I was the one who pushed to come to Lake Titicaca, on our way to La Paz. We could have flown from Cusco, but it was important for me to come see this lake. Henry was happy with that plan, and we both felt that travelling by bus would give us a much better view of the landscape and the towns. Mostly, I wanted to experience going on the lake.
We had booked our tour at the hotel, as soon as we arrived the day before, and we got picked up at 7:30, as we had been told, by a smallish tourist bus that was already full. We were the last two pickups. The group looked to be about twenty or so. Not too large. Our hotel was close to the water, so it was only a short ride down. It's always a little challenging to experience a place when visiting as part of a group, so I made a conscious effort to set myself into my own little bubble. At the dock, there were several other buses arriving, and many small boats were waiting. Our guide takes us to our boat, which we board by stepping across one or two other boats, crews helping to steady those of us who look like we need it as we come through.
I am always a little anxious at the beginning of an organized day like this. I am so much better when we're on our own. We get into the cabin, which has seats arranged much like on a bus: two on each side. We find two together and settle in. A few more people shuffle in, but before long, we're on our way. I'm still trying to keep into my bubble.
We all learned about Lake Titicaca in school, and like most kids, I remembered the lake mostly because of it's name, which is even funnier in French than it is in English. Our grown kids still chuckled as we were telling them about our itinerary. Our guide explains that most people pronounce it incorrectly. The accent, he says, should be on the last syllable: TiticaCA! Sorry, but it still sounds funny!...
But now, I am more interested in the lake because of the legends associated with it. For a long time, now, I have been interested in meditation and various alternative therapies. I had never studied Shamanism, but I had certainly heard about it along the way, and I knew that much of it originated in Peru. Machu Pichu and Lake Titicaca was certainly associated with it and the Lake is said to hold a particular kind of energy.
Lake Titicaca has been the subject of many legends and creation myths, dating back to around 200 BCE. When the Inkas invaded these regions and conquered the local tribes, they integrated these legends into their own mythology. The Inkas believed that their ancestors had arisen from the lake, which was considered a sacred place. There are many remains of temples that were built on some of islands and around the lake. According to Shamanic belief, Peru and Bolivia are still considered spiritually significant and many people travel here with the intent to connect with that deep energy.
I was curious to see whether I would sense anything different in this place. I had found that in the Sacred Valley and on Machu Pichu, it was difficult to get into a state of reverence, with the large number of tourists around. On Lake Titicaca, I found it less crowded and there was, to me, a sense of something more.
Beside this aspect, from a geographical perspective, the lake is impressive. At 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. Although it is only about one tenth the size of Lake Superior, it is nevertheless the second largest lake in South America, at 8,300 sq km. Many cultures developed and still remain around Lake Titicaca: the Quechuas, Aymaras, Uros, Pacajes, and Puquinas. We are taking a short tour, so we won't make it to the Isla del Sol, which is on the Bolivian side of the lake, or the Isla de la Luna, the two most sacred sites around the lake. We will visit the floating islands, where the Uros people live, and Taquile Island, where the Taquilenos are part of the Quechuas.
As we start over the lake, the sky is overcast. It is fairly cool here, even though it is their warmer season (rainy season), it is cooler with the altitude. Temperatures average somewhere around 17 C during the day, and can range from around 3C during rainy season (our winter) to -8 or -10C during their winter (June - September). The lake creates a microclimate that enables farming in its surroundings, and we can see the typical terraces around the lake where crops of potatoes and quinoa.
The Uros and the Floating Islands
Our first stop is at a floating island. As of 2011, there were approximately 1200 Uros living on about 60 of these floating islands, near Puno. The guide explains that there is a rotation of islands that are visited by tourists, so that the stress on the structures is kept manageable. As we get closer, I find that they seem smaller than I had envisioned. Once the boat docks, we all step onto the surface which feels squishy. It is sufficiently firm, but there is a definite 'give', a little like when you stand on a trampoline. It feels as if your feet will sink through the reeds, but they don't. Obviously, they know what they're doing... they've been doing it for hundreds of years. According to their legends, the Uros are the owners and guardians of the lake. The floating islands originally served a defensive purpose, as they could be unmoored and moved if a threat arose.
Today, the island we come to visit is home to three families. Here, everything revolves around the totora reed. They are used for pretty much everything. They weave the reeds together and mix the structure with dirt they get from the bottom of the lake. Then, more and more layers are added to create the base of the island. These are built in areas where the water is not very deep and where there is a plentiful supply of reeds. The reeds are also used to build their homes, and their boats. They are also used as a source of food and medicine. There is a little outdoor kitchen, and the guide explains that the toilets are located on another small island. Each house is built on a raised floor, to keep the cold and humidity away, and rheumatism is a problem.
They are not totally isolated and they don't shun modern life. There is a solar panel in front of one of the houses. They have a television, and there is a radio station on one of the other islands. Younger children are schooled one one of the islands, while the older kids attend school in Puno.
I signal to one of the women to ask if I can see the inside of her house and she smiles and waves at me to go ahead. It is simple. The bed, at the back, seems to be raised even higher. Everything is tidy. I wonder what it must be like, to go to bed here, every night. How cold does it get? How quiet it must be. How dark, at night. How many stars they must see in the sky. Their life is so completely different from mine that I cannot even imagine it. For a moment, I almost see the chasm that separates us. Our realities are so far from one another that, even as I stand here on the soft reed floor and as I listen to the guide explain how these families function day-to-day, I get that I just don't get it. That's okay. I don't think anyone does. We'd have to live here for a while, with them, and even then, we'd be different. They don't get us either. They have no idea what our lives are like. As tourists, we fabricate a little fantasy of what their life must be like, and they probably do the same for us. Sometimes, I think that the more I travel, the more I learn how little I know... but enough of that!
We are invited to take a short ride on the totora boat. This is their main mean of transportation even though they have small motorboats now. We all climb in. It'll cost us about $2 each. It's fun and it is a good source of income for them. The ride is pleasant. The boat feels a little rickety, but it feels safe enough. We make a slow, long ride around the island. Soon, the ride is done and we're back on our speedboat, ready for an hour ride to our next stop: Taquile Island. On our way there, we get out on the back of the boat and photograph the lake. The clouds are definitely cooperating today. The view is truly amazing.
Our boat docks and we all get off. We are greeted by a sign that suggests we don't photograph children without their permission, but also that we don't give them "propinas" (tips) to photograph them, a practice that we have become used to everywhere in Peru. The guide had mentioned that on the way over, saying that in some cases, children were skipping school to hang around where the tourists came to make money for photographs.
We are all asked to line up at a first archway, where a local volunteer counts how many people are coming on the island. Tourism started here around the 1990's, and at first, there were many tour boats who would come on the island, and things became a little chaotic. They reclaimed ownership of the process sometime later and now manage the flow of tourists quite well. The population on the island is around 2000 , and Taquilenos speak Quechuan with some Spanish. There are no hotels or restaurants on the island. Tourists who wish to stay overnight can arrange for a home stay. Meals are provided by families. We will be having lunch with a host family.
The woman who is taking count of tourists is wearing a black shawl over her head. Our guide explains that this indicates she is doing a year of volunteer work for the community. This is a tradition for all Taquilenos who take pride in contributing and they choose to devote this time in service to their peers. As we go through the day, we notice many people who are sporting the black shawl, women and men, adults and even a few teenagers and children. It is not clear how this works where children are involved. Unfortunately, I didn't have an opportunity to ask.
The other thing we quickly notice is men and women carrying large packs on their backs. This is a sight we have become accustomed to as we have seen it in Cusco and the Sacred Valley and in many of the small pueblos along the way from Cusco to Puno. Here again, we see people carrying heavy loads up and down the hills. We had been told that there is some walking required here. Nothing all that strenuous, but there are no cars on the island. Ah! and there will be some climbing! Well, we're used to that by now...
We were told to walk up the path to a second gate where we would be led through a short cut to our host family for lunch. It's not a huge hill, but we are still at 12,500 feet, and even after we've been at high altitude for nearly a month now, we still get winded pretty quickly. So we walk up slowly, and stop to grab a photograph whenever we feel the need to take a break. The highest point of the island is 4,050 metres (13,287 feet) above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 metres (12,959 feet). As we struggle to make it up the path, a woman passes by us. She has a huge pack on her back. She is leaning forward for balance as she moves up at a good pace... a much better pace than I, who is going up with just my handbag on my shoulder, trying not to pant too loudly.
When we get to the the gate our guide hands us each a small branch of something. I didn't catch the name... "Chew on this, it's good for altitude sickness, and it helps with shortness of breath". So I do, and after a time, it seems to help. Perhaps it is similar to the coca leaves we have been using since Cusco. We are all guded along the back of a house, through a small yard where a sheep was grazing and up a few steps and we arrive in the yard of our host family. There is a cloth awning over several long tables already set out for lunch.
This is definitely a family affair. The mother (and I think the grandmother) are cooking indoors as a daughter and a son, both older teenagers, go around with table settings. Father is also busy going back and forth, getting everything ready. As they finish the preparations, our guide gives us a short presentation on the traditions of the Taquilenos.
Textile is what Taquile is all about. Everything else is secondary. Here, everybody works on creating some form of it. Traditionally, women spin, dye and weave. Men knit. Children, both girls and boys, are initiated into the craft early on. He explains that each married man has a belt that he weaves himself. It is made by using threads spun by his wife for the weft (threads that travel across the grain) and that uses the wife's own hair for the warp (the threads that form the base of the weaving). All women we see have long hair. A few times in her life, a woman will cut her hair and she will donate the hair to her husband. It is from that hair that he will weave this special belt. This tradition represents the close relationship between a husband and wife, and the need to work closely together.
Each person also wears a woven bag around their waist, where they keep coca leaves. These are highly valued as they are essential to maintaining good health at high altitudes. These are used as a way to greet one another, as they exchange coca leaves with each other. In instances where someone meets an elder or someone who commands respect, they would simply offer coca leaves to the elder.
The men wore a typical hat, which looks like a tuque but with a very long top that falls to the side, onto their shoulder. This too is steeped in tradition. It is the custom that a father will knit the hat for his son, as he comes of age. The way in which he wears the hat and the long top lets everyone know whether he is single, dating, or married. One of these hats was circulated for us to examine, and it displayed amazing craftmanship, as it was knit with what must have been very small needles and the stitches looked absolutely uniform with beautiful patterns.
The presentation came to a close as our meals were being served. We had trout "a la plancha" with patatas fritas and salad and everything was delicious. During lunch, we were entertained by a local musician. We finished the meal with a cup of tea made from that plant that we were told to chew before. It makes very refreshing tea, somewhat reminiscent of peppermint tea.
After lunch, we were invited to finish the climb to the town square. More climbing, more huffing, but it was well worth it. The square was large and seemed a little deserted. We spotted a little church right at the corner and went in. We have made it a tradition, whenever we go into a church during our travels, to light three candles, one of each of our children and their own families. The church was small, and a few residents were praying, so I took only the one photograph.
After the square, we got to walk downhill!!! Yeah!!! The path was beautifully lined with stones. Their shapes and heights were irregular, so I had to watch carefully. And so I saw these two wonderfully placed heart shaped stones along the way.
The boat ride back to Puno is quiet. Everyone is tired and many people are sleeping. As I look over the lake and the clouds, I continue to take in the experience and the energy of this day. Lake Titicaca did not disappoint. It has shown itself to be a truly magnetic place.