26-29 Dec 2013. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3800 metres (12,500ft). About two-thirds of it is in Peru, the rest in Bolivia, and it’s blue. So blue.
Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is about an hour by boat from Copacabana, Bolivia. You can hike from one end of the island to the other in about 4 hours. There are reputedly 210 steps to climb to begin the hike if you start at the south end. I counted but lost track at 240something. At the bottom of the steps are Manco Capac, and Mama Ocllo who according to legend were born on Isla del Sol and are the ‘Adam and Eve’ of the Incas.
At the top of the steps, beyond this entrance gate, is the village of Yumani.
The approximately 5000 people on this island live a simple rural subsistence life. There are no motor vehicles or paved roads, and the hilly terrain is harsh and rocky. Here we saw simple village and rural life dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They make a living through farming and fishing, and some tourism. Everything is moved up and down the steep hills by people or by donkey,
alpaca are raised for their wool,
and crops such as beans and potatoes are grown on hard-won ancient terraces.
The stairs, the gate, and the ruins at the north end of the island, are frequently referred to as Incan though were probably built by the Aymara who lived here for hundreds of years before the rise and dominance of the Inca peoples. The Incas believed their Sun God, the god of all gods, was born here.
It was a brilliant sunny day, and we were thrilled to have reasonably warm weather and to be out of Copacabana. We were at considerable altitude so I can’t say we climbed the stairs with abandon, but we were determined to get to the top. Besides we had all day and it didn’t matter how slow we were. Along the way we met this sweet child. I asked to photograph her to which she replied ‘propina’, meaning tip. I happily agreed. Clearly she had already learned from the adults around her to ask tourists for money for photos. I think we settled on two Bolivianos. It may have been the first money she had ever earned by herself. She was both shy and open at the same time, and quick to smile once the ice was broken. You can see the soft innocence in her eyes.
We walked for about two hours soaking up the sun and spectacular views,
had tea at a restaurant high up on the top of the island, then headed back down the way we’d come. On the way back down we got a peek inside one of the family compounds,
and down at the wharf, waiting for the ferry, we carefully avoided this angry llama who clearly was going to spit at anyone who annoyed it further.
From Copacabana, Bolivia we travelled by bus to Puno in Peru, also on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We arrived at lunchtime on a sunny day, checked into our hotel, and almost immediately went back out to visit the reed islands of the Uros people.
As best as I can gather, in the Aymara language titi means puma, and kala or kaka means rock. There’s apparently a rock that is vaguely puma-shaped at the north end of Isla del Sol. The man who gave us a potted history of the Uros islands implied kaka or caca means hare and showed an aerial view of the lake, which does kinda sorta look like a puma eating a hare if you have a good imagination. My immediate question was a loud “how did they know that?” How did they know the lake was that shape? That could only be known by seeing it from above. My question was ignored but it sure got me thinking about the Nazca Lines, and the things ancient people seemed only to be able to know about by being very high up above it, and about Chariots of the Gods. Everything I read declared titi means puma in the Aymaran language. There are various interpretations of the kaka/caca/kala part. It means rock or hare or maybe something completely different. Ancient legends shrouded in mystery. And over hundreds of years everyone makes up something different. A bit like that whispered telephone game.
I have such mixed feelings about the Uros Islands. I’d been there many years ago for a brief visit. I knew nothing about them and was too full of the hubris of youth to ask or even really care. I was fascinated by the people and their way of life, and by walking on the dry but spongey islands made of reeds, and seeing chickens wandering about, and houses and boats made of reeds. Fascinating to look at it all, but I didn’t learn a thing about the people or their way of life or why they lived on islands made of reeds floating in the lake. I just looked. And then we moved on to the next thing.
Thirty-five years later a visit is a very organized touristy affair. It was Don’s first time there and he enjoyed it. We were taken to two islands. On the first we got a glimpse into the way the people live (there were reed houses we could look into), and a short talk about the history of the islands. We were then very much encouraged to buy some of their brightly coloured craftwork.
On the way to the islands
Inside the reed houses
Flat stones make a fire surface with a ceramic ‘stove’ over it for cooking.
We were taken by a double-hulled (fake) reed boat to the second island. Don got a chance to “row” not realizing that the boat was being pushed along from behind by a small dinghy with an outboard motor. He had fun anyway. The boat was fake in that it was not built of reeds, just covered in them. It was getting a bit worn and you could see the blue tarp underneath.
This island was essentially a ‘restaurant’ where we could buy a drink and a meal. There was a kitchen building, a service counter, and several open-sided buildings for tables and chairs. Since we hadn’t had lunch this was welcome, but not anything unique to these islands. However, being snoopy, and wanting a more authentic experience, even if only briefly, I wandered around behind the scenes and found:
These two people making what I’m guessing will be new roofing,
this little scene – laundry drying in the sun, a couple of kids playing, and a small fish farm,
this older woman, completely at home in possibly the only environment she has ever known,
and this young boy heading off in a boat, as natural to him as walking.
I was a little disturbed to be told by our guide that sixty percent of the islanders are now Mormon, and to see that the two young men in charge of the restaurant island wore name tags – Elder Ramirez, and Elder Martínez. However other information gives completely different numbers for the religious demographics of the islanders. According to one source the Uros almost died out until the Mormons came. Another source says they almost died out until the Catholic missionaries came. Yet another source said maybe 5% follow the ancient worship of Pachamama, the earth mother, 70% are Catholic (probably meaning they still have ties as well to the worship of Pachamama), 15% are Adventists, 5% Protestants, and 5% Mormons. Hmmmmm. That’s a whole different picture. There is a floating Mormon missionary school and a traditional school up to grade six. According to Rough Guides the inhabitants of the islands are ‘much abused’. However these three posts that tell the story of a French-Norwegian family who spent two days staying with a Uros family paint a much happier picture. I recommend reading it if you want to know more of daily life on the islands.
The Uros people are pre–Incan people who took to living on the lake centuries ago as a defensive measure. There are about sixty islands in all. Each island houses anywhere from three to ten families, depending on the size of the island. The islands are made of totora reeds, that grow naturally in the lake, and take about a year to construct from huge dense masses of roots all bound together with layers of reeds criss-crossed over the top. New layers need to be added frequently to replace those rotting underneath. Here one man is harvesting reads for this purpose, and in the following picture a couple of men bring in a full boatload. I think the reeds are also dried and used as fuel for cooking fires.
The people fish, hunt birds, and even graze cattle on the islands. Ibis are domesticated for meat and eggs.
An aid project some years ago brought them the very great boon of solar panels for electric light. Some entire islands had previously burned due to the use of candles. You can see the solar panels in this photo of a young woman in traditional skirt and jacket.
As I said I have mixed feelings about it all. About two thousand of the Uros have somewhat managed to retain their traditional lifestyle, and I’m happy if our tourist dollars help improve their lives even if it means we tourists are given a controlled and constructed ‘Uros experience’ designed to get us to spend our dollars there. I’m not sure I support the Mormon influence and wonder how much of the income from tourism goes to the Uros people. I can say they have schools, a medical clinic, and solar lighting on their islands, and from the description in the article cited above it’s certainly not all bad. I’m still completely astonished by the utterly dazzling uniqueness of the lives of these people. And by the sheer incredible creativity of forming whole islands, boats, houses, watch towers and other constructions from the reeds growing in a lake. Once again I’m floored by the creativity of the world and the infinite number of different ways in which people do life.
We had two more days in Puno. The weather was not wonderful and we were not drawn to go exploring much, but two evenings in a row we heard drumming in the streets and went to find out what it was. We found this:
It was dancers practicing for Fiesta Candelaria. In a heartbeat we changed plans and made bookings to return for the festival in February. Much more on this in later posts. It’s one of the biggest festivals in South America.
Next post: What a contrast from the Uros islands – a luxury train ride to Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, and visiting villages and Inca ruins in The Sacred Valley, Peru.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.