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Published: October 14th 2018
Two person taxi cholos
were lined up in front of our hotel at 7 AM to pedal 22 of us to the harbor in Puno for our exciting two days on Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 feet, the world’s highest navigable lake. We were deposited at a local lakeside market and instructed to purchase the necessary foods needed for our Amantani host people to make our meals later in the day. One of the things that made me choose Kaypi Peru Tours was their commitment to giving back to the people of Peru. Taxi cholos were chosen instead of busses so that more local people would benefit from the hire rather than one bus driver. In addition, one particular shop was chosen for us to buy food, water and gifts because this store gives a discount to the taxi cholo drivers and offers them free soup.
There are 36 natural islands in Lake Titicaca and 97 floating islands and still growing. Our first stop is to actually walk on one of Uros’ 97 floating islands
and to attempt to communicate with these people who only speak Aymara. Roughly 2,500 people live in these communities on top of reeds. Because the
Uros Islands are floating they have no means for growing their own produce or meat but they do have fish, and they hunt so on Saturdays these people go by motorboat to Puno to trade for their necessities, roughly a 25 minute ride.
We disembarked from our large modern boat and made our tentative squishy steps onto our first floating island. It was rather like walking on a scratchy waterbed. We gathered around our Kaypi guide Roger and the handsome young president of this 5 family island to learn about their culture. The Uros people are distant descendants of a group of pre-Columbians who wanted to separate themselves from waring people. They found safety in Lake Titicaca, building floating movable reed islands with access to hunting and fishing. The Uros people use the tortora reeds that grow in abundance in this bay to create the islands, their simple reed homes, their furniture and their boats.
The unique tortora boats called balsas
, used by the Uros people for fishing, are shaped like long canoes with animal heads at the prow. These floating islands are anchored to the lake’s bottom (there are shallow areas around the
islands but the lake is 280 meters at its deepest). The islands can be moved or even cut in half should a disagreement happen that would cause someone to move away. When the island is anchored more reeds are frequently added to the surface and the base of the homes to keep them afloat. There are signs of technical advancements as some families have small motorboats to get to Puno, and some have solar panels. There is even a radio station on one of the bigger islands that plays music several hours a day.
We had a chance to visit with members of this little community, look into their homes and even try on some of their clothing. There were many woven goods for sale, I bought a pillow cover that has embroidery describing a romantic couple drifting on a reed boat.
When it was time to depart this little Uros island
we squish-walked to the large reed boat waiting for us at the edge of the island. Once we were all on board (the boat will carry up to 40 people) four of the colorfully dressed young women came to sing
a Uros goodbye song ending in “hasta la vista baby” which cracked us all up. The handsome young president of the island and several children were on our boat singing songs (for donations) and rowing. It took about 20 minutes to row us across to another, larger, island where we had our passports stamped for “Uros Floating Islands”. Water and snacks were available for purchase, but with little time to explore we were soon aboard our big ferry boat to take us to the island of Amantani and our host families.
Our boat left the charming Uros people and sailed a few hours on beautiful Lake Titicaca
, the highest navigable lake in the world, now being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site
designation, to Amantani Island
and our homestay. Because of the altitude and the dazzling sun everything is exceedingly bright so you need to be diligent about wearing sunglasses, hats and sunscreen. Taking photographs is also challenging due to the bright light. Amantani, a small island of 3 1/2 square miles, is located on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca and has population of around 4,000 Quechua speaking residents among the 800 families that live
in modest homes dotting the terraced hillsides. There are two mountain peaks, Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth) with ancient Inca ruins on top of both. I was eager and determined to climb to the top of Pachamama.
As we got closer to the island we could see several Quechua women in their colorful dresses standing on the pier awaiting our arrival. There was much excitement on both sides. There are ten communities on Amantani that take turns hosting guests. Each community has a different color dress and the family communities on Amantani take turns hosting guests. Our families have green skirts, bright flowered vests over white shirts and long black cloth head coverings embroidered with colorful flowers. I noticed other family groups had blue, red or black skirts but no matter the colors, they all had great smiles.
Representatives from our families were happy to see us and eager to accompany us up to their homes. I was eager too until I started to climb. I didn’t get far before I found I was gasping for air. We were walking on a stone-paved path that wasn’t extremely vertical but for my lungs
it might as well have been. I needed to stop every eight feet or so to let my heart stop pounding and begin to breathe. Roger, our guide and Dolly from my host family were very patient and understanding but I really didn’t like having to slow anyone down. Roger had seen my bunch of muna purchased in the market in Puno. He stopped (a breather for me!) to show us bunches of muna growing wild along the path. He gave each of us a sprig to add to our hot water so we could benefit from its digestive properties, needed now more than ever at this altitude. By the time we reached our homestay, which I think was the highest of the homes at around 12,750 feet, I realized there was no way I could make the hour long climb up to the temple on top of Pachamama, even if I could get a donkey to take me half way.
I was breathless when Dolly showed me my room at her parent’s mud brick two story home. My room had a beautiful view of the lake. The bed was turned down and the Kantuta flower, the
national flower of Peru, a flower that resembled our hummingbird flowers, was laid on my bed. My bed. I felt it and it was rock hard. Not what I needed after that climb. Carolyn and Charles, another couple in our group, said they would be eager to change to a hard bed because their beds were soft. And they wanted the view. Deal. There was no view in my new room but that didn’t matter to me, all I needed was “soft sleep”.
Around 2:30 PM I had unpacked my little bag and gone down to meet our hosts, Flavia and David, Manani
who were warm and welcoming. Lunch was already being set on the table. Carolyn and Charles, Jaafar and Bethany and I sat at the table with David, our host, at the head. We served ourselves some hot muna tea (muna is a local mint that Roger had picked on our walk and I had found in the market in Puno that helps with altitude sickness). Dolly and Flavia brought out homemade quinoa soup thickened with potato starch, much needed for warmth and energy, followed by a homemade cooked cheese, tomato slice, a hunk of
large kernel corn and three kinds of cooked plain potatoes, one of them, a fingerling look alike, that was called sweet but didn’t resemble any sweet potato I ever saw.
After lunch we all assembled outside in the yard by our hosts home. Roger appeared with some charts that explained the many meanings of the Inca Cross or Chakana
, a strong symbol of ancient cultural beliefs and considered the most complete, holy, geometric design of the Incas. This four sided cross also represents the constellation of the Southern Cross that I so anxiously anticipated seeing at night. Many of the host women assembled near Roger with their yarn and tools for weaving. Before them was spread a selection of the different kinds of potatoes and corn that they grow. We learned more about the Quechua culture and daily lives. Young men make the “Choca scarves” for women and older married men are the community leaders and don’t knit or spin.
Around 4:30 PM people began to assemble for the climb up Pachamama
. Since I wasn’t going to climb I went to my room, wrapped myself in a blanket and began to write. Thankfully there
was electric light and even a flat screen TV (that I never turned on to see if it even worked) but no heat. As it got darker and there was no visible sunset I began to really freeze (evening temperatures hover around 35 degrees) and so I opened my door to the cold and dark night, went down the stairs through the courtyard, taking note of the location of the toilet, (also outdoors) and walked into Flavia’s kitchen, located on the bottom floor of the two story house, to see if I could help her with dinner. Elias was in the tiny warm kitchen talking to Flavia who sat peeling potatoes in front of the open fire stove that was also next to the gas stove and the gas fired stovetop where two gas propane tanks were set. I stood, not knowing whether to run from imminent disaster or sit down in the warm but smokey room. Figuring they have lived like this for a long time, I thought I may as well take my chances. Plus it was warmer than my room.
Flavia did not speak English, I did not speak Quechua or Spanish so most
Courtyard view from my room at Flavia and David's home
The bathroom (non-flushing toilet and shower) are at the bottom left. Carolyn is getting a bucket of water to flush the toilet. A water spigot and towel are on the wall outside.
of the conversation was with Elias. We spoke about the education system on Amantani (children walk an hour and a half to school each day) and Peru’s environmental awareness utilizing solar systems and attempts to control pollution. I was happy to hear there is environmental awareness in Peru and although I did see some bags floating about in Puno, there was far less obvious pollution than in I had seen in Mexico and Guatemala. About an hour later, Elias left and Roger and Franco arrived for a chat. I think my hostess is quite popular.
Dinner was scheduled for 7 PM after the climbers returned from their hike. The four climbers from our group said it was a hard, cold climb and too cloudy to see a sunset. That made me feel a tiny bit better about my decision. Nine year old Boris, made an appearance and helped Dolly to serve our dinner. Flavia made a beautiful presentation of a variety of sautéed and boiled potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers, with garlic and herbs and white rice that was formed into a heart. Of course we had quinoa soup but I was given a smaller bowl because they
had remembered I had a smaller stomach.
After dinner we presented our gifts. I had brought pencils and notebooks, Bethany and Jaafar brought some soccer balls. Boris was very excited. Flavia and Dolly brought out their traditional attire and dressed us all for the dance. We wore the heavy costumes over our regular clothes but I was instructed to take off my jacket. Worried that I would freeze without it, the exhilaration of hiking and dancing kept me warm enough.
We walked down the steep stoney path to the “Disco Dance Hall
” that was already in full swing with five male musicians playing a drum, two Peruvian Quena flutes a large guitar and a small guitar called a charrango, respectively. Beer and water were sold at a table and as I started to sit, Philomena came and pulled me into the dancing followed by Dolly and Boris. Other Quechua people were pulling guests to the dance floor up to join the crowd in chain and circle dances. It is no easy task to dance in circles at 12,700 feet above sea level.
Our family group left the dance around 9:30 PM
(after we tipped the band). The feathery clouds in the skies sadly prevented me from seeing the entire Southern Cross but I do lay claim to seeing part of it. The bad thing about going down
to the dance is that you have to climb back up
to go home. In the pitch black. In the cold. We were a party of 7 and all of us stuck together on the narrow converging paths lest we got lost in the dark. By the time we got home, brushed our teeth in the outdoor sink (no one took an outdoor shower!), and climbed into our many blanket covered beds I think we all slept like babies.
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