Lake in the sky

Written by Emmy on 26 March 2013

We departed the cosmopolitan city of Cusco, and flew up, up and away. We landed in the small town of Juliaca, situated at over 12,000 feet up. Yikes.

We got into a van, opened up our picnic afternoon snack — Andean cheese and tomato sandwiches, and shortbread cookies — and started cruising south.

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We hit the city of Puno and there it was, Lago Titicaca — the highest navigable lake in the world. At this point, we were sipping our coca tea and trying to cope with the altitude adjustments. But the lake under the glow of the sunset was also pretty exciting…

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We drove around the perimeter of the lake for an hour or so before arriving at our destination, Titilaka. (We spent the next few days perpetually confused between Titlaka, the town and hotel, and Titicaca, the lake and region.) We were also now shockingly close to the Bolivian border, but the crossing is not recommended for those with American passports.

Our hotel was a beautiful lodge poised right on the edge of the lake. Climbing to the second floor of the hotel was a little bit of a challenge with the altitude, but we recovered and made it back downstairs for dinner.

We enjoyed a lovely meal composed of local ingredients while overlooking the lake. I started with a carpaccio of eggplant and zucchini, the hotel’s special for the night. I followed with chicken brochettes and quinoa risotto. Quinoa can in fact be used in anything, as the Peruvians regularly demonstrated.

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And then, just for good measure, we had some cheesecake with local berries.

We woke up the next morning to the beautiful light streaming over the lake, looked out on Lake Titicaca, and prepared for our day of adventure.

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We set out on a boat for the island of Taquile, about 45 minutes away from the shore. The island is filled with traditional people who speak Quechua, despite being surrounded by Spanish and Aymara speakers. For centuries, the island was totally isolated, and an independent culture and society developed.

The island is less isolated today than it used to be — we saw homes with solar panels and heard Rihanna blasting from one area. But on the other hand, the island is still governed by its ancient rules. Our entry fee to the island was collected by an older man — the mayor — who put the change inside his hand-sewn fanny pack. Families on the island are restricted to a limited amount of space and can only have two cows and twenty sheep because of a strong desire to protect the land.

Walking around, we met a group of little boys who begged us to take their photos so they could see the result on the little screen.

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The views from the island were incredible, especially as we climbed up into the hills. In every direction, all you could see was the very blue sky and the glassy clear lake. I would say that it took my breath away, but the altitude had already done that.

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After walking around the island for a bit, our guide led us to the home of Roberto and Alicia. Lifelong residents of the island, the two are its unofficial welcome committee, along with their two-year-old daughter, Martiza. They are farmers and weavers, and Roberto oversees several branches of the extended family who come by to do their sewing and work.

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The family showed off several of their wares and explained the island traditions to us. For example, all boys are required to learn to sew and the most important item they can make is their own hat. Starting at a young age, boys wear floppy colorful hats made from alpaca wool; any alternates they have are ones they have made themselves. Walking around the island, it’s not uncommon to see boys following sheep with knitting needles in hand. Once the boys enter their teenage years, they begin making a stiffer, sturdier hat, and when a boy has found a girl he wants to marry, he brings her father his hat. The father pours a cup of water inside and if none leaks out (meaning the boy is capable and industrious), he is granted the daughter’s hand. But if his hat leaks, he is considered an unworthy candidate.

Once married — which happens only after the couple has lived together for about two years in a sort of trial run — the boy becomes a man and graduates to a bigger, floppier, more colorful hat. This hat is adorned with a pom-pom, which carries a special meaning. On the island of Taquile, you never ask a man “How are you?” — if the pom-pom of his hat is on his right shoulder, he is having a good day; on his left, and you’re better off saying nothing at all.

For women, subtle communication is done through scarves. The more you are searching for a man, the brighter and more colorful the tassels on your scarf will be.

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After explaining and modeling the local traditions, Alicia and Roberto served us a lovely late morning snack — quinoa soup and fried bread with a spicy topping of peppers and onions. It was very authentic, and quite delicious.

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We bid our new friends farewell (only after giving Martiza an extreme number of hugs — she was easy to grow quickly attached to) and continued our journey around the island, pausing for epic vista after vista.

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We headed back to the boat and back to the mainland, leaving behind the somewhat magical little island of Taquile.

And because one lunch is not enough, we got back just in time for a very colorful quinoa salad, continuing my culinary journey through all possible iterations of the local grain.

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IMG_3171We went on a little canoe expedition after lunch, staying in the protected area of the reeds to prevent from flipping (as we saw several other people do). Nevertheless, it was not an adventure my camera was invited to attend — we got quite wet paddling around as the afternoon current picked up.

Since we had arrived at the hotel, we had been admiring the pillows and other weavings all around us. We mentioned this to one of the guides, who offered that we could go meet the family responsible for all of the beautiful handicrafts; we happily accepted the invitation.

We drove through fields and farms for about 30 minutes before coming upon a village made up of huts and farming plots. We were led into one of the homes, where we met three generations of weavers working together in the courtyard: the grandmother worked on embroidery, her son operated a large loom, his wife stretched out a carpet, and their 14-year-old daughter spun wool into yarn.

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The process is collaborative — meant to be a shared family experience as the four sit together sewing and talking. Midway through our visit, mother and daughter took a time-out from their separate projects to come together for an instructional lesson. Like we learned earlier in our trip, everything about weaving patterns is passed down through the family, and so it is critical for mothers to teach their daughters the special patterns and techniques.

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The older generations spoke only Aymara, in which we had not gotten much further than “Hello and nice to meet you,” but the shy teenage daughter spoke a bit of Spanish. After showing us around and telling us about the work her family does, she offered us an opportunity to play dress up. The blue coat she let me try on she had made for a school event of hers held earlier that year.

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We decided to take a couple pillow cases home with us, and when we went to pay, the matriarch of the family pulled the cash register and her cell phone out of her chest. That’s a tight security system. Jokes and costumes aside, it was a unique and wonderful experience to be so welcomed into the family’s home and to be given an introduction to the work that they do.

Back on the shores of the lake, we rose the next day to a similarly spectacular view as the sun climbed above the water.

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We piled back into a van and drove toward the largest town on the lake, Puno, which we had passed through in the dark on our way in. Puno has the largest harbor of the surrounding towns and instantly felt more touristy than where we had spent our previous few days. But Puno is the launch point for many areas of the lake, and that was the cause for our visit.

The destination of the morning was Uros, or the Floating Islands as they are better known. Until we came up upon them, I could not even begin to conceptualize what a “floating island” meant.

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The Uros islands are an old tradition, but even today, new islands sprout up all the time. The man-made islands are called the Floating Islands because the hunks of land, though somewhat anchored, are pretty movable. One tour guide we met at the hotel told us that he grew up on an island and his mother cared deeply about education; when he was in primary school, she relocated their island so it wouldn’t be such a far commute for him to go study.

Most of the islands are just a bit bigger than my Manhattan apartment, and over 70 of them dot the area.

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We pulled up to one of the islands and were greeted by Rita, her sister-in-law, Gladys, and their mother-in-law, Lucia. Rita is currently serving as president of her island and its neighbors, so she was more than happy to give us a brief explanation of life on the island. Only catch? The island dwellers speak mostly Quechua. But no problem — Rita had it down to a science.

Using a diorama, she showed us how the islands are constructed — a process that takes a better part of a year as the roots of reeds are laid down, and then covered in carefully piled reeds, with each layer interwoven into the next. Residents constantly add to the floor to make sure it’s stable. Then, families build small huts atop the island. Sons always stay with their mothers and their brides come to join them on their islands. Rita and Gladys both married onto the island we visited; Gladys, though younger, had a much nicer house. We learned this is because her husband is a better fisherman than Rita’s; much of the local people’s livelihood depends on the success of their men at hunting, and skill is rewarded.

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We spent time exploring Rita, Gladys and Lucia’s island — they also insisted in dressing us up in traditional costumes and showing us their weavings. It was fascinating, mostly because all the while we were standing on a man-made island. The only downside was our proximity to Puno, which has turned the Uros into a major tourist attraction spot and has made the area much more popular than Taquile and other islands. It colored our vision of the islands’ authenticity a bit, but it was still a truly unique spot to visit.

After bidding our hostesses farewell, we set our course back to the shore, where we piled into a van and said adiós to the beautiful Lago Titicaca.

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