Text and Photos: Mariana Lafont
The first time I saw this great ocean in the highlands I was twenty years old. I was going on an “initiation journey” from Buenos Aires to Perú by land with a backpack over my shoulder; I was on route from La Paz to Copacabana (Bolivia). I remember that what most caught my attention (apart from the deep blue that blends with the clear sky of the high plateau) were the clouds glued to the horizon. Lake Titicaca (shared by Perú and Bolivia) rises 12,467 feet above the Collao Plateau of the central Andes. It has 621 miles of coastline and covers more than 3,282 square miles, making it the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. It is formed by two bodies of water separated by the Strait of Tiquina. Since there is no bridge, people and vehicles cross by motorboat.
Although twenty-five tributaries feed into this crystalline lake and it rains a lot from December to March (the rest of the year is almost dry), most of the water is lost to evaporation. Although the climate here is extreme, the large body of water creates an ideal microclimate for agricultural activities. If the lake did not exist, this region would have been a frozen and solitary plateau.
The legend of the origin of Titicaca (“stone puma” in Quechua) maintains that the people here lived happily in a fertile valley where they lacked nothing and were protected by Apus (gods of the mountain). The only condition was that they were prohibited from climbing the peaks where the sacred fire burned, but the devil incited them to do so. One day Apus surprised them as they were climbing and their fury was so great that they released pumas that devoured the entire population but saved one couple. Upon seeing the massacre, Inti (the Sun god) cried for forty days and forty nights, creating the great lake. When the sun came out, the couple, sheltered in a boat, saw that all the pumas had been turned to stone.
Thousands of tourists visit this lake, attracted by its beauty, and also by the fact that it’s home to the Aymara, Quechua, and Uro ethnic groups that preserve their ancestral traditions here. The majority of these people are Catholic, having adapted this religion to a culture whose main deity is Pachamama (Mother Earth). To visit the indigenous people of these ethnic groups and witness in their customs, histories, and beliefs, you must travel to the brilliantly colored islands where they live. Among the highlights are the floating islands of Taquile and Amantaní, built by the Uros, in the Bay of Puno, Perú.
From the Floating Totora to Amantaní
Sailing through the highest lake in the world and visiting its islands is a unique experience. The night before we left, I couldn’t sleep a wink and just as I finally managed to fall asleep the alarm sounded. It was a cold June morning in Puno, but soon the sun enveloped us. We boarded the boat and soon spotted the floating islands built by the Uros about four miles away. Today there are some twenty islands, but this number varies according to the number of families. It seems incredible that such floating truss could support so much weight. The islands are built on blocks of totora reed roots, whose decomposition produces gasses that allow them to float. The Uros lay several layers of dry totora reed on top and build their homes with the same material. They anchor the islands with long sticks to prevent them from drifting away.
This ethnic group calls itself the “kotsuña” (“people of the lake”) and, according to their oral tradition, they were forced to flee Titicaca after the siege of the Inca Pachacútec. Since then they depend on the lake and the totora reed. Although they have turned to tourism, the current residents still practice ancestral traditions such as artisanal fishing (they preserve the fish by drying them in the sun). The women are expert weavers and the men are skilled builders and navigators of beautiful rafts or “little horses” made of totora.
After sailing for a while, we arrive at an area where totora reeds abound. In the distance you can see the colorful, shining islands. We stop to pay the entrance fee and later disembark on one of the islands, where an entire family greets us. We sit in a circle on the soft surface to listen to the talk by the head of the family, while the youngest of his children, amazed, strokes my husband’s red beard. Then some of the group stay to buy handicrafts, others journey around the area, and some of us take a short voyage on a totora raft before continuing on with the trip.
We sail for a couple of hours until we arrive at the island of Amantaní, which has been inhabited since pre-Incan times. In 1580, King Charles V sold it to the Spaniard Pedro González and from then on it was in the hands of land bosses. Towards 1900 there was a string of long droughts, and the landowners began to sell the land to the natives, who after fifty years recovered the entire island. Because of the boat’s height and gentle movement, sleep overcomes us. To snap out of our lethargy we climb atop the boat’s roof and feel the fresh breeze on our faces. Finally we arrive at the largest island on the Peruvian side of Titicaca, north of the island of Taquile. On the dock the group divides up and Pedro, our host, greets us. He guides us to his house, opening a path among a flock of sheep. Agitated by the altitude and lack of oxygen, we struggle to keep up with him as we walk to his dwelling. He is in a hurry because it is a holiday (Pentecost) and the entire town is gathering in the main square. After showing us his house and rooms, he serves lunch and invites us to the celebration. In minutes he is dressed in a striking white suit and we follow him through undulating paths to the crowded plaza.
All the locals are there in their finest attire, dancing and enjoying themselves. Beer bottles came and went and even the older women drank directly from the rims. The band played nonstop while men and women dressed in colorful outfits twirled to the rhythm of the music. After a few drinks we left to walk around the island which, at that moment, was deserted. A stone walkway parallel to the intense blue lake offered beautiful panoramic views and if I allowed my imagination to fly, it transported me to an Aegean island.
To walk around Amantaní from end to end is easy; it stretches only about two miles. Mount Llacastiti is the highest point (13,615 feet) and you must climb some 984 feet if you want to reach the summit, which is not so high, but at this altitude any hike is demanding. On our walk, we also admired the cultivated terraces, where potatoes, oca, barley, and beans are grown, and cattle are raised. At dusk, you can feel the cold, but it is worth it to cover ourselves up warmly and look at the stars in this little corner of the world. We didn’t see any more of Pedro. One of his children served us dinner and we fell fast asleep, exhausted.
The Island of Textiles
The next morning we got up early to continue on to Taquile (“Intika” in Quechua). The party had been a long one, Pedro was asleep and one of his children served breakfast while his grandmother muttered in Quechua. She was upset with Pedro for not looking after his guests better. We laughed at the situation, said goodbye and thanked them for their good care. After a few hours we arrived at the craggy shores of Taquile. Like Amantaní, this peculiar corner of the world is home to one of Perú’s most unique communities. Despite tourism, they have not altered their traditions and customs. The island, twenty-two miles east of Puno, is 3.4 miles long and the second largest island in the Peruvian section of the lake, after Amantaní. The people of Taquile were one of the last groups to surrender to the Spaniards in the 16th century. The island was later taken in the name of the emperor Charles V until it passed to the court of Pedro González de Taquile (hence its name). During the colonial period and in the 20th century it was a prison, until 1937 when the old inhabitants began buying land and recovered the island. After the Spaniards prohibited traditional Incan attire, the islanders adopted the European peasant dress that they still wear today.
The main port of Taquile is three hours away from Puno, Chilcano by boat. A grand staircase takes you to a town frozen in time, where life goes on peacefully. It is a micro-world without electricity, cars, hotels or stores; there are only a few shops selling basic products. In 2005, the island gained notoriety when UNESCO declared its textile art a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage to Humanity.” The garments are reminiscent of pre-Columbian times in their quality, design, and symbolism, which have been passed down from generation to generation. They are woven of llama, alpaca, and sheep wool, tinted with natural dyes. Women wear red blouses and multi-colored skirts (covered with a wide black skirt), cinched with a fine belt and protect themselves from the sun by wearing long black veils over their heads.
Men use black fabric pants, white shirts, short jackets (the form and colors of which marks their role in the community), and a long embroidered sash with weaving describing the events that have marked the life of the man and his wife. A woolen cap or hat differentiates married men (red) from single ones (white), and the way the back of the hat is worn indicates whether or not a man is looking to get married. To see and buy these textiles you can go to the local municipality in the square.
In addition to weavings there are several sacred sites to visit, such as the protective hills of Mulsina Pata, Pukara Pata, Takilli Pata, and Coani Pata, which provide an excellent view of Taquile, the lake, and the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Royal mountain range in Bolivia. And if you’re lucky enough to visit during a festival, you will see the island in all its glory. Most of the fiestas (a fusion of Andean and Christian traditions) are related to agricultural activity. In January, a critical month for agriculture, there are rituals dedicated to the Apus to ward off frosts, hail, and droughts. In March there are carnival dances and during Holy Week Sikuris are danced. In June, on the Sunday of Pentecost, there are rituals to ensure that seeds are fertile, and on the 24th of that month the feast of San Juan is celebrated. August is dedicated to the building of homes and in September the first plantings take place, as well as payments to Pachamama.
Isla del Sol
The most mythical of all the islands of Titicaca, the cradle of Inca culture, is the lake’s largest (it is almost 6.2 miles long by three miles wide). Indigenous people of Quechua and Aymara origins live there, dedicating themselves to agriculture, tourism, handicrafts, and shepherding on their ancient Incan terraces. Isla del Sol, 9.3 miles from Copacabana, is one of the main towns in the area (96 miles from La Paz) and a center of pilgrimage for visiting the Virgin of Copacabana. Boats depart every day from Copacabana to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna. Another option, for those who have more energy and time, is to trek from Yampupata. It takes three or four hours to cross the 10.5 miles between Copacabana and the Strait of Yampupata on foot. And later you will need to cross the strait in a boat. The island is full of small communities, but the largest are Cha’llapamapa, in the north, and Yumani (offering more restaurant and hotel options) in the south. A lot of people go for the day, but it is really wonderful to spend at least one night enjoying the incredible sunsets and starry nights.
The northern part of the island also has white sand beaches. If the boat stops there, you can take a lovely walk (despite the strong sun and altitude) through the highest part of the island, which offers incredible panoramic views. You will also pass several archeological sites, especially that of la Chincana, with the Sacred Rock, from which, according to legend, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo left in search of the place where they later established the empire of Cusco. La Chincana is a series of buildings of Inca style, but more rustic, built on several levels and connected by doors and hallways. It is said that the monks who worshiped the sun lived here. Along the walk you should pay several “tolls,” since you’ll pass through diverse communities and a chola will be there to charge. Finally, when you arrive at the southern part (the busiest), you can visit the archeological ruins of the Pilkokaina Temple and the stone steps of the Yumani dock that leads to the Source of Life. An unforgettable experience on the lake of the highlands.