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Isla Taquile. Isla Uros. Isla Amantani. Three islands that were just names of faraway places until I visited Lake Titicaca on my 3-month South America itinerary. The massive lake between Peru and Bolivia, believed to be the birthplace of the Incas, contains islands where people live traditional ways of life amidst influences of the 21st century. Tourists come and go visiting the islands while the inhabitants work hard to maintain their traditions and values. Observing a way of life unknown to me was reason enough to visit.
I booked a 2-day and one night tour with All Ways Travel in Puno to visit all three islands. We started at Uros, stayed overnight on Amantani and on the second day visited Taquile Island.
We putter through the tall reeds leaving Puno behind and start the journey into Lake Titicaca.
For me, it is always freeing being on the water and this is no different. Perched on the boat’s rooftop, I look forward to seeing the lake’s incredulous sights of which I have only read.
The first stop is Uros, the floating reed islands, a short 7 kilometres from Puno. The Uros people live on islands made from tightly woven totora reeds.
The boat is greeted at the entrance to Uros by people wearing traditional dress. The colours alone are enough to peak anyone’s curiosity.
We disembark, walk across the spongy reeds and sit in a circle. A woman, the leader of the village, demonstrates how the Uros people use the reeds to craft the islands they inhabit, their homes and traditional boats. The bottom layers of reeds that sit in the water rot, so the Uros work tirelessly to add new layers to the top, keeping the islands intact. On the Uros Islands, home renovation takes on a whole new meaning.
Of all the historical facts shared and demonstrations of how the totora reeds are woven, one truth resonates with me. Young people are leaving the islands. There is not enough for them to do. Will another traditional way of life be lost?
After the presentation, several young girls and women lay out their handmade textiles for purchase. The work is beautiful, the eyes plead for a sale and I can’t resist.
It is an option to take a short ride on a classic reed boat to the next island. I hop on, where else will I ever ride a boat crafted by the Uros people?
Does visiting Uros feel touristy? Yes. No other answer. But I am a tourist and I am beyond thrilled to come face to face with this way of life.
Cost to enter Islas Uros: S/8 ($3 Cdn)
Cost to take the reed boat: S/10 ($4 Cdn)
Tip: You can visit Uros on your own without an organized tour. Ferries leave regularly from Puno.
The morning sun and a light breeze from the lake are a welcome introduction to the second day visiting Lake Titicaca. I had heard that the lake can be rough and the wind ferocious, but not on this day.
The Lancha rápida putters along for about hour until a small island appears on the horizon. Isla Taquile.
A narrow path winds its way up towards the town square. It’s all UPHILL (oh, Peru!) heading towards Plaza de Armas which sits at 3950 metres (12959 ft) above sea level. Depending on your level of fitness, the walk will take about 45 minutes. Stop often to stare at the magnificent views while catching your breath.
Trees sway in the breeze, birds swoop, shepherdesses sit in the field tending their flocks while spinning wool.
Taquileños live a traditional life in the 21st century. There is no electricity, no roads and no cars. Ancient methods of farming are used in the terraced fields. Friendly villagers pause momentarily and greet us in Quechua. As a traveller just passing through, the sight of the Taquileños living their daily life is pause for reflection. It feels unhurried and authentic.
Isla Taquile was awarded UNESCO status in 2005 in the category of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The heritage of humanity is right there before your very eyes, for Taquile is known as the island where the men are the knitters. It is a long-held tradition where men learn the skill from a young age. Men knit and the women create woven masterpieces, most notably the belts that are worn by the men.
As a visitor, a quick lesson in this rich cultural tradition finds that there is significance in all that is worn. The colour of the men’s hats denotes whether he is single or married. All red? Married. Red and white? Signifies single. And to which side does the tassel fall? The number of tassels worn from the woven belt also is significant. As are the tassels hanging from the women’s long black braids. I want to spend a day simply observing and understanding these clothing traditions.
Many tourists visit Taquile Island but somehow it feels less touristy than Uros. The Taquileños have set up boundaries, such as blocking the building of hotels, to maintain their ways. Sit in the main square, eat ice cream and just observe. There is a strong sense of community and a slow paced life on Isla Taquile.
Peek into the Catholic church and visit the cooperative store which has intricate handwoven goods. They are laid out and marked with a tag denoting the Taquileño that created each piece. Bring small change and don’t bargain. There is a hushed tone to this store, possibly a sign of respect to an age-old tradition.
We follow the path towards the other side of the island marvelling at the views. There isn’t much to do but consciously walk slower and breather deeper.
On Taquile Island, the locals also eat trout caught from the lake which was introduced into Lake Titicaca by Canada in 1941. A lunch of trout and quinoa soup is served overlooking the pristine blue waters.
It’s time to leave Taquile Island but a small piece of me remains. Why does the simplicity and remoteness of Isla Taquile resonate with me so deeply?
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