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The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

No visit to Peru is complete without taking a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. Although some may say the islands have lost their authenticity, we found them to be an interesting and educational glimpse into the lives of the locals who inhabit them. Sure, they may be touristy, but before becoming a travel destination, real people lived real lives on these floating islands of reeds. Today locals may have the ability to live on solid ground, but they choose to live on these islands and eke out a living from fishing and tourism. While there are several places to embark on tours of the islands, Puno is Peru’s busiest waterfront hub, and it was here that we found ourselves after a very long bus ride from Cusco.


As we had been battling illness for a couple of days, we were in much need of some R&R. Our first night in the city was spent holed up in our tacky Motel 6 style hotel room at Plaza Mayor eating saltine crackers for dinner. The beds were soft, there was cable TV, and we had hot water about 50 percent of the time, so pretty much it was the Four Seasons of Puno. The location was convenient to the Plaza de Armas where about every 30 minutes a new festival or parade took place (Peruvians are notorious for celebrating just about everything). In fact when we first visited the Plaza it was filled with tractors for the celebration of agriculture – we couldn’t have been more thrilled!


The next morning we ventured down to the pier where we signed up for a boat excursion to the islands. As we sat waiting to board our boat we watched as many groups of tourists followed their English speaking guides onto their respective boats. It seemed like we had been waiting forever before our guide hustled us aboard a rather dire looking boat and dutifully handed us our life jackets. Warily we took our seats and then proceeded to listen to the safety instruction – in Spanish. Now Dan and I both speak only a handful of Spanish phrases, everything else goes in one ear and out the other. We both figured once we set off our guide would translate to English. No such luck. If anything at least we assumed he would translate as we visited the islands. Nope, never happened. Instead we endured a full day of island hopping with plenty of Spanish commentary. In the end it didn’t really matter as no language is needed to enjoy the sunshine, welcoming locals, and festive dances. Plus Wikipedia filled us in on the details later.


The Islands we visited were part of the Uros Islands just outside of Puno’s harbor. This collection of 42 islands is inhabited by about 2,000 Uros people. Some islanders choose not to welcome tourists, while other dance and sing to lure you in. While visiting one of the islands, we were taken out on their reed boat for ride. While our guidebook had encouraged tipping for such joy rides, we were taken aback when once in the middle of the lake our “driver” demanded we each pay a fee. He then proceeded to drop us off at an island that was fashioned with a general store, restaurant, and tourist shop. On top of each reed hut we noticed solar panels generating electricity. Inside each room, TV’s and radios were blaring. This must have been the lacking authenticity we warned about.


Back aboard our boat we stopped at another island where through a clever miniature demonstration we learned how the islands are constructed and how the people live off the island. We were each given a totora reed and encouraged to eat the white fleshy part, or the root segment. Fearfully Dan passed up the offer to try the reed, and although still sick, I chomped into mine out of respect for the locals eagerly awaiting my response. It wasn’t half bad, and almost had a soft celery like flavor. Totora reeds are rich in iodine and are consumed by the islanders to prevent goiter, and they also apply the reeds topically to relieve pain. The reeds are used to construct the floating islands and are replaced every several months as they begin to rot and sink. Walking on the reeds was a challenge, not only do you need to avoid the soggy spots, but each step causes you to sink deeply into the reeds.



Although we had no idea what our guide was saying, we knew our tour was nearing the end as our fellow passengers lined up to board the boat. Back at the pier we set out to explore the water front. While Puno lacks character and is quite congested, we found the water front to be an oasis of calm. Here a boardwalk runs the length of the harbor and souvenir shacks sell tourist goods. It was an escape from the poverty, congestion, and pollution of the city and the place where we ended up spending most of our time.


At the end of the day we boarded a rickshaw for a quick ride back to the hotel. As our driver pedaled us through speedy intersections we braced ourselves for potential impact. Thankfully we returned unscathed.


Overall, Puno as a city was not our favorite place in Peru, but the waterfront and the ride to the islands was its saving grace. Language barriers and cultural differences aside we felt the islanders to welcoming, warm, and friendly. Although authenticity may be compromised, we still found the experience to be completely unique and foreign. With our cultural infusion we headed to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and a sprawling metropolitan hub. Puno and Arequipa couldn’t be any more different, but we were excited for the change of pace and for a meal that didn’t come from a saltine cracker box. Stay tuned.


Posted by Jennylynn 18:50 Archived in Peru Tagged boating

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Well, I was happy to read you were well enough to enjoy the Lake. It looks absolutely amazing despite the all Spanish part. :) I have enjoyed your saga thus far. Keep on blogging. This keeps me inspired to keep up my travels.

by CanaGerm

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