Puno is a great base for exploring some of Lago Titikaka’s amazing islands. We originally wanted to spend a night on one of the islands but it didn’t work out with our schedule. Instead we opted for the more common day tour (40 Soles=$15, not including lunch), worried that it might be too cheesy and touristy for us. While it was popular and touristy, it was for good reason and we still loved it! The magical islands are just too cool to not enchant all who visit!
We left Puno’s dock around 7:30am in a group of 25 in a slow boat that thankfully had heating and comfy seats. After about 30 minutes we arrived at the famous Islas Flotatantes, or Floating Islands. These are exactly what they sound like…islands that are floating on the lake surface! They were built by the Uros people several hundred years ago in an attempt by the tribe to isolate themselves from other cultures (kind of like the Amish). The islands are made by lashing together a bunch of totora reed roots, and then layering cut totora reeds over and over again on top. The islands are about 2.5 meters thick and they have to add a new layer of reeds every two weeks! The ground kind of squishes when you walk on it and you can feel the motion of the water. In all there are about 70 floating islands clustered together, each with five or six families living in one-room houses, also made of reeds.
The islanders we visited are totally dependent on tourism–they receive visits from the boat tours every day (making money from the tour companies) and also sell handcrafts to the tourists. It made me happy to know, however, that there is another group of Uros on other floating islands further out on the lake who are still living traditionally, untouched by tourism.
At our stop on one floating island we watched a demonstration of how the islands are built, looked inside one of the houses, looked at the handicrafts for sale, and learned more about the Uros culture. A couple more interesting tidbits:
The islands are usually staked because “we don’t want to float to Bolivia without passports,” we were told. However, for certain events which require more space, such as weddings and football (soccer) games, the people will push two or more islands together!
Titicaca is .08% salt. Our guide blamed the salty water for the Uros women being “a little bit round.” He said this out loud in English and then whispered it in Spanish so they wouldn’t hear him!
At the end of our time on the floating island most of the group took off in one of the crazy boats for 5 Soles extra. Zach and I opted not to, and we were glad we did because we ended up getting to talk to some of the Uros more casually. One lady even gave us some reeds to eat after we saw her munching on them and asked to try. She said they were “muy dulce” (very sweet) but after trying them and finding they tasted like nothing but water I felt bad for her for probably never trying any real desserts!
Next we took off on a three-hour trip to the center of the lake to Isla Taquile. Good naptime with the noise and vibration of the boat!!! Taquile is a real island (not floating) inhabited by a group of Aymara people. We got off the boat and walked 400 meters uphill on a beautiful stone path. Others in our group were struggling with the walk (remember Titicaca is at 4000 meters altitude!) but we charged up the hill, thankful for our Inca Trail training and one month of acclimatization in Cuzco. The views of the lake from the main plaza were stunning. Isla Taquile is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the intricate traditional knitting done by both the men and women. We browsed through knitting museum and shop, full of amazing hats, gloves, scarves, and sweaters, but only bought seven cool little bracelets for 7 Soles ($2) from some kids. Knitting and clothing is obviously a huge part of the Taquile culture. Everywhere we went kids and old people were spinning thread on spools or knitting something. Their beautiful handmade clothing also has cultural meaning: men whose hats are all colored are married while men whose hats are white on top are single. Likewise, women who wear dark clothes are married and those who wear bright clothes are available. The kids of different ages even wear different colored hats.
Walking around the narrow stone streets of Taquile was so refreshing-no cars, no pollution, and gorgeous turquoise blue lake in every direction! After lunch we continued walking across the island looking at the simple houses and hills terraced with stone walls for farming. We got to the other side of the island and walked down 100-ish steps to another dock to our boat. Three hours back to Puno had us snoring away again.
Despite the inundation of tourism, I was impressed with how authentic the island cultures of Titicaca seemed. Between the craziness of the floating islands and the gorgeous tranquility of Taquile, the island tour was downright magical.