a fisherman. The couple had two children, Nicole and Erica, ages 4 and 15. Carlos suggested to Olga that she prepare a light meal as our appetites were small (and to not waste food) so she served rice and fried potatoes. At 8 pm, Olga dressed us in traditional clothing in preparation for the celebration and dance at the community center. I wore three layers of skirts, a wide embroidered belt over an embroidered blouse, and a long black shawl covering my head. Dick wore a heavy woven poncho and traditional Peruvian knit hat. Flashlights were used to guide us down the rocky path to the center where a 3-piece musical group played while the villagers and tourists exerted themselves on the dance floor. With the heavy clothing and high altitude, two long dances had us looking for the sidelines. Returning to the house near 9:30 pm, we were treated to the rising of a full golden moon casting shadows over the hills and reflecting on the lake. Temperatures dropped to the low 30's during the early morning hours and the wind whistled through our room.