Titicaca lake: Taquile island and the floating islands of Uros

Written by | Mountain Tours, Peru, Vacations

Isolated Andean communities, with a special charm

Located at a record altitude of 3810 m, in the Altiplano high plain, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world for heavy ships.

It is also the largest lake of Southern America, with a surface of 8372 sqm.

To visit this natural wonder, you must get to Puno. The city is the capital of the region bearing the same name and it is a harbor-city located right on Titicaca Lake shore. It ranks 4th in the ‘Top 5 – Highest cities of the world’, with an altitude of 3830 meters.

We left for Puno from Lima, early in the morning, by plane, operated by the local airline LATAM. The flight takes one hour and a half and, because there is no airport in Puno, we landed in Juliaca, a city located 40 km away from Puno. From there, we rented a minibus and we arrived in about an hour to the hotel that we booked for our stay in the area.

I must say that, despite our expectations, the flight was smooth, with a modern Airbus aircraft, and flight attendants were very helpful.

Altitude sickness

Nobody and nothing can prepare you for the shock caused by heights!

For us, having climbed in less than 2 hours from the sea level to 3400 m altitude, the shock was even stronger!

The first feeling when coming out of a plane is that something is not right. It’s like a weight pressing on your forehead, and your reaction speed is suddenly slowed down.

Then, from one body to the other, reactions are different. For instance, Corina felt nauseous as soon as she stepped on land. Others complained about stomach pain.

However, the only common factor for everybody was a cumbersome headache, which persists almost permanently. It’s like pliers keeping a pressure on your nape or forehead and it does not seem to cease. By an almost permanent hangover state, your body is telling you that something is not right.

In addition, obviously, at least the first day, you have the tendency to pant, almost continuously. For the smallest effort, even for talking, at some point, you have to stop and fully breathe a couple of times, so that you can continue.

The lack of oxygen and dropped pressure can also cause brief intervals of confusion. For instance, we were amazed by our guide from Romania, who would constantly mistake left to right when she wanted to show us something on the window, during the airport transfer.

I just noticed an interesting detail: all hotels and means of transport authorized for tourists in Peru have oxygen tubes. They are colored green and free of charge, in case you get sick and cannot breathe.

First impressions

The region of Puno is probably one of Peru’s poorest regions, in terms of resources. Although we expected poor living conditions, we hoped, at least, large cities would have a better situation. Unfortunately, it was not the case of Juliaca, nor Puno.

Both towns, with 120,000 and 250,000 inhabitants, respectively, look depressing, dull, with most streets left unpaved, with no sewerage and impracticable, full of puddles and red mud.

What strikes you the most, emphasizing the grey and dark atmosphere, is that you can count the number of homes with finished facades using your fingers. Basically, most buildings are unfinished and not plastered. The last floor is unfinished, without roof, so that owners are not required to pay taxes for the buildings.

The constructions are positioned chaotically, without being properly organized. On their facade, among electoral graffiti, you notice mind-boggling details. For instance, a beat-up building bears the notice: Universidad Nacional del Altiplano. Looking it up online I was amazed to find out that this was a very old building, erected in 1856!!!

The signs of poverty and corruption are visible all around. For instance, our local guide, a 19 year old kid who rambled, all the way to the hotel, in poor English, explained that the most important occupation of the locals, other than agriculture and drinking Pisco, is smuggling.

The locals almost pride themselves on that and it is carried out at the border with Bolivia, for any product that can be sold, from gas to necessity goods.

Although the government is making efforts to stop this phenomenon, by putting control patrols on the road, here and there, the smuggling over Lake Titicaca is almost impossible to control, given its enormous size.

We booked a room at the Taypikala Lago hotel in the town of Chucuito, about 20 minutes from Puno and, considering the living conditions here, the hotel was excellent and I highly recommend it. In addition to its excellent position, right on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the hotel is also renowned for an excellent Peruvian and international cuisine.

Throughout the day, we tried to adapt as best as we could to the altitude.

We used impressive amounts of Nurofen. We used all the quack remedies we found on-line, chewed coca leaves, but in the end, there’s nothing you can do and you can’t rush things. You must allow your body the time to adjust to altitude!

So, after a night of waking up every other hour, with the heavy feeling of having forgotten how to breathe, we prepared, as well as we could, for the trip on Lake Titicaca.

Taquile Island

We left the hotel, in a minibus, towards the harbor of Puno. There, we took one of the many speedboats, provided for tourists who want to visit lake communities.

Each such speedboat operating the lake tour has a local guide, leading tourists to the islands and providing all the necessary explanations to understand the complicated rituals of these isolated communities.

The first stop, after a ride of approximately one hour and a half on the lake, was the island of Taquile, around 40 km away from Puno.

It is not random that the tour of Lake Titicaca includes this extraordinary island. Living relatively isolated from the populations of the lake shores, this community preserved its customs, almost perfectly, which can be dated back to the ancient times of the Incas.

The island is inhabited nowadays by approximately 2,500 individuals, who speak Quechua, divided into five communities and who pay no taxes whatsoever to the state of Peru. The island is part of the Unesco heritage, being thus protected.

All lands on the island belong to the inhabitants, and they are not allowed to sell it to outsiders.

You may ask – who set out these rules?

Well, the members of the community, organized in an extremely democratic system and establishing, among other things, this code, which they comply with voluntarily.

Each of the five communes, so to speak, have five leaders, elected in a democratic manner, in the central market, by free vote, every year.

A leader may be elected a maximum of four times and only after the age of 30, in order to have time to start a family, to face life’s difficulties.

All inhabitants publicly express their vote, and elections take no more than one-two hours, since everybody knows everybody, and worthy people are known throughout the island.

Among the five, the first two have the most important roles. They are some sort of ‘president’ and ‘vice-president’ and, for this reason, once they are elected, they will be wearing black hats instead of knitted ones, to be easily identified from a distance.

Their main purpose is to move all over the island and to care for the agricultural terraces, present everywhere on this island, which are still used, to date, as they were during the Inca times. Moreover, they have to lead the community whenever undertaking works that would benefit everybody are necessary.

On the island, all inhabitants are equal and help one another, whenever needed, based on the principle ‘You help me, I help you’.

Their traditional clothing, extremely colorful, is full of meaning.

To be more specific, single women wear red, orange or yellow lively colored skirts. Married women have black, brown or green skirts. Usually, they wear about 5 skirts, one over the other, but they can wear up to twenty-five, at parties!!

Women wear a sort of black ‘blanket’ on their heads, covering half their bodies, which are mainly for utility purposes. They are used for carrying weights, from their children to agricultural products. On an average, an adult female may carry about 30 kilograms using her back and head, in this way.

Attached to this blanket (if it weren’t so thick, you could call it a head scarf), you have three loudly colored pom poms, of various colors.

For single women, the main pom pom is large and heavy, because it has a stone inside!!!. Pom poms are used as a weapon, to discourage boys who are too audacious, and refuse to leave them alone.

All the women we saw around us were continuously weaving, even if they had something on their backs or not. With one hand they held the spindle, downwards, close to the ground and, regardless of what they are doing, it continues to spin, reeling the spun woven yarn.

Men on the island also have traditional clothing and specific customs.

All men on the island have to learn to knit, since the age of 6. That’s what they do, almost their entire lifetime, whenever they sit somewhere. It’s a shame to sit and do nothing, in the village!

As they grow up, they master the craft and, during their teenage years, they knit their first hat. It only has two colors: white and red. So, both a single girl and a single boy are easily seen, from a distance, by the other members of the community, based on the color code.

When they want to start a family, around the age of 16, for girls, or 18, for the boys, an extremely complex wooing ceremony takes place. Each of them wears a piece of a mirror on their belt, which the boy uses to signal a girl he likes, from a distance.

If she likes him, she will respond in the same way, and they start talking. If not, as I told you before, she uses the rock in her pom pom!

The girl will ask the boy to give her his hat, which he had to knit himself, and she will take it to the family for ‘examination’. If the knitting is sloppy and rushed, the boy is refused, for not being of the good sort.

The supreme testing of a hat for marriage is by filling it with water. The more water the hat holds, the more meticulous and hardworking the boy is, being suitable as a husband.

After marriage, men change the colors of the hats, namely they wear red and black.

In addition to spinning, women weave various waist belts or carpets, directly on the ground or hanging the loom on a tree or on their legs, using an archaic technique, inherited from the Incas.

Not working is prohibited in the entire community. Those who don’t work don’t get to eat!

The main activity of inhabitants is farming and sheep rearing. The island has no dogs, no llamas, horses or other burden animals. Everything is carried on one’s back, both up and down the hill (of course I never saw them gasp).

A married man may carry up to 60 kg on his back. For this, his wife weaves a special waist belt, made of wool, mixed with her own hair.

I forgot to mention that women never forget to groom their hair and twist it in huge braids, going down to the ground, so there is plenty of material to work with!

There are no crimes or social injustice on the island. Women and men marry for love.

However, once in a while, men would quarrel, for various reasons, which may result in a fight. Then, the ‘vice-president’ will intervene.

I told you the two main heads of the community are important. Of these, one has the duty of acting as a judge and the one applying the correction.

As a result, those found guilty by the community in causing any scandal or disturbing others are whipped in public, in the central square. This is the only punishment applied on the island, and that happens very rarely.

The display of customs and various knitting and weaving techniques ended with a traditional dance, where both the members of the family who received us participated, as well as some of their neighbours. Here you can see a video of this dance.

I honestly admit I enjoyed the visit to Taquile island, but I also felt a slight nostalgia.

I couldn’t help but think that, probably, that’s how things were in our country, 40-50 years ago, in the isolated villages of Apuseni Mountains.

The roll of progress and modernization, however, does not forgive anybody. Probably, just like our ‘moți‘ did, this extraordinary Andean population, together with its entire complicated code of behaviors, will eventually disappear as young people start leaving the island.

After a brief break, on a gorgeous beach with fine sand, we got on the speedboat once again for a short visit to Capachica peninsula.

Any tour on Titicaca lake includes a traditional lunch, as well. This means lunch prepared in an oven made of hot stones, buried in the soil.  This was the lunch we also were going to benefit from on the shore.

In general, Andean populations eat simple, unprocessed products, whose taste is enriched with local spices.

Common meals are baked potatoes, large corn kernel, grilled green beans and, next to the lake, the fish.

All these products are put in a pit, with hot stones, then covered in herbs and with another layer of soil.

This makes for a natural oven, where almost anything is cooked in about 30-40 minutes.

Of course, the entire arrangement takes a while, but everything was ready when we arrived, and we sat at the table after a local ‘shaman‘ blessed our meal.

The floating islands of Uros community

The final part of the lake tour includes a visit to one of the floating islands inhabited by the Uros community.

This community, which nowadays only has a few hundreds of people, has been living in this community for almost 600 years. They are part of the Aymara warrior people, conquered by the Incas.

People say that the last representatives of this population fled from the Inca king, on the shore of Titicaca lake and jumped in the water, hiding among the reeds.

Incas warrior saw them, but considered them harmless and called them Uros, which would translate from Quechua as ‘shy or fearful people’, and left them alone.

Such populations remained on the lake, gradually building their floating islands where they could live, far from the shore.

The islands are made of totora, a type of reed which grows abundantly on the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca and which are not so big. They are almost 25-30 meters in length and width.

The lifespan of an island is of maximum 30 years, but it requires permanent maintenance, by adding cut reed on top.

The living conditions are extremely precarious. For this reason, life expectancy on this island is of maximum 65 years.

The only comfort is provided by several solar panels set up by various charitable organizations, supplying their lighting and energy for some wretched portable TV.

The head of the family invited us on a ride with the traditional twisted reed boat, and the other members of the clan convinced us to buy the products they made.

The tour lake usually ends at around 4:00 P.M., in Puno harbor, where minibuses wait to transfer you to the hotel.

Conclusions and recommendations

The region of Titicaca lake is mainly interesting because of the isolated communities living here. Consequently, you should visit it in an organized setting, with a guide explaining the details of each culture.

Otherwise, to be honest, in terms of land forms, it is not something extraordinary or something you haven’t seen somewhere else.

The only thing separating this lake from the others, besides its size, is most definitely the altitude of over 3800 m and the microclimate created here as a result of its vicinity with this huge fresh water mass.

The weather on the lake, as well as on the Altiplano high plains is extremely shifty. During one single day, you may witness sudden changes, from temperatures of 28-30 degrees and a bright sun shining, to snowflakes and storms with thunder and lightning that bring the temperature down almost to the freezing point.

If the weather gets bad during the trip, large waves will form on the lake, which, combined with the speedboat movement, will cause motion sickness to those who are sensitive. Therefore, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have carry a plastic bag with you, in your backpack, and to try to find a seat somewhere in front of the speedboat.

Given the altitude and rarefied air, the sun burns a lot, even if it is not shining bright. So, you should buy a hat from the local traders, with face, nape and ear protection, since these are the first to be affected. It would be useful to use high SPF sunscreen to limit the burns.

Use several layers of clothing, of which the exterior one should be waterproof. Should the weather get better, you can take it off, and when it gets cold, you could put another layer on and you’ll be OK.

Wear boots or trekking equipment. Most of the time, the soil is wet and slippery, and floating islands sometimes are filled with water, so you may get wet without suitable footwear.

Although any tour includes a traditional lunch, don’t imagine it is a great feast. The few indigenous products served are far from being able to make you feel full, so it would be good to have some sandwiches or fruit, or a protein bar.

As a general conclusion, I must admit that despite the poverty of the locals, in Peru, touristic infrastructure is excellently organized.

There is no delay or standby. Everything is done on a schedule. Every transfer is done immediately and buses are waiting for the tourists as soon as they step on the land.

We probably stayed at one of the better hotels, but, in general hotel operators are very kind and helpful.

At he reception, next to the armchair, there are large oxygen tanks, so that those having difficulty adapting to the altitude can sit at any time and use them for some fresh air, until they recover.

With respect to this issue regarding the lack of oxygen, there is a preconceived notion, namely that it is not good to use the tubes for quicker adapting. That’s not true!

Whenever you feel sick, feel your limbs getting cooler, feel pain in the breastbone, cough or have chills or nausea, do not hesitate to use the oxygen tubes.

Within 5 minutes you will feel better, taking your body out of a crisis and leaving it to adapt to the altitude on its own. Regardless of how you do it, it still takes about 3 days to adapt.

However, avoid the Titicaca area if you have a heart condition or respiratory disease. The altitude of more than 3800 m of Altiplano is not for you. You would be better choosing other landmarks of Peru, located lower than the limit of 3200 meters, namely an altitude that is easier to tolerate by anyone.

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Last modified: 11 October 2019

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