Island Hopping on Lake Titicaca: Jewels in the Crown

It’s  the  jewel  of  the  Andes:  a  huge  deep-blue  freshwater  lake  sitting  in  its  cup  of mountain peaks, an awesome 3,800m (12,467 ft.) above sea level. To locals, however, measuring the altitude is irrelevant: Lake Titicaca is a mysterious and sacred place. According to myth, Viracocha, the creator deity, called up the sun, moon, and stars to rise from icy Lake Titicaca to lighten the dark world. Powerful spirits still live in this amazing sky-high lake, they say. Gliding over the calm blue surface, you may find yourself staring down into the water’s cold depths to connect with them.

Set in the Andean altiplano, or high plateau, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca requires some advance planning. For one thing, will you arrive on the Bolivian side, through the picturesque lakeside town of Copacabana—a 3-hour bus ride from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz—or will you arrive on the Peruvian side, through Puno, a 1-hour flight or 10-hour train ride from Cusco? Although it’s possible to see the entire lake in one trip, it’s a large body of water—176km (109 miles) long and 50km (31 miles) wide—and boat excursions out to its islands visit only one side or the other.

While  the  Bolivian  tour  boats  take  you  to  two  islands  that  figure  largely  in  local mythology—the  Isla  del  Sol  (Island  of  the  Sun)  and  the  Isla  del  Luna  (Island  of  the Moon)—the Peruvian side offers the most intriguing option: a tour to the  Uros islands, or Los Islas Flotantes, perhaps the most unique islands in this book. Centuries ago, in order to escape Inca oppression, the Uros Indians began to live literally on the lake, in the reedy shallows just off the lakeshore, on tiny floating islands woven  of  the  local  totora  reeds.  Continually  repairing and replenishing these dense pads is part of their daily routine; the islets—there are around 40 of them at any given time—last roughly 30 years before the base rots away  in  the  lake  depths.  Tour  boats  visit  a  few  of  the larger  islands,  whose  residents  wait  intently  for  the tourists,  ready  to  hawk  their  handmade  textiles  and reed-crafted   items—a   blatant   commercialism   that spoils the anthropological experience for some travelers. Other Uros, however, keep to their own smaller thatched islands, far from the snapping cameras, where they quietly fish and catch birds. When you get out of the tour boats, the strange sensation of walking on the springy islets—almost like being on a mattress—may make you giggle at first. Several hundred people live on this string of islands; besides the residents’  huts,  various  islands  have  schools,  a  post  office,  a  public  telephone,  a small hotel, and souvenir shops—the largest island, Huacavacani, even has a Seventh-Day Adventist church. Though their houses are modest, the canoes that they pole around the lake—also made of reeds—are works of art, often with fancy prows shaped like animal heads. For a small fee (of course), locals may offer to give you a short ride in the boats.

While you can visit the Uros islands on a half-day tour—many operators run excursions  from  Puno,  at  quite  reasonable  prices—the  full-day  excursions  are  a  better option, because once you’ve seen the novelty of the floating islands, you’ll continue on to the natural beauty of  Taquile island, out in the middle of the lake about 35km (22 miles) east of Puno. Long and narrow Taquile rises steeply in the middle, its  hillsides  stepped  with  terraces  in  the  traditional  Inca  fashion;  it’s  a  steep  climb from the docks to the main village, but when you turn around, the views of the lake are  breathtaking.  Residents  still  follow  a  traditional  lifestyle,  farming  and  weaving extraordinary  fine  textiles;  although  they  welcome  outsiders—some  even  offer meals  or  overnight  accommodation  in  their  simple  homes—they  still  speak  native Quechua and have no electricity. They do, however, have a few solar panels, which somehow feels apt, considering how close to the sun their high-altitude village is.

Overnight  tours  allow  you  also  to  visit  Amantani island, 2 hours north of Taquile. Rockier and more barren than Taquile, it is nonetheless beautiful, with fragments of Inca and pre-Inca ruins and a handful of farming villages. Two peaks dominate the round island—Pachatata (Father Earth)  and  Pachamama  (Mother  Earth)—and  hiking  up their  slopes  gives  you  an  incredible  panorama  of  fields, terraces,  grazing  cows  and  alpacas,  and  the  sparking blue lake surrounding it all. The islanders’ communal life-style welcomes visitors to stay in local homes or eat with families, or even join in village celebrations, where intricate folkloric dances are accompanied by Andean flutes and panpipes. As on Taquile, the handcrafted clothing items sold in the village shop are extraordinary.

For the ultimate Titicaca experience, however, you may want to splurge on a visit to private  Isla Suasi, home to a few llamas and vicuñas and one solar-powered luxury resort hotel (built of traditional adobe and stone with a thatched roof). It can take up to 6 hours to get to this tiny, isolated island by boat from Puno (generally visiting the Uros and Taquile islands en route), but the payoff is gorgeous 360-degree Titicaca vistas, mind-blowing high-altitude sunsets, and total peace and quiet. There’s not much to do except  read  in  a  hammock,  enjoy  a  traditional  eucalyptus  sauna,  canoe  around  the island (you circumnavigate it in an hour), dine on locally grown Andean specialties, and stargaze at night, so close to heavens you almost feel you can touch the stars.