Uros Floating Islands (Las Islas Flotantes)
5km (3 miles) N of Puno
As improbable as it sounds, the Uros Indians of Lake Titicaca live on floating "islands" made by hand from totora reeds that grow in abundance in the shallow waters of the lake. This unique practice has endured since the time of the Incas, and today there are some 45 floating islands in the Bay of Puno. The islands first came into contact with the modern world in the mid-1960s, and their inhabitants now live mostly off tourism. To some visitors, this obvious dependency is a little unseemly.
Many visitors faced with this strange sight conclude that the impoverished islanders can't possibly still live on the 40-odd islands, that it must be a show created for their benefit. True, the islands can seem to be little more than floating souvenir stands; the communities idly await the arrival of tourist boats and then seek to sell handmade textiles and reed-crafted items while gringos walk gingerly about the spongy islands -- truly an odd sensation -- photographing houses and children. Yet the islands and their people are not just a tourist show. Several hundred Titicaca natives continue to live year-round on the islands, even if they venture to Puno for commercial transactions. The largest island, Huacavacani, has not only homes, but also a floating Seventh-day Adventist church, a candidate for one of the most bizarre juxtapositions you're likely to find in Peru -- or anywhere. Others have schools, a post office, public telephone, small hotel, and souvenir shops. Only a few islands are actually set up to receive tourists. The vast majority of the Uros people live in continual isolation and peace, away from curious onlookers and camera lenses.
The Uros, who fled to the middle of the lake to escape conflicts with the Collas and Incas, long ago began intermarrying with the Aymara Indians, and many have now converted to Catholicism. Fishers and birders, they live grouped by family sectors, and entire families live in one-room tentlike thatched huts constructed on the shifting reed island that floats beneath. They build modest houses and splendid gondolas with fanciful animal-head bows out of the reeds and must continually replenish the fast-rotting mats that form their fragile islands. Visitors might be surprised, to say the least, to find some huts outfitted with televisions powered by solar panels (which were donated by the Fujimori administration after a presidential visit to the islands). Incredibly, the Fujimori government also built some solar-powered aluminum houses on several islands, but few if any locals actually dwell in them, because they are very hot during the day and brutally cold at night. For a fee, locals will take visitors on short rides from one island to another in the reed boats, but you should consider it a contribution to the community: At $2 or so a head for a 5-minute jaunt, it's hardly the best deal in Peru, but may be worth it if you're looking for a photo op.
Getting There -- Inexpensive tours (normally $12 per person) that go only to the Uros Islands last about 3 hours and include hotel pickup, an English-speaking guide, and motorboat transportation to the islands. Unless you're unusually pressed for time, it's much more enjoyable and informative to visit the Uros as part of a brief stop en route to the natural islands of Amantaní or Taquile. You can go on your own by catching a lancha (small boat) at the port. Depending on how many people you or the skipper are able to assemble, the cost will usually be about S/25.
Taquile Island (Isla Taquile)
35km (22 miles) E of Puno
Life on the natural islands of Lake Titicaca is more authentic feeling and less overtly dependent on tourism than on the man-made Uros islands. Taquile is a fascinating and stunningly beautiful island about 4 hours from Puno. The island is narrow, only a kilometer (1/2-mile) wide, but about 6km (3 3/4 miles) long, and it rises to a high point of 264m (866 ft.). The island is a rugged ruddy color, which contrasts spectacularly with the blue lake and sky, and its hillsides are laced with formidable Inca stone agricultural terraces and other Inca and pre-Inca stone ruins.
The island is as serene as the distant lake views. Taquile has been inhabited for 10,000 years, and life remains starkly traditional; there isn't electricity, you won't run into vehicles, and islanders quietly go about their business. Taquile natives, of whom there are still about 3,000 or so, allow tourists to stay at private houses (in primitive but not uncomfortable conditions), and there are a number of simple restaurants serving visitors near the central plaza. Although they're friendly to outsiders, the Quechua-speaking islanders remain a famously reserved and insular community. Their dress is equally famous: Taquile textiles are some of the finest in Peru. Men wear embroidered, woven red waistbands (fajas) and embroidered wool stocking caps (chullos) -- so tightly knitted that they can hold water -- that indicate marital status: red for married men, red and white for bachelors. Women wear layered skirts and black shawls over their heads. Taquile textiles are much sought after for their hand-woven quality, though they are considerably more expensive than mass-produced handicrafts in other parts of Peru. Along with agriculture, textiles are the island's main source of income. A cooperative shop operates on the main plaza, and laid-back stalls are set up during festivals and the high season of tourist travel (June-Sept). Sadly, a hideously modern municipal building now dominates the main square, looking woefully out of place.
Locals are much more resistant to haggling than are artisans in other parts of Peru. (Usually they simply refuse to bargain.) There's very little of the noise and activity that's present at most Peruvian markets. If you go with a group, you're also likely to visit one of the individual communities on the island, and perhaps have a home-cooked meal after a low-key demonstration of their quotidian customs. Buying lunch is one way to contribute money to a community, although many guests also like to tip the head of the community for opening their doors to outsiders.
Celebration and Quiet on Taquile -- If you are lucky enough to catch a festival on the island, you will be treated to a festive and stubbornly traditional pageant of color, marked by picturesque dances and women twirling in circles, revealing as many as 16 layered, multicolored skirts. (Easter, Fiesta de Santiago on July 25 and Aug 1-2, and New Year's are the best celebrations.) Any time on the island, though, offers unique experiences -- especially once the day-trippers have departed and you have the island and incomparable views of the blue waters framed by stone archways virtually to yourself. Taquile then seems about as far away from modernity and "civilization" as one can travel on this planet. At the top of the island on a clear night, under a carpet of blazing stars, Taquile is more magical still.
Access to the island from the boat dock is either by a long path that wends around the island or by an amazing 533-step stone staircase that climbs to the top, passing through two stone arches with astonishing views of the lake. Independent travelers sign in and pay a nominal fee. Those who want to stay the night can arrange to be put up in a family house. If you stay, expect to rough it a bit without proper showers. Many islanders do not speak Spanish, and English is likely to be met with blank stares.
Getting There: The only feasible way to visit Taquile is as part of an inexpensive and convenient organized tour, which also takes in the Uros Islands. Most single-day tours of the Uros and Taquile islands depart early in the morning and stop at the islands of Uros for a half-hour en route. For most visitors, a day trip, which allows only an hour or two on the island and 8 hours of boat time, is too grueling and insufficient to appreciate the beauty and culture of Taquile Island. A 2- or 3-day visit, with time to spend the night on either Taquile or Amantaní, is preferable.
Amantaní Island (Isla Amantaní)
36km (22 miles) NE of Puno
Amantaní, a circular island located about 4 1/2 hours from Puno (and about 2 hr. from Taquile), is home to a very different, although equally fascinating, Titicaca community. Also handsomely terraced and home to farmers, fishers, and weavers, in many ways Amantaní is even more rustic and unspoiled than Taquile. It is a beautiful but barren and rocky place, with a handful of villages composed of about 800 families and ruins clinging to the island's two peaks, Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth). The island presents some excellent opportunities for hikes up to these spots, with terrific views of the lake and the sparsely populated island landscape. The agricultural character of the island is perhaps even more apparent than on Taquile. Long, ancient-looking stone walls mark the fields and terraces of different communities, and cows, sheep, and alpacas graze the hillsides.
The islanders, who, for the most part, understand Spanish, are more open and approachable than natives of Taquile. The highlight of a visit to Amantaní is an overnight stay with a local family. Not only will the family prepare your simple meals, but you will also be invited to a friendly dance in the village meeting place. For the event, most families dress their guests up in local outfits -- the women in layered, multicolored, embroidered skirts and blouses, and the men in wool ponchos. Although the evening is obviously staged for tourists' benefit, it is low-key and charming rather than cheesy.
Amantaní islanders also make lovely hand-woven textiles, particularly the show-stopping black shawls embroidered with seven colors. The main festival on Amantaní, Fiesta de la Santa Tierra, is on the third Thursday in January, when the population splits in two -- half at the Temple of Pachamama and the other half at the Temple of Pachatata (a perfect illustration of their dualistic male/female belief system). Other good festivals are the anniversary of Amantaní (Apr 9, lasting 3 days) and Carnaval (Feb or Mar).
Amantaní is best visited on a tour that allows you to spend the night (visiting the Uros Islands en route) and travel the next day to Taquile. Tour groups place groups of four or five with local families for overnight stays. The tour price normally includes accommodations, lunch, and dinner on the first day and breakfast the following morning.
It's a good idea to bring small gifts for your family on Amantaní because they make little from stays and must alternate with other families on the island. Pens, pencils, and batteries all make good gifts.
If you want to appreciate the utter quiet and remoteness of the island after the day-trippers depart, a nice place to spend the night is Kantuta Lodge (tel. 051/812-664; www.punored.com/titicaca/amantani/img/lodge.html), an inn run by the family of Segundino Cari near the port of Comunidad Pueblo. Clean and brightly decorated rooms, featuring local textiles, are $20, which includes three meals a day. Meals only are $5.
Getting There -- The only feasible way to visit Amantaní is by organized tour. Almost all tours that go to Amantaní also visit the Uros and Taquile islands, stopping en route at Uros and spending the night on Amantaní before visiting Taquile the following day.
Suasi Island (Isla Suasi)
80km (50 miles) NE of Puno
The only island in private hands on Lake Titicaca, S-shaped Isla Suasi is tiny (just 48 hectares, or 117 acres), isolated, serene, and beautiful. And it makes for a wholly unique getaway, even if it is a long way to go for isolation and relaxation. Though reachable by fast lancha (motorized boat) in under 3 hours, most boats take upwards of 5 or 6 to get there (and either way, you'll have to pay close to $300 for the privilege of round-trip transportation). However, once you arrive, you really have traveled far. There are no inhabitants other than the island's owner and part-time resident, the sociologist Martha Giraldo, the few employees of the solar-powered refuge she started (which has since become an upscale ecolodge, administered since 2005 by the Casa Andina hotel chain), and a dozen alpacas and eight free-ranging vicuñas. There are no cars, no TV, and no electricity. If you're lucky, you'll be one of just a handful of guests to enjoy the stunning high-altitude sunsets, gorgeous panoramic views of Titicaca -- which extends in all directions like a sterling, placid cobalt sea -- and total peace and quiet. The ecofriendly lodge is luxurious but sensitively designed (rooms have great lake views), its restaurant outstanding, and the personnel friendly. Activities are pretty much limited to reading in hammocks, canoeing around the island (which is small enough that it takes just about an hour to circle), hiking and trying to spot the vicuñas, trekking up to the cerro (hilltop) for sunset, and stargazing at night. I can't think of a more peaceful place in all of Peru. Many guests find their sunset visits to the hilltop to be a mystical experience; the sky at 13,000 feet above sea level blazes with unimaginable streaks of violet, red, and gold. At the top of the hill is an apacheta, a small tower of stacked, balanced stones, echoing an ancient native practice of leaving stones at high elevations (where one is presumably closer to the apus, or gods). You can return to Puno either by boat again or by a very scenic but extremely rough ride in a car or van (the first 38km/24 miles are murder, but then it gets worse; asphalt only arrives after 2 hr.). For additional information, including arranging transportation, visit www.casa-andina.com, or call tel. 01/213-9739 or 051/9513-10070. Rates are $249 to $369 per person.