KUALA LUMPUR, March 7 — Fancy taking a boat ride above the mountains? At a surface elevation of 12,507 ft, Lake Titicaca in the Andes is the highest navigable lake in the world. That’s higher than some of the mountains we have scaled!
Bordered by Peru and Bolivia, it is also the largest lake in South America. So for travel enthusiasts seeking a record-breaking experience, there really is no place like Titicaca.
Water, rock, puma
Lake Titicaca is considered by locals to be one of the sacred birthplaces of South American indigenous culture. In fact, the name Titicaca means “Rock Puma” in the local Quechua and Aymara languages as the shape of the lake resembles a puma chasing a rabbit.
There are many unique islands on the lake, including the artificial floating islands of Uros and the handicraft haven of Taquile. To get there, we travel on bus all day from the ancient Peruvian city of Cusco to reach the lakeside town of Puno.
It is late when we arrive in Puno, so we retire early after a typically Peruvian supper of ceviche (raw fish salad), cuy (roasted guinea pig) and chicha morada (a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage made from boiling purple corn).
Early the next morning, we grab a hasty breakfast before heading to the pier. (In Peru, dawn comes well before 6am and threadbare hotel curtains are unlikely to keep the sunlight from waking you.) Besides the rainy season from December to January, other times of year are generally sunny though still cold from the winds across the lake. Dress warmly.
Much of Titicaca’s economy is dependent on tourism so there are plenty of boats to choose from at the pier. Still it’s best to hire a guide as you can customise your itinerary. Start early to make the most of your hours and the daylight.
The floating islands of Uros
Our first destination is Uros, a group of over 40 man-made floating islands. The pre-Incan Uros tribes who live here weave these artificial islands from totora reeds, which grow in abundance in the shallows of the lake.
We see plenty of these reeds growing from the waters of the lake ourselves as we leave the bay towards Uros. Some areas of reeds are so thick they form small islets. These are used by enterprising farmers to rear their pigs! There is even a guard dog to watch over the herd of swine.
A few boats pass us, not motorboats like our own but rowing boats made entirely from totora. When we finally reach one of the floating islands and disembark, we realise that even the homes on the islands are woven from this multipurpose weed!
Your first step can be slightly terrifying as your shoes sink slightly into the surface of the island, which are made of nothing other than layers of woven totora. Apparently the reeds’ dense roots grow into a thick, natural layer that forms a firm foundation for the islands.
The islands are then anchored to the bottom of the lake with reed-woven ropes attached to sticks. These layers do rot away quite swiftly so fresh reeds are added to the top every three months to keep the island afloat.
Thankfully there is no shortage of construction material here on the lake!
Our Uros hosts have very dark, sun-beaten skin. When I ask a trader how much a miniature rowboat costs, she takes a dried reed and scratches the price of the reed-woven souvenir on the back of her hand. No need for calculators here.
The Uros people believe that they are descendants of “pukinas”, or the owners of the lake and water. Styled as the “sons of the Sun” or Lupihaques, they claim their blood is black, rendering them immune to the cold climate. (We didn’t ask for proof, being polite guests.)
There isn’t much fresh food besides fish from the lake. We are shown bundles of desiccated wild potatoes and multi-coloured corn. It’s not an easy living but the Uros aren’t complaining. They are kept busy with their craft -– making boats and homes, and constructing the very ground they stand on.
Men knit, women weave
Some folks believe that men are from Mars and women from Venus. In Taquile, a hilly island further east of Uros, the split between gender roles is along somewhat less planetary lines.
The inhabitants, known as Taquileños, are famous for their textile handicraft. The men are responsible for knitting whereas the women weave and make yarn. This division of labour means both genders specialise, resulting in high quality textiles that are acknowledged as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
These colourful textiles can be seen in traditional Taquile attire -– vibrant reds, electric pinks and neon blues. When the Taquileños indulge in their cultural pastime of dancing, their skirts spin around in a rainbow-hued whirl.
The Taquileños try hard to keep as much of their culture as they can. Besides being native Quechua speakers, they also run their community collectivism based on the Inca moral code of “ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla” (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy).
Climbing to the north part of Taquile, its highest point, gives us a bird’s eye view of the island. Here, a temple remains, as do the ritual practice of bringing offerings to Pachamama, the Inca fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. If we squint we can even see the snow-white peaks of mountains on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.
Life is simple here. Besides a few basic amenities, there are no cars or hotels on the island. No traffic jams or human hordes. At night, the sky is clear enough for star gazing and lightning spotting over the horizon. It is a quiet place, a placid lake, quite another world entirely.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 6, 2014.