I was standing on an artificial island at the top of the world. It hadn’t been fashioned of rocks or concrete, laid out with massive earthmovers or dredges; it was made by hand with large bundles of reeds. I peered cautiously off the edge into the deep blue waters of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, and around the edges of my shoe, water started to seep up through the mat of long straws. A few long eucalyptus stakes kept the little island from sailing off to Bolivia on the other side of the lake.
“Don’t go too close to the edge,” a fellow traveler advised. No kidding.
It was the first stop on a two-day boat tour with a dozen other travelers. Santa Maria is one of the forty floating islands of the Uros people just a short boat ride from Puno on Peru’s side of the lake. As if living on the back of a giant buoyant bale of hay isn’t incredible enough, their homes, baskets, souvenirs for tourists, even meals, medicines, and feed for cattle are all taken from this long slender reed. I stared into the eye of a long dragon-headed boat moored before me, the surface of its skin was the rippled weave of dried reeds.
I wondered what on earth they could do to entertain themselves on this tiny space when the tourists moved on; any soccer match would surely be short-lived and end with a “you kicked it, you go get it.” A couple small solar panels provided electricity to fire up a couple radios at least. Marleny, one of the residents, told me they could even run a television if they turned off their four lights. Only fishing and small trade sustained them. And now tourism.
Amantaní, an island of the more common earth and stone variety, was two hours farther out and my home for the night. There is no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no roads even, just walking paths up through the patchwork farmland from the simple concrete dock below the town.
“Munia tea. Good for the head and the stomach at this altitude.” Ignacio, my host, returned the pot of hot water to the simple clay stove in the corner. A long stain of soot rose up the adobe walls to the hole in the tin ceiling. Into my mug he folded a couple sprigs of a small plant that grows wild just outside the door. His wife Julia served me a simple meal of potatoes and onion soup. I asked him if his family of eight was vegetarian. They ate meat, he said, but maybe once a year—sheep or cuy, the ever-popular guinea pig on a stick.
I joined the hike thankful for soup. We followed a gently winding trail up the hillside to the island’s highest point where the stone temple of Pachatata, an astronomical arrangement of giant stones had been built by the pre-Columbian Tiwanaku people. I looked out over the slate of water that extended in all directions, shifting in mercurial colors after the sunset disappeared behind a low bank of clouds. Waves of golden grass rolled away down the slope toward where we had come from.
Just after nightfall Ignacio helped me put on a chullo, the traditional knit hat of his people with the pompons dangling from the earflaps, and a heavy wool poncho. The village gathered in the town hall which looked like a one-room schoolhouse where two local groups of musicians—armed with guitars, drums, Pan flutes, and charangos, the Andean cross between guitar and mandolin—stood on either end playing alternating songs for us to dance to. This was a community activity and nearly everyone was in attendance. There are eight communities on the island and tours rotate to each of them spreading the income and the impact of tourism around equally.
I passed the night in my own candle-lit room beneath a gentle patter of rain on the rooftop. There were plenty of wool blankets to keep the chill out and Ignacio checked on me early on to be sure.
Ignacio and Julia accompanied me to the dock the next day and stood smiling and waving like family left behind as we departed for our last stop, Taquile Island. Rain came and went in long sweeps across the lake that could be seen well in advance as they slid down silver from the heavens. When the blue sky penetrated it was that deep blue of high altitude that makes you feel you are halfway to outer space. The island was different from its neighbor, the hills steeper and rockier. We followed a long trail along the side of the slope and passed through stone archways in the middle of nowhere that apparently separated the island into smaller townships. We arrived in a cobblestone square where there was a simple hotel and various shops, still not touristy, but more commerce-minded than Amantaní. After lunch at a local restaurant and some time wandering the handful of narrow streets peering at local displays of produce and a few souvenirs, we continued on the trail to the other side of the island to meet our boat. The sun had suddenly swept away the clouds and its light penetrated the waters turning them an unlikely Caribbean turquoise.
I lay out on the wide bow of the tour boat as we returned to Puno in the afternoon. The warm sun melted through my jacket and the wind slipped through my hair as easily as the prow through the calm waters. Just before we arrived in Puno I looked off to the side a moment and watched a cow watch me as it tore off a mouthful of its impossible little island of reeds before it slipped away behind me.
If You Go:
Puno and the lake are close to the ever-popular Cuzco and Machu Picchu circuit and are reachable by daily buses out of Cuzco. Several agencies offer short trips to the islands, full-day trips, and two-day overnight trips with homestays. I went with Agotur in Puno. Another company that comes highly regarded is All Ways Travel which offers the same trip for about $36.