Lake Titicaca, the name alone is funny!! At least for french-speaking people, it is. The exact origins of the naming “Titicaca” are still a mystery, but locals translated it as “Rock Puma”. They interpreted the shape of the lake, and thought it looked like a puma hunting a rabbit!?! So, it should be called Rock Puma!?! In my opinion, locals have a great deal of imagination.
But, I wasn’t here to debate on the naming. I was on a 2-days trip to discover the culture & customs of locals living on different islands: Uros, Amantani and Taquile. Our first stop was the famous floating Uros Islands, about 44 small artificial islands made of Tortora reeds (local reeds from the coastal areas). You might wonder how does one make a floating island? At least, I did. It was the first question that popped up in my mind and I got the answer about 5 minutes after stepping foot on the floating island named “Wiñay Khantani”. The president of the Uros islands, himself welcomed us, and then explained how they built floating islands and how his community worked together.
So, here is what I learned about building a floating island… (might be useful in the future… who knows…) Floating island is made of egg whites served floating on a milky custard sauce. Some variations in the recipe use… Just kidding ;-)
The islands are created by first cutting with a big saw, massive blocks from the coast; blocks of matted roots of the Tortora reeds. These big pieces of roots are then dragged to where the new island will be and anchored in place.
Once they have the basis of soil in place, the inhabitants topped it with many layers of fresh-cut reeds. The matted base is 1 meter thick, and they pile up to 3 meters of cut reeds on top. The layers need to be constantly taken care of and renewed, as the reeds dry and break in sunny weather, and rot in rain! Once the island is properly built, they can start building their houses, their kitchens, etc… All structures are built from Tortora reeds. Depending on the size of the island, there will be from 1 up to 7 families living on it!! Very impressive!!
For cooking, they didn’t want to burn down their floating island in the process, so they build their fire on matted roots and rocks. And the cooking area is isolated from the rest of the structures of the island.
After our morning visit to the floating Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca, our motorized boat headed to Isla Amantani populated by Quechua speakers. From the boat, you can see the 2 mountain peaks with ancient ruins on the top: Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth). There are no cars, no tractors, no electricity (families use candles or flashlights powered by batteries), no paved roads, no bikes, and no hotels on the island!
When we arrived at Amantani, we were greeted by locals. I was in awe at how women were dressed: beautiful wool, pleated skirts, bright flowered blouses, and simple black shawls! Their shawls are very detailed and with giant colourful pom-poms!! I learned afterwards that married women have small, less colourful pom-poms attached to their shawls, while single ladies have giant, bright, colourful ones!!
Our boat group was divided among several families. Along with Marianna and Miguel (a couple from Argentina and Uruguay), we met our host for the night, Pedro. He is a widow, father of 5 children. We started the walk up to the house… slowly… very slowly… My lungs were burning and pumping really hard to find some oxygen at over 12,500 ft. Altitude sickness, ugh!
The rooms in their home were arranged around a courtyard where they kept their tools and their animals (I had a nice encounter with a pig in the middle of the night on my way to the outside bathroom… but that’s another story). Once settled in the rooms, Pedro served us a hearty, delicious warm Quinoa and vegetable soup with local cheese and bread. Delicious!!
And, then Pedro took us to the little town plaza surrounded by the church and a few town buildings. It was the first night of a several-days festival “Pentecoste” for the local folk. Thus, our host was wearing a beautiful, colorful costume, ready to dance (and drink) all night long! FYI, we didn’t see him anymore. He went partying (drinking) and never made it back home!
The dances, the music, the costumes, the traditions,… it was just incredible to watch. I kept thinking how lucky we were to arrive on the annual “Pentecoste” festival. I stayed and watched the event for hours. But, as night settled in, we were really hungry (but there were no grocery stores) and cold. We found our way back to the house, which was empty! The whole family was still partying. But, Bernardo, the oldest son came back home around 9pm. And, he served us the dinner with another delicious Quinoa soup, baked potatoes, veggies, and herbal tea.
The next morning, it was hard to emerge from my warm nest into the cold room. After a tasty breakfast, we were ready to explore the third and final island, called Taquile (not to be confused with the Mexican drink Tequila). The inhabitants, known as Taquileños, are also Quechua speakers. They run their society based on the Inca moral code “ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla” (Translation: “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”).
Our boat docked on the shore from where started a steep trail to the top of the island. Along the trail, we saw the national flower of Peru, a reddish trumpet flower. There were also arches with three terra-cotta heads of men, wearing broad-brimmed hats. The view from the trail was amazing!! Definitely worth being breathless (Altitude is killing me)!
Fortunately, we made a stop at a restaurant. Our guide then explained the symbolism of hats and belts on the island. The young, single man wears a red/white knit hat; the married man has a red hat. If the pom-pom falls to the right side of the head, then it indicates the young man is looking for a steady relationship; to the left side, for an “adventure” ;-)
Not only men wear the hats, but they also knit them! If they aren’t a good knitter, they are unlikely to get married because knitting is a major source of income (besides Tourism, of course). You can actually see men of all ages knitting all over the island!! It’s quite funny!! Women also knit very colourful belts that their husbands will wear. The belts describe in pictures the agricultural calendar (when is best to fish, to plant, etc…) or the family’s history. Just beautiful!!
In the end, my time on the famous (funny) lake Titicaca was just incredible. Being welcomed in their home, living as they do, and sharing life-stories are always privileged moments. Lake Titicaca is another unforgettable memory! Lake Titicaca… still a funny name though…