After an incredibly scenic yet unbelievably hot (no air conditioning) bus ride over the Andes we arrived at Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We have been to Titicaca before, about three months ago when visiting Bolivia, but I’ve been wanting to come back to visit the larger islands off the Peruvian coast, and as it’s on route to Cusco, why not?
To be honest, Puno itself is a bit of a let-down, nowhere near as picturesque as Copacabana. There are a few nice plazas at either end Calle Lima (the tourist street) but that’s about it, and it seems to cater for the older American tour group market. Bolivia maybe has yet to be discovered by these tours or is just seen as an unsafe option. Perhaps that’s for the best!
We’re not here for Puno anyway; our plan is to arrange a homestay on the Island of Taquile, a three hour boat ride away.
Homestays can be tricky business; it’s difficult to find one that is not just about the money. There are two islands off the coast of Puno, but with a little research we decide that Tequila is the least developed of the two and will get us closest to the locals and not just part of a pantomime played out for the tourist dollar. Our hostel owners are great and even recommend a family name for us to ask for when we land on the island.
To get to Taquile we book a one-day tourist tour but intend to leave the tour group as they head home and hopefully pick up an empty seat on a return boat the next day.
For a few hours we are treated to the full escorted tour treatment. En route we stop off at the floating islands of Uros, just 20 minutes offshore. These locals were driven to living on floating islands made of local reeds when the Spanish invaded/populated the region. We are dropped off onto one of these islands, inhabited by about 30 families, it’s obvious that their existence here is purely for the tourists and talk is that they head back to the mainland in the evenings for a cup of tea and X-Factor. Yes, very cynical, but true. We sit through an obviously over-performed explanation of their daily struggle on the islands with time-worn jokes inserted without much enthusiasm. Further out onto Lake Titicaca there are other floating communities that live a basic existence farming fish without tourist intervention, so it’s not entirely fake, but we get to see the Disney version (English, French and German language versions also available).
A two hour slow boat later and we land on Taquile, together with about 500 others, and we are split into bite-sized groups and divided out amongst a number of ‘family restaurants’ where we are treated to Authentic cuisine and dance for a few dollars more. Children are ushered off to get changed into outfits and dance like robots in front of us as tourists are plucked from the crowd to join in and dance with them, with cameras being thrust inches from faces–urghh.
I don’t like this sort of tourism; we don’t mind the tours that drop you off places and show you stuff, but this pre-arranged entertainment is just not for us and makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
The day trip to the Island is actually only a two hour visit and after being shepherded into a local artisan shop, some grumbles over the outrageous state of the toilets and frenzied hand sanitizing later, the intrepid explorers are on their way home. The group gives us weird looks as they are told we are not joining them on the trip home but are staying the night, we find a nice local lady who takes us to meet a family who can put us up for the night.
At around 2pm as the tour groups leave the island the place is deserted, and we see perhaps six other tourists the rest of the day.
Our home for the night was with the Mamani Machaca family. Their home is a simple, mud constructed affair with four rooms around a central courtyard. There’s no running water or electricity, although the kitchen did have a couple of LEDs protruding from the ceiling on bare wires leading form a small solar panel in the garden. This, we are told, should provide enough light for a couple of hours each night. Our bedroom has two quite decent beds with a mud and straw floor and a few candles and loads of blankets. After working out what time dinner was and being introduced to the six and 10 year old daughters (Eliane and Anali), we decide to walk to the north of the island – it’s bliss. We wander through farming terraces overlooking the lake – the place is completely deserted except for a few kids flying kites.
Dinner was a strange affair. An unhappy younger daughter is packed off to the grandparents for the night and we cram ourselves into a tiny kitchen whilst the mother and older daughter prepare the food. We stumble our way through conversations and there are awkward silences aplenty. I sneakily left the camera on video record for one of the awkward silences.
We think it actually helps if you don’t know the language that well as it gives both sides good reason to just sit and stare with the occasional smile. We ignore the hygiene issues, it really does not bother us. The water for soup was lake water poured from filthy oil can. Veggies were plucked from various bags, nooks and crannies around the mud walls, and we were told there would be no meat, although there was a surreal moment when the younger daughter brought a cute live lamb into the kitchen. I was about to say, that would be lovely with some rosemary, but Leah stopped me and we discovered we were only meant to say hello. So Leah had a quick cuddle and we continued onto a veggie dinner .
At the night the winds really pick up on Taquile, and outside it was freezing, but we were tucked up under many many blankets. We got up the next morning around 7 and took in the stunning morning views, Ines was up early and cooking us a local breakfast, a kind of deep fried bread and local tea made from herbs from the garden (which tasted like peppermint). After breakfast Ines shows us her local outfits. Clothes here are very very important – they show marital status, community standing and are even used to count days and seasons. The local men are renowned knitters and are recognised as such by Unesco.
We say farewell to our hosts with a donation for food and board and spend the next few hours wandering around the rest of the island. Making our way down to the port to find our boat, we can see the next deluge of tourist boats in the distance making their way to the island. As it turns out, the boat we should be getting home didn’t leave port that morning, but we get onto a boat a few hours later. It’s full so we have to sit outside in the sun (at altitude that not good news, the sun is strong in this thin atmosphere). To add to the drama, the steering broke on the boat, and we spent two hours with the captain struggling to steer against the motors using a makeshift tiller. In the end, it took four hours to get back and I missed the Spurs vs Man U game which made me a bit grumpy. We lost anyway, no surprises.
A fantastic experience, and well worth the slight detour. We got a taste of real local life on the island, and were humbled a little, but left eager for the rest of the trip and whatever it may throw at us.
Next we are off to Cusco and another stunning bus ride through the mountains. Suddenly Leah and I wish we had not had quite as much steak and wine in Argentina and perhaps even done a little exercise to get in shape. We’re off to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and we hear it’s tough!