April 11, 2012

The Islands of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru and is the highest navigable lake in the world. From both countries, we set out on boat rides to four of the lake's most famous islands.

Isla del Sol is on the Bolivian side and is the biggest island on Lake Titicaca. Incan legend says that Viracocha, the god who created the universe, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun at this very location. Pretty important stuff if you’re an Incan!

Unfortunately the sun god was not shining us on the day that we visited. There was an ominous storm looming during our boat ride, and by the time that we docked, there was a full-on hail storm that blanketed the island white.

We started on the north end, visited some ruins, and then hiked the length of Isla del Sol to the south end where the Incans had their “fountain of youth”.

Uros are the “Floating Islands” no more than 30 minutes off the coast of Puno on the Peruvian side of the lake. It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve seen it in person, but everything on these islands – including the islands themselves – are made of reeds that grow in the lake.

When you step off the boat onto one of the tiny islands, it’s like you’re stepping onto a straw mattress. These people farm the reeds and use them to build their ground, houses, and boats.

They can also eat the white end of the reed, which is mostly water, but also contains healthy minerals. Every island has the same formula: single-room homes for about 5 families, a stove, a boat, and a watchtower.

Amantani, on the Peruvian side, was the furthest island we visited and also where we stayed overnight with a local family.

Maruja was the name of our host mother who completely ran the show in her household. She was a beautiful and sweet woman who looked very young for her age (42). Unlike most women living a traditional lifestyle, Maruja was not shy around us at all. At night she even played dress up with us and took us to the community’s hall where we danced to local music past her normal bedtime of 9:00.

The Amantani women dress very differently than the Cholas we saw in Bolivia. I got to experience this firsthand as Maruja helped me get dressed in her clothes.

From the bundle of clothes that she brought for me to choose from, I immediately eyed an embroidered pink skirt. She put that on me and then started to add another purple skirt on top of the pink one. I asked her if she wears two skirts every day and she said yes. When I asked her why, she smiled and said, “For dancing”!

On top, the women wear a white embroidered shirt that is tucked into the skirts and then covered with a cummerbund of sorts. Maruja tied my skirts and cummerbund so tight that I could barely breathe. We think that they do this so that the cummberbund provides good back support for carrying heavy items. The best part of the outfit is the black shawl that is beautifully embroidered by the husband with colorful flowers. All of the women wear the shawls on top of their heads when they leave the house. Maruja danced for an hour with her shawl on her head without anything holding it on. I kept trying, but mine would fall off after about 30 seconds.

Taquile is also on the Peruvian side and only about an hour boat ride from Amantani.

This is the only place where we’ve seen the men dress traditionally, which alone, was a special sight to see. However on the day that we visited, all six of the communities on the island were having a celebration in honor of Amantani’s founding. Lots of people were dressed in elaborate costumes, and several marching bands from Puno were on the island to perform with the local Taquile dancers.

We had lunch on a rooftop terrace, and the entire time it sounded like we were at a high school football game. We could hear various marching bands like surround sound and see the dancers making their way through the hilly communities.

Like Amantani, the people of Taquile have some really nice customs when it comes to their traditional dress. All men (including boys) wear beanie caps. If a man is wearing a red and white cap, it means he’s single. If he wears it flopped to the right he’s available, and if he wears it flopped to the left he’s off the market. If a man is wearing an all-red cap, it means that he’s married. Likewise, if a woman has large and colorful pompoms on her shawl, she’s single. If the pompoms are smaller and red, she’s married.

The men on Taquile and Amantani are the weavers…what a novice idea! On Taquile, the men wear cummerbunds weaved with their wives’ hair to make it stronger. The people of Taquile practice the three laws of the Incans, one of which is “don’t be lazy”. As a result, they don’t have any horses or donkeys to help carry things. They carry everything on their backs…thus the need for a strong back support in the form of human hair.

Amongst all of this culture, it’s hard not to mention the sheer beauty of the islands on Lake Titicaca. But more than anything, it was so much fun to go to these remote islands and visit with the people who are preserving the traditions of their ancestors.

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