Adventures in Peru 2014 Part 15: Lake Titicaca, the floating Uros Islands, Taquile Island and Suasi Island

Friday, August 8, 2014

Insomnia has its positives and negatives. The negative part is easy to understand and needs no explanation. On the positive side, I get a lot of work done in the middle of the night. I also get to see some spectacular moonrises at 3:30 AM when everyone else is sleeping.


We really did not want to leave Puno. Our hotel room was the nicest one yet. There was a big full bed for Genene and a king for Greg and me. There was a small fireplace in the room and a huge hot tub in the bathroom. It was bliss. However, we had plans to see Lake Titicaca, so we enjoyed the room for the little time we had there.

Greg admires the views of Lake Titicaca and Puno from our window:


Departure time was 7:05 AM, and the boat would pick us up at the hotel’s private pier. The hotel staff carried all our heavy bags and loaded them on the top of the boat. We walked down the pier with our daypacks:

The boat was something like a ferry.


It held 24 passengers inside, and the luggage rode up top. I’m not a very good sailor, and I kept my eye on the horizon at first. I should not have worried. The lake was like glass, and I had no trouble on this day.

Some views from inside the cabin:

A sister boat traveled alongside us:
After we got out into open water, we were allowed to go on the top, four at a time. It was brisk. We took our turn once but were never tempted to go out again.
Traveling light:


We met a very nice family in the seats behind us. Everyone was headed to the same destination, Suasi Island. We struck up a conversation with them and shared sunscreen and candies. Bob and Cynthia and their kids Malia (15) and Jonathan (12) were from California. They have an older daughter who is going to meet them back in Cusco, where there will be a very happy family reunion. Both of the kids were a bit older than Genene, but she soon attached herself to them anyway. Anything to get away from her boring parents! It was good to hear them giggling and comparing notes about school, computer games and other good kid stuff.

Our guide Gilbert explaned that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet above sea level. The lake covers 3,340 square miles and at its deepest is 925 feet. It holds about 3 percent of the world’s fresh water. The lake borders with Bolivia. He gave the presentation in English and in Spanish.

Our first stop was at the famous floating Uros Islands. The people of this area have built and lived upon the floating islands made by reeds since pre-Inca times. We got a presentation from the “President” of the island. Every president serves for a year, and both men and women serve as president. The island we visited was probably smaller than a football field. There were several houses, and about 35 people live there.

I took a few candid shots of the people as we sat and listened to the presentation:

The people sell and trade fish (as well as souvenirs):


The President explained how the island is built, and Gilbert translated into Spanish and English. The base of the island is a giant sod root ball, which must be acquired from a site 6 miles away. It’s hauled into place by motor boat. The sod ball floats like a cork because it is comprised of 80% roots and organic matter, 10% soil and 10% gases.

The sod must be cut into manageable sizes for the journey: 30 feet long by 15 feet wide by 6 feet thick.

Once in place, the sod segments are tied together with rope. In olden days the rope would have been made from reeds or other organic material. Now it is made from nylon. Because the root is still alive, it will grow and bind back together within six months. Reeds are planted to help bind the root ball together.

On top of the base, reeds are placed, in a criss-cross fashion, three feet thick:
The reeds must be compacted, and the island residents play soccer and other games on the top of the island to tamp down the reeds. The reeds must be replenished every 16 days! The houses on the island are small and can be easily lifted and moved to one side so that the new reeds can be placed under them.

The President dug a small hole with his hands to show us the soft, wet rootball under the reeds:

On the right is a replica of the original pre-Inca hut, which is no longer used. Now the people live in the more square dwelling on the left:
The kitchen is placed on top of a stone, so that they do not set the entire island afire:

At the end of the presentation, the President asked us what else would be “needed” on this island. We shouted out various answers: food? water? money? schools? No, no, no, no. None of these was the correct answer. Finally, one of the men said, “Anchor?” Of course! A man-made floating reed island needs an anchor or it will float away. The President and our guide demonstrated how the island is anchored to the lake floor, and the anchor ropes are weighed down with rocks so that the boats can pass over:


The people speak Aymara (not Quechua). Most are Catholic, although the Seventh Day Adventists coverted at least one island and built a school there. There are between 55 and 70 floating islands. Their numbers are actually on the upswing, mostly due to income potential from tourism. An island will last about 30 years, after which the residents set it on fire and build another in its place.

The white-stalk end of the reed is edible, and we all got a taste. They were very moist and refreshing and about the consistency of celery with a slight cucumber taste.


The reeds are also broken open and used as cold compresses.


They are also used for handwashing.


Best of all, when you are finished, just toss it down on the ground. It’s part of the island.

The president showed the various reed boats that are used for fishing and transportation.


They loved to joke about the one called the “Mercedes Benz.”

The real Mercedes Benz reed boats are made with 2,000 plastic water bottles inside, the ultimate in recycling.

The president showed us his duck gun and success from the morning hunt:


After the demonstration, we were split into groups and taken into different huts. Our hostess immediately began showing us her work, simple tapestries. I found something I liked and asked her the cost. She took her fingernail and scratched the number onto her other hand. I bargained a bit, and it was mine. I’m not sure what I am going to do with all the things I have bought on this trip.

We are inside the hut getting the sales pitch:

Bagging up my purchases:
The view of the hut. I am not sure whether anyone really lives here or this is just the sales showroom:
The doorway is small:


Our guide asked if we wanted to take a ride in one of the reed boats. Of course, everyone did. For the price of 10 soles ($3.50) each, we piled into the reed boat, and an old man sent us gliding along in the reeds and shallow waters of Lake Titicaca, using a long pole for propulsion.

The floating island we just visited:
Hey, how come their boat has a nice serpent head and ours doesn’t? I wonder if their ride cost more soles.
Ah ha! A speedboat.
Jonathan, Greg and Genene shared very bad puns and jokes (groaners) along the way.
It’s probably pretty easy to fill your stew pot with duck meat around here:
There are plenty of reeds around for replenishing the islands:

Our reed boat “driver” had an interesting, rugged face:


The ferry met us in the middle of the water and picked us up, and so we were off again.

We motored along for another hour or so until we got to the island of Taquile. The people came down to meet us at the gate and give a traditional greeting:


The people of Taquile Island are known for their textiles. The intricate weaving and knitting is done by both men and women, and they maintain the cooperative lifestyle of their ancestors. The island is still run today by the ancient Inca moral code: “Ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla.” (“Don’t be lazy. Don’t steal. Don’t lie.”) Not a bad code for any society.

This bag carries the coca leaves, which are traded by the the islanders in greeting:
Trading coca leaves:
Their shoes are made from used tire rubber:


We got a demonstration on their weaving techniques. Married people wear a marriage belt (see below), which attaches two different types of weaving. The hard belt (black and white) is made by the men, while the fine weaving of the softer belt is made by the women. The belt also serves a useful function. The people must carry a lot of heavy items long distances, and the belt serves as a back support. It is cinched low and tight across the lumbar.

The next photo shows a Taquile calendar, which can take three months to make. Gilbert went through the significance of each month of the year: festivals (Catholic and Inca), planting, harvesting, crop rotation, Independence Day (those celebrations last a month). We learned some interesting, random facts about their culture during this presentation. The depth of the fish eggs is used to predict rainfall and plant crops. It is considered to be bad luck for human figures to be placed on the calendars and other weaving, so humans are represented by birds. Couples live together for 3 years before marriage, unless the babies start coming, in which case they get married immediately. Marriage lasts forever. There is no divorce. December is a time of celebration in their culture as in ours. Relatives come home for Christmas celebrations, bringing money from the mainland and gifts for the children.
“Mom, fix my sleeve!”
The pompon on the hats is large and colorful for single men and smaller for married men. It is worn on the right side of the head if looking for a girlfriend and on the left side if taken. On the back means “not interested right now.” A married man’s woolen cap is woven so tightly that water can be carried in it. The leader’s cap has all the colors of the rainbow, like the Inca flag. Married women wear a red shirt.
They demonstrated how they make a kind of soap out of a native plant. When they crush the tree leaves, it looks almost like guacamole. It makes suds just like soap, and it is used to clean wool.
Makes me want a bowl of chips and a margarita:
Wool is added:
and scrubbed:
Before and after:

They showed us other native plants used in their daily living. Genene particularly loved the smell of the Andean mint, which is rubbed between your hands to release the oils and then sniffed to clear the head and help with sinus problems, altitude sickness, etc.

We got a music show. These men and boys will never make American Idol, but the performance was musical, heartfelt, entertaining and interesting.

They marched this way:
And that way:

They showed us their garden tools. They called this the “Andean tractor.” It looks like a hand plow to me.

This is a sod buster.

My dad would call this one a grubbing hoe.
The implement is tied to the handle with leather:


The ladies continued to weave.

A blanket like this can take up to four years to finish!
I love watching their hands. Look at the fine, intricate detail work that must be done.
Is that a bone she is using to separate the threads?


Of course, they wanted to sell us their wares, which were carefully laid out:


I wanted one of the calendars, but I saw only one, and the price was too high. For once, I paid attention and got lucky. A lady wandered up late and began unwrapping her wares. I went directly to her and found a Taquile calendar. Her price was reasonable, and it was mine! More stuff!

Greg wanted a chullo, the traditional Peruvian wool hat you see with the ear flaps. In the end, he wouldn’t pay the price for it. Probably a wise choice anyway. How often do you get to wear a big woolen cap in Houston?

This lady flashed me a winning smile just before we left:


After the second stop, we had another 90 minutes or so to get to the hotel on the island. I think everyone on the boat except the skipper went to sleep.

Land ho!


We arrived at Suasi Island about 12:45 PM and docked. Suasi Island is a private 106-acre island on Lake Titicaca. There is only one hotel on the island, the Casa Andina Private Collection Hotel. It has only 45 rooms and is designed and built with local materials, such as stone, adobe and tiles. Terraced gardens overlook the lake. It is a beautiful, serene place.

We were met by the hotel guide and told the walk to our hotel would take about 10 minutes, and the trail went straight up the hill. That was a wake-up. They used four-wheelers and trailers to haul all our gear up, so at least our load was light. We were all huffing and puffing.


Lunch was barbeque and buffet. We all had the alpaca, and it was tender and delicious.


After lunch, the kids found the game room and were soon laughing away as they played foosball and pool. Genene needs some pool lessons from her Uncle Alan, who used to be quite the shark in his day. She would not take any advice from us, as usual.

We took a quick rest and then met the guide for a walk to the top of the island for sunset.

The kids strike out ahead:
We passed the alpaca pen. Our guide told us a sad story about how an alpha male alpaca had knocked down a lady tourist and was “sacrificed.” I don’t know the details, but the lady probably had it coming.
All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!
We were lucky enough to see vicuñas on our walk. The vicuña is a camelid native to Peru, and they are not domesticated. It is a relative of the llama and is believed to be its wild ancestor. Vicuñas live in the high alpine areas of the Andes. They produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every three years, and has to be caught from the wild. When knitted together, the product of the vicuña’s wool is very soft and warm. The Inca valued vicuñas highly for their wool, and it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear vicuña garments. At one time they were endangered, but conservation efforts have put them on the comeback trail. The vicuña is the national animal of Peru; its emblem is used on the Peruvian coat of arms. When we spotted them, I popped into safari mode and got a shot of this one on the run.
Genene and Jonathan jousted with their walking sticks:
Our guide kept apologizing because there was rain falling afar (not on us), and he said there would be “no sunset.” He tried to turn us around before we began the climb to the top, but we were not to be deterred.
The kids went out front:
The view from the top was very nice.
It was cold at the top:
Our hotel can be seen at middle right:
A view of our private island:
Probably discussing Minecraft:
Lake Titicaca is vast:
Family portrait:
Our guide was right. It was cloudy so the sunset was not spectacular on this day, though I can imagine that on another day, this vista might rival the Serengeti sunsets. It was still beautiful, and I enjoyed watching the light change minute by minute. It was nice to get out and stretch our legs.

Greg was COLD.
Genene and Jonathan played together all afternoon.
As in Machu Picchu, I found myself taking the pictures of the same vista over and over, because the light changed each minute. My apologies for the photo overload, but I love the clouds and the changing hues of pink, orange, blue:
As the last light faded, we made our way back down the hillside:
The lights in the village on the mainland began to flicker on:
Our hotel beckons:
Last one:

Before dinner, we sat in the main lobby area and shared riddles and jokes with Bob, Cynthia, Malia and Jonathan. One of the great things about traveling is making new friends. Dinner was buffet-style at the hotel. Genene still does not like the quinoa, but we found plenty of things to love on the table anyway.

The hotel is an ecolodge, which means it has a low environmental impact. The hotel was solar powered, and there was no heat in the rooms. There were fireplaces in the common areas. Everyone in the hotel charged their iPhones and electronics at one big charging station in the lobby. There were not-very-bright lights in the rooms, but the solar powered electricity went completely off after a certain hour. We had a candle in our room for light in the middle of the night. It was rustic and charming and cold! We had heavy, fine bed linens, and they tucked a hot water bottle into the bed. It was too cold to sit around in the room but toasty warm in the bed, so after dinner we all climbed under the covers and turned out the lights at 9:00 PM. It had been a long day filled with a lot of travel. Getting to Lake Titicaca and the islands was not easy. However, I am pleased that we included them in our itinerary. I found the people of the Uros floating islands and Taquile Island fascinating, like a living museum. It was worth the effort to visit this beautiful place.

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