Part of a trip to the Andes of Peru should include Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of Uros. And a visit to the world’s highest navigable lake would not be complete without a cultural visit that includes an overnight stay with a family on the island Amantani and a tour of Taquile.
But if you do include this area in your itinerary be prepared for even higher altitudes than Cusco. For this reason consider making this part of your trip after becoming acclimatized to the thin air in the high mountainous areas of the Sacred Valley.
Preparing each article in this series continually reminds me of the struggles that Penny has had dealing with oxygen starvation at sea level while fighting and now recovering from an almost deadly encounter with swine flu. I am pleased to say that recover is progressing rapidly to the point where we are anticipating that Penny will be home by the time this is published.
How to Reach Lake Titicaca
The town of Puno is the final destination for any planned visit to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca and the islands of Uros, Amantani and Taquile.
Reaching Puno is very dependent on your starting point. It is possible to travel north from neighboring Bolivia by bus or air. But more likely travel will be either from the coastal area that includes Lima or from Cusco.
From Lima it is possible to take a bus or fly directly to Juliaca. A local bus or taxi can be used for the relatively short distance between Juliaca and Puno.
From Cusco the fastest way is a plane to Juliaca and then local transportation onward to Puno. But when time permits, it is definitely worth taking a day to travel overland between the two cities. Choices include the experience of a magnificent train ride that takes over 10 hours or a bus that can take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours.
Trains run 4 days per week and costs upward of $210 at the time of writing. More information can be obtain directly from PeruRail.
There is a choice of bus services making the daily run between Cusco and Puno. One bus service only stops to pickup and drop off passengers along the route. There are, however, a number of “tourist buses” that make several stops along the route to visit historical sites and an obligatory pause at Raya pass – the highest point on the highway at 14230 feet.
I chose to travel with Inka Express that schedules stops at the temple of Andahuaylillas, the Inka temple of Raqchi, Raya pass and the Inka Aymara museum of Pukara. A guide traveled with the bus and buffet lunch was included in the price of the ticket. A few Sol was paid for entry to each of the historical sites along the way. The current cost for this day long trip is about $50.
About an hour out of Cusco the bus made it’s first stop at the 16th century church of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas. It was built by the Jesuits on top of a place that was sacred to the Incas. Many of the foundation stones were repurposed from ancient structures that even predated the Inca period. On top of the stone is what appears to be a simple adobe church, however, the interior has an elaborate design that includes painted reed and mud beams and beautiful frescos earning this church the nickname of “Sistine Chapel of America”.
A brief and unscheduled stop was made to see the colonial bridge crossing the Putimarca river in Checacupe. Adjacent to this still functional bridge are the original foundations of the Inca bridge and a suspension bridge that is replaced, as needed. The original span was part of the Inca road network that linked the entire territory of the Incas.
The next stop was in Raqchi to see the “Temple of Wiracocha”. The main structure is not like other Inca structures I had seen. The building had originally measured over 300 feet long and about 80 feet wide. But the two things that impressed me were the height of the remaining ruins and the fact that instead of the typical stone work the exterior surfaces were relative smooth owing to the straw and cement-like material that covered the stone.
Other than the experience of the high altitude Raya pass at over 14200 feet and observing the beautiful mountain scenery there is not much else that made a lasting impression on me. Certainly the included buffet lunch was wholesome but not especially memorable.
For those that might be affected by altitude the bus did carry oxygen. But my personal experience was that because I was neither exerting myself nor trying to sleep I do not remember feeling any adverse effects associated with oxygen starvation.
A Visit to the Islands of Lake Titicaca
There are numerous companies that run tours out to one or more of the populated islands on Lake Titicaca. Some tours are simple day trips that include the floating reed islands collectively known as Uros and the closest normal island, Taquile. Other tours also include a visit to the more distant island of Amantani that includes an overnight stay with a local family.
Prices vary enormously for these tours so I was fortunate to identify a company run by a local family that takes prepayment for the boat and guide but asks you to pay your local host directly for the overnight stay that includes lunch on arrival, dinner and breakfast. The price I ended up by paying was considerably less than many of the tours that were advertised as “all inclusive”. So it pays to research options ahead of time and make reservations far enough in advance that you are assured a place.
The order of visit is a short boat ride to Uros and then about a three and a half hour ride from Uros to Amantani on the first day. And then on the next day there is a medium length transit to Taquile followed by a another long boat ride back to Puno.
The Floating Islands of Uros
There are over 100 floating islands that form Uros and created from reed bundles that are tied together and anchored to the lake bottom. The structures on the islands are also built primarily from the reeds that grow in copious quantities in Lake Titicaca.
The Uru are the indigenous inhabitants of the islands and they are able to continue their lifestyle supported by tourism and the crafts they sell both on the islands and in the local Puno market. It seems that the women are responsible for creating many of the craft items and fishing for their family while the men focus on continuously maintaining the infrastructure of the islands by adding reed bundles to replace the older decaying bundles.
Apparently each tour company is assigned to a specific island, but it is safe to say that everyone has the experience of walking across the spongy reed surfaces. The closest experience for most of us would be the sensation of walking across the surface of a children’s bounce house.
The local inhabitants proudly show you their simple living quarters and the craft items they are creating. Of course the expectation is that you will just fall in love with some of their hand weaving or embroidery and need to take it home with you either for personal use or as gifts.
The Uru also build iconic boats created entirely from reed bundles. These boats are used for transfer of people and things from island to island. But I suspect that today they are also present as a tourist attraction.
This island located about 25 miles from Puno rises well over 1000 feet above Lake Titicaca with the twin mountains of Pachatata (“father earth”) and Pachamama (“mother earth”) dominating the skyline. The island is almost round with a shoreline of 5 to 6 miles. Everyone on the island speaks the ancient Quechua language and some of the inhabitants only know a few words of Spanish.
Typical of other hillsides in the Andes the slope are terraced and, like during the Inca period, mostly worked by hand. Crops include wheat, quinoa, potatoes, and other vegetables. Livestock, including alpacas, also graze on the hillside.
In addition to providing homestay experiences for tourists the inhabitants of Amantani are known for their textiles, as well as their ceramics.
On arrival at the little harbor at Amantani the boat was greeted by a small group of women in colorful skirts and shawls. Each person was assigned a hostess who lead their respective guests up the hill to the home that would accommodate them. My hostess was also assigned a couple from France.
On our arrival at our quarters we were given a non-verbal tour that included our assigned room, the location of the privy (outhouse), the washroom and the kitchen. We were also handed a flashlight for use outside and candles with matches for our bedroom.
I had heard that meals would be simple and starch; a description that was fairly accurate. The lunch served included a vegetable soup flavored with onions and wild herbs and thickened most likely with a flour made from quinoa. This was followed with fried cheese, several varieties of boiled potato and as I recall some unidentifiable but tasty raw vegetables.
After lunch we were given a brief demonstration of hand spinning yarn from alpaca hair. Then the guide for my group collected us up and first took us to visit the local school. The kids were so proud to show us their projects and a couple of them were very anxious to practice their few words of English with us. It is truly heart warming to observe what can be achieved without all the modern technology to which we have become so accustomed.
From the school our goal was to make the 1200 foot vertical climb to the top of Pachamama to see the Inca temple and to watch the sun set over the lake and the distant mountains. Even though I was now somewhat acclimatized to the 12,400 elevation of Lake Titicaca, once we started up the relatively steep pathway I was soon gasping from lack of oxygen. This experience certainly allowed me to understand Penny’s situation, but while she was provided with oxygen support I had to resort to a more primitive approach introduced to me by our guide.
As I stopped to catch my breath the first time the guide leant over to the side of the path, broke off some sprigs of a plant. He then instructed me to crush the leaves between my palms, cup my hands and breath in the vapors.
It turns out that what he was picking was an Andean herb known as muña (móon-yah) that, according to some herbalists, among other properties, helps dilate the bronchi. Certainly I found that after a few whiffs of the vapor I was able to catch my breath and walk further before needing to repeat the process.
At the summit of Pachamama we were able to wander around the outside of the ruins that formed the Inca temple. But because the local inhabitants still consider this hallowed ground we could not examine the ruins more closely. The view from this point was absolutely phenomenal overlooking a tranquil lake to the hills and snow covered mountains in the distance. And the sunset, as promised was spectacular.
The trip down the hill and back to our accommodation was so much easier and there was no reason for frequent stops to inhale the vapors from the muña leaves. Night falls quickly after the sun has set so it was pitch dark before we had completed our descent.
A parting note – few of the houses had any form of electricity and those that were lucky enough to have any had a solitary dim light glowing in the dark.
After the overnight stay on Amantani there is about a 90 minute boat to Taquile. From the dock there is an uphill climb to the center of the village. Interestingly, there was actually a market and at least one restaurant on the village square.
Taquile is known for its fine handwoven textiles and clothing. Men and boys exclusively do all the knitting. The women are responsible for spinning and dying all the wool for the community. As in other parts of Peru vegetables and minerals are used to dye the wool. The wide belts with woven designs worn by everyone in the community are also made by the women.
The views from the pathways that lead from the dock to the village and then the stairway that leads down from the center of the village to another docking area are absolutely phenomenal. Like Amantani the local population seem very friendly and I noted that there seem to be more people that speak Spanish and some English as well as the local Quechua. This could be because it is possible to visit Taquile on a day trip, whereas Amantani does involve an overnight stay. As such Taquile likely receives a lot more tourists and so is geared up to cater for this influx.
The boat ride from Taquile back to Puno is about two hours. After all the high altitude walking it is so enjoyable to laze in the sun on the boat for the trip back.
The experience of the bus ride to Puno on Lake Titicaca and the cultural visit to the islands of Uros, Amantani and Taquile should definitely be on your radar if you are planning a trip to Peru.
My personal recommendation is to make sure that you allow plenty of time to acclimatize to the high altitudes you will encounter when venturing to the places I have described in the Andes. I would also suggest that you follow my route of going to Cusco before venturing to Lake Titicaca simply because your body will be somewhat adapted as you move from one area to the next.
Regardless of how you organize your trip one additional word of caution – make sure you have plenty of sunscreen with you. Because of the altitude not only is there less oxygen but the high altitude atmosphere offers less protection against UV radiation.
Previous articles in this series:
How Altitude Could Affect Your Travel Plans
How Altitude Could Affect Your Travel Plans – Part II