Day 5: Lake Titicaca – 12,500 ft!
My bed, in our room at the Liberatdor, is by the window and I draw back the curtains to watch the boats moving through a cut in the reeds at the edge of Lake Titicaca. It is 6am and the room is very hot. The hotel has prepared us for cold as I am sure my duvet would be good at -40 degrees. The windows don’t open although they look like they might have once. I’m thinking that fresh air would be good.
Lake Titicaca is a deep lake, high in the Andes. In fact it’s the largest high lake in the world at 190 km long and 80 km wide. It has an average depth of 107m and a maximum depth of 281m. But I didn’t come here because of its location spanning the borders of Peru and Bolivia or because of its amazing geometry. I came because long ago I heard about the people who lived on the floating islands and that captured my imagination.
My meds for high altitude have kicked in without their usual side effects (numbness everywhere) and I am feeling quite good as we set out in our own boat to spend the day exploring the lake. The boat is wooden and dated, moving through the water with every pump of its engine,its sound conjuring up images of the “African Queen”. But here we have a closed cabin, comfy seats and with only six people, there is lots of room outside on the back deck or topside, if one is up for the rickety ladder.
There are about 2000 Uru (1997 census) living on the Uros Islands in the lake at its Peruvian end. Their roots stretch back to pre-Incan times. The villages we pass have watch towers that reflect the history of the place in that the islands were originally built as defensive settlements. Ultimately, the Uru were defeated by the Incas.
When I disembark on one of the smaller islands, the ground is spongy. The reeds give with my weight and rise with each step. As the mayor of the community talks with us about the structure of the island and the life style of the people, women sit on the reeds doing characteristic embroidery. These masterpieces are densely stitched in bold colours and eventually I purchase one from a teen. But first we hear how the islands are anchored and that they can actually be floated to a new location. So much for the neighbours!
Tourism is important here and many people visit, but the time it takes to interact with strangers detracts from the Uru’s time to do maintenance. Unlike my house, if I don’t paint, it, it just looks bad. Here, the entire structure of the island would collapse from rot if neglected for too long. New layers of dried reeds must be added on top, on a regular basis. When the level of the reeds reaches the level of the foundations for the homes, then they must be taken down and built up again on a new base. Reed boats with their characteristic prows have a short life span as well. New ones have to be regularly constructed from dry reed using a laborious and time consuming process.
Totora, the reed in question, is very serviceable. Besides being a construction material, its roots are used as food and it has medicinal properties. It’s also flammable so cooking is done, very carefully, on stones. On the islands, there is a school, a church and a medical facility. High School is found in Puno. Some families have solar panels and light bulbs hang from ridge-poles in the reed buildings. There is no running water and no heat. If you need a bathroom, you go to a designated island.
It appears that the life style of the Uru people is evolving just as ours is. They are incorporating change but retain the strengths of their heritage. Today, some families work on the islands but live in town. Others still embrace a modified but traditional way of life that incorporates both the old ways and the new.
The hanging I purchased cost 70 sol. I didn’t debate the price. It was already ridiculously low– under thirty dollars. It would have taken hours to create. The artist was about 15, and wore the traditional hat that is worn by unmarried girls until they find a boyfriend and move in with him in his mother’s home. She was chatty and wanting to make a sale. I appreciated the effort and the exchange.
In due course, we head out into the lake to continue exploring. Men almost hidden in the reeds, are making a new boat. Kids are playing at the 7th Day Adventist Church. Folks here also practice Catholism and call on their shamans to “Keep all the bases covered”.
The immensity of the lake becomes apparent as we head further out into the bay. Our destination is the peninsula visible on the east shore. The lake is choppy but the sun is shining and the air so clear. Transportation by lake was important between Peru and Bolivia until the highway south from Puno was built. Historically steamships were knocked down and brought in pieces from the Thames and were then rebuilt on the shores of the lake. No easy task!
Plan A was that we would kayak when we reached shore and then hike after a lunch at a farm house up the terraced hill side. Altitude had its own plan and as a mostly 60 something group we were not moving too quickly once ashore. Local residents met us on the dock and smiled in greeting.
We work our way along the beach, seeing new birds, noting the mud brick houses sporting thatch or metal roofs and having a closer look at the reeds that are so significant here. If cut off close to the roots the reeds will grow up again as long as the roots are wet. As the actual level of the lake can vary by several feet, not all will survive. Only 10% of its water is lost by river. Strong winds and intense sunshine, a shortened rainy season and the reduction of glacier melt account for 90% of the reduction in water levels.
Six hundred and twenty-eight families liven Liachon and a few have opened their homes to travelers. About 15 % of the village is involved with tourism but everyone farms. The elders take care of the daily tasks during the week while weekends mean younger family members will be home to assist. We slowly climb to one of the farms, passing garden plots where corn, beans, and potatoes are growing. We are welcomed by the owner and enjoy a home cooked meal – a quinoa based soup, trout from the fish farm on the lake, two kinds of potatoes, another legume, mixed vegetables and rice.
Reuben, our guide speaks about the role of textiles in this economy and the significance of the traditional costumes. Countless hours go into the construction of these garments.
We wander through the streets of the village meeting several herders, donkeys, teenagers, and new lambs. Empty plastic bottles hang from roofs in an attempt to scare away the birds that, like woodpeckers, make holes in the mud bricks. On the “tourist” sidewalk, a lengthy uneven undertaking, we encounter an elderly couple as they head home with their flock of unruly lambs. That lady means business when she cracks the whip!
The boat has been repositioned and we board from a more southernly dock.We board and as the boat pulls into the wind, we pass the fish farm that may have been the source of the trout we had for lunch. The wind is up and the lake choppy.To the north the sky is black. We huddle indoors for the crossing. As we enter the island community on the west side of the lake, a basketball game is in full swing at the church and an incredible rainbow bridges the land behind us. In this clear air, its amazing colours tint the hills.