I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times. Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner. What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions
After a spontaneous 100 km trek to Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia. On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet. Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno.
Puno, a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.
Puno is a quiet, quaint town with all of the attractions located on the main plaza. Spanish is widely spoken as the town’s main source of income is tourism, but the town still has indigenous ties and as such, Aymara is spoken by most citizens.
Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course, visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.
The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.
The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia. He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.
The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork. Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.
After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house. In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…
The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner. I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted. I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it. Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.
From the house-shop were we were ushered onto a reed boat to be transported to the next island where fresh trout was available for lunch. The reed boat and lunch are technically optional because it costs an extra 10 soles to ride and lunch prices depend on what you order, but with an exchange rate of nearly 3 soles = $1, lunch of trout and quinoa was well worth the $3.50.
Reed boat construction is rather fascinating. The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca. But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles. Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in Peru.
Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Be. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.