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Lake Titicaca and the Isle of Amantani

Written on: Saturday December 8th, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Puno, Peru 

Author: Julie 

Hola! 

Our van picked us up at 7 AM, just as we were checking out and putting our big bags in the storage. Inside were our tour group friends for the next couple of days. There were Adam, Maxine and Mark from Britain, two girls from Vancouver, a couple of girls from Norway, and a young couple from Switzerland. 

At the port, all the boats were tied together and we had to hop from one to another to get to our tour boat. We all settled in the cabin and waited for the large flotilla of ferry boats to separate and allow us to head out to our first stop: the Islands of Uros. 

A half-hour later we were out on the waters heading towards the large totora reeds that fill the bay of Puno. Within these reed beds are found the man-made floating islands of the Uros people. During the Inca times, the Uros people fled the oncoming invasion by taking to the waters of Lake Titicaca and living on floating islands that could be moved when under direct threat by simply picking up the stakes imbedded in the lake bed 6 meters below and pushing it with reed boats to a new location. Each island had a large watchtower from which they could observe any menace coming their way. These islands were made by cutting huge 2 meters blocks of reed beds and mud, tying them together and laying reeds on top, which need to be re-layered every month. There are currently 41 islands occupied by 500 families. We hopped off the boat onto the springy island, you could feel the softness below your feet and there were areas of open pools here and there. This island had 12 people living on it with 4 huts made from the same reeds. The Uros walked around barefoot on the soft ground. The people live on a mainly fish diet with a supplement of fruit and vegetables they receive in exchange for the smoked fish they sell once a month. They also eat the young meat at the base of the tortora reed. We each got one to sample and it was good if a little bland, a bit like eating celery. There are 5 main species of fish with the Canadian rainbow speckled trout being the most important. Like in Ecuador, the Canadian government introduced the speckled trout to the waters of Lake Titicaca in the 60s when the original fish stock had been decimated. As for the kids, there is one small primary school, but for high school they need to go to mainland Puno to further their education. 

We walked around for a few minutes, looking at the houses made from the reeds and metal roofing, at the little pools of water where minnows were kept, and at the crafts they were selling. It was a small island and there wasn?t much to see, mostly it was to experience just being there. We had the option of getting back on our regular boat or taking a ride in one of the reed boats for 5 soles each. Everyone jumped at the chance and got on the surprisingly stable boat. A little girl of about the age of 3 jumped in with us. You could tell she was used to being on an island, she had no fear of the water and kept walking around and almost falling in. One of us would catch her and she would just laugh. One of her favourite games was to take one of the wet towlines and fling it out of the water at us to soak us. She was adorable so none of us minded. The ride was quickly over and we stopped at one of the largest Uros islands. There was a small restaurant/corner store, a gift shop, little huts for overnight guests, and a long-distance telephone booth. This island had 30 families living on it and from the watchtower we could see all of their houses, some made from wood and metal shingling. Running around were chickens and kittens. They were used to having tourists on the island and asked for 1 soles payment whenever one of us took a picture of them. 

Our little tour over, we boarded our ferry boat for our 3 hour journey to the island of Amantani. We were allowed to climb up on top so Kevin and I grabbed our life jackets and headed up. Spread out before us was a narrow channel surrounded with never-ending reed beds. Once in a while, we would see a little row-boat piled high with fresh reeds or a little reed boat loaded up with a family. An hour out, we finally passed out of the bay of Puno (also known as Lago Pequeño) and into the main section of the lake, known to the Peruvians as Lago Grande. Lake Titicaca, meaning ?Puma Grey? in the Quechua language, covers a distance of 8,300 square kilometres and reaches depths of 284 meters, although its average depth is only 107 meters. It is shared between Peru and Bolivia and is fed by rainfall, melt waters from glaciers, and from five major rivers. It flows out of one single outlet at the Rio Desaguadero in Bolivia, but this only accounts for about 10% of the lake's water balance. Evaporation, caused by strong winds and intense sunlight at altitude, balances the remaining 90% of the water output. 

We docked on the south side of the island and were greeted by the local families who would be providing us our room for the night. Kevin and I were introduced to Daniel, an older gentleman with a very gentle smile. Even though he was a fair bit older than us he practically skipped his way up the path while we trudged up behind trying to catch our breath in the thin air. We passed the primary school, a small medical clinic and the main plaza, turned a few corners, passing through a field of potato plants to arrive at the gate to his home. It was a cute place with fruit trees, flowers, potatoes fields and sheep. Our room for the night was a little cabin at the entrance of the family compound. It had two single beds with plenty of blankets, a table with a couple of chairs, and a couple of candles for the evening. It was very basic but at the same time much more than we were expecting, considering there is very little electricity on the island and no running water. The village owns a generator that is only turned on for special occasions, due to the cost of gas. It was close to 1 PM and we knew we had to meet the group at 3:30 PM for a information session about the island and to walk up to the Temples of Pachamama and Pachatata on the highest points of the island. Not knowing what to do with ourselves and with our host having disappeared, we walked around their little yard and stopped at their animal pen filled with scared sheep. We tried to convince them that we were nice but they were having none of it and stayed away, until Kevin started picking up loose bits of hay laying around and giving it to them. Soon, we had the smallest to the largest at the fence trying to get a bite. The family also owned a donkey so we filled his food bowl up with hay which he happily munched away while the sheep in the pen next to him eyed him with jealousy. Having run out of things to do, we went back to our room to wait for our lunch and to catch a few winks. At 3 PM, we still didn?t know when our meal would be served, so I approached the kitchen to ask if lunch was ready soon. I felt like I had crossed into the past with a dirt floor room, a small dirty table and the wife of Daniel sitting on the ground cooking on an open fire. The walls were covered in soot and there was only a small opening in the poorly lit room to let the smoke out. I knew they lived in basic housing but I at least expected a bit of sunlight, a concrete floor and maybe a small gas stove. Lunch was almost ready, so I went back to my room to wait to be called. A few minutes later, Daniel knocked on our door with a tray loaded with a couple bowls of soup. That was another surprise, we thought we would be eating with the family since this was supposed to be a cultural experience with a family from the island to experience their way of life, but we were expected to eat in our room separate from them. At this point, I felt a little less comfortable staying there; like we were intruding on them and that they didn?t really want us there. Kevin had the same feeling but to a lesser degree. Anyhow, we ate our hearty soup made from potatoes, carrots and quinoa which was delicious and probably one of the healthiest meals I have ever eaten considering that they grow all of their own food without chemicals and everything is home made. Thinking this was the meal, we prepared to meet our tour-mates at the plaza when Daniel reappeared with a plate of French fries and an omelette. We were pretty full with the soup and we did our best to eat as much as we could but we couldn?t finish our plates. Knowing that the family was poor, we felt bad wasting the food but we hoped that they would eat whatever we hadn?t.

It was now past 3:30 and we were late, so we hoofed it down to the plaza, following Daniel and arrived just as the guide was starting his speech about the island, the lake, and Aymara people who lived here. Amantaní has a population of 3,663 Quechua speakers divided among about 800 families, spread out over 8 communities around the island. The island is circular and about 9.28 square kilometres in size with two mountain peaks on the island, Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth), with ancient Inca ruins on top of both. The hillsides, which are mostly worked by hand, are terraced with stone walls and planted with wheat, quinoa, potatoes, and other vegetables. Livestock, including alpaca, sheep and cows graze the slopes. The temples at the top of the peaks are generally closed during the year. Entrance is permitted on January 20, the annual feast day, at which time the island's population divides in two, with each gender group gathering at its respective temple. A race is then held from each peak to a point somewhere between the two, and a representative of each group is chosen to run. According to tradition, a victory for Pachamama portends a bountiful harvest in the year to come. Amantaní is known as the "Island of the Kantuta", after the national flower of Peru and Bolivia, which grows plentifully on the island. The inhabitants consider the lake to be sacred and refuse to fish or drink the water from it. This seemed a little crazy to all of us since they have natural healthy food source at their feet but because of religious views subsist on a poor diet of corn, quinoa, potatoes and other root vegetables they grow, and the occasional meat brought from the mainland. Also, every few years, the rains are poor and they have low yield crops and have to ration till the next growing season. They could easily set up an irrigation system with fresh water from the lake but they refuse to do so.  It boggles our mind.

Once the information session over, we slowly climbed up the paved and cobblestone path to the peaks of Pachamama and Pachatata. Again, the fact that most of the paths on the island were beautifully paved with patterns and designs and yet the families lived in dirt floor homes was too hard for our mind to comprehend. Couldn?t they do the same in their homes; wouldn?t that alone improve the hygiene ten-fold? We passed little home after little home, mostly made in adobe with a few in concrete, all designed with tiny windows. The path took us higher and higher and we could see the grandeur of the lake, with the shore far away and snow-capped mountains in the background. We took a break at a shrine, where the inhabitants stop during January 20th to throw stones into a stone niche. They have 5 tries to make it stick within the window area to wipe their souls clean from the past year?s transgressions. We all took a turn throwing stones, with most of us getting it on the first try. 

We were now at 4,000 meters and the air was a little thinner. Kevin and I took our time walking up to the temples, enjoying the scenery, and stopping along the way to see the crafts the occasional woman was selling by the path. There were heavy wool socks, toques, mitts, sweaters, finger puppets, pants, and bags. The prices were so cheap and the crafts so beautiful but we didn?t buy anything since shipping costs from South America to Canada are prohibitive. We had a few days earlier inquired in Cusco and the average cost was 30$ US per kilo, too expensive for us considering most things were selling for between 5-40 soles. We would wait to see the cost of shipping in Bolivia which we heard was half the price.  We arrived at the top of the temple to Pachatata, walked around the square walled courtyard and took in the sight of the lake from all sides. We could see the island of Taquile, the shores of Bolivia, the shores of Peru, and the snow-capped mountains all around us as the sun set. When it started to get cold, we headed back down the path to our family?s home to wait for supper. 

Time passed and like lunch we didn?t know when the meal would be served. Our family was inside their home and we didn?t really see much of them to ask. At 7:30, when we were about ready to eat our own hands Daniel knocked on our door with two large bowls of the same soup we had for lunch. That was fine with me because it was delicious. Next we were served a nice root vegetable stew with white rice. For a second time, we tried to finish our plate but we were full from the soup. After the meal, the daughter knocked on our door and said to follow her into the family courtyard. Within moments, they had a traditional blouse, belt, skirt and shawl on me and Kevin was wearing a poncho and traditional toque. There was a party planned at the local bar for us gringos with music from the island and we had the option of dressing like the inhabitants. In the blackest dark I had ever seen since there was no electricity on the island, we marched down to the central plaza with just our headlights illuminating the way. We finally saw lights at the little bar which was powered by a small gas generator. We were one of the firsts to arrive so we sat down and watched as the little band set-up. There was a classic guitar, a charango (a tiny 12-string guitar traditionally made with an armadillo shell), a pan flute and a drum. By 9 PM, everyone from the tour group had arrived and the party was in full swing. Kevin and I danced to a few songs and with the heavy costumes we had on we were sweating a lot. I was very happy to have a break in between each song to cool off a bit. The last dance of the evening had everyone linked into a circle and to dance/run as fast as we could. It was lots of fun and we were all laughing hard. The party was done by 10 PM when the power generator started dying out. We all headed home with our respective family members leading the way.