Friday, 18 February 2011

The highest navigable lake in the world, and the people that navigate it with their islands

Our last stop in Peru was the famous Lago Titicaca. We bussed our way down there from Cusco to the cold city of Puno that lies at the shore of the lake.

Having heard a great deal about this lake and the different islands in it, we booked a day tour to see the Urus floating islands and the autonomous island of Taquiles.


The Urus islands were very touristic but due to the uniqueness of the people living there and the way they have decided to live, it was interesting enough that the touristic aspect of it was not so important. There are some 40 odd islands in total, placed next to the 'totora'/reeds that the Urus people use for everything. And when I say everything, I do mean everything as their whole lives circulate around this greenery.



In fact, they use the roots of it to create the base of their floating islands - and as the ‘sargaço’ itself floats, so does the islands build with its roots. On top of the roots, squares of which are attached together with ropes, several layers of reeds lied down. As the bottom layers rotten, they are taken away and a new layer is spread out. This change of the second layer of the islands is made every 5-6 months and seems to require quite a lot of effort.


On top of this base, which is fairly bizarre to walk on as it moves slightly, is soft and spongy, and sometimes lets some water up, houses are created from the same plant - these houses have to be rebuild approximately every 10 years. But the usage doesn't stop there. The plant is also used for making the furniture, as fuel for the cooking fires, and to build spectacular looking boats. In addition to harvesting the reeds and creating things out of it, the main occupation of the Urus people is to collect eggs from the ducks living in the plants, to shoot the ducks, and to fish.
The Urus people that we met on the first island we stopped on - the second was more of a tourist trap and did not have any authentic feel to it - were very friendly and told us a bit about their lives. The kids goes to school, the younger ones in one of the three schools on the islands and the older ones in the secondary school in Puno, half an hour away by boat.

They also informed us that each island belongs to one family and has around 10-15 people living on it, all connected through family ties. Our guide told us that before, marriages within an island were quite common, but today they are only allowed to marry a person from another island and hence the population is healthier today. The chief of the island we were visiting also told us that if one person/family unit stops contributing to the communal work of the island, the chief will bring justice by cutting the piece of land surrounding that person's house away from the rest of the island. Quite a punishment I would guess as keeping these islands working seems to take a lot of work.

One last cool thing about the islands, except for the colourful clothes of the women, is that they are anchored with poles into the roots of the reed on one side, and with big rocks on the other side, facing open water. This means that if the chief decided that there is a better place for the family to live, they can just lift anchor and move to the new spot. In close mirroring of their ancestors, who actually built their houses on boats, using the same material for both, as they flew the invasion of the mainland by the Inkas.

Jumping into the boat again, our next stop was the island Taquile, a 2 hours fairly boring boat ride away – so luckily we had brought a deck of cards (it was especially lucky for me at this time as for some reason I couldn't stop winning after our day in Machu Picchu - this luck lasted for several weeks and only ran out as we crossed into Chile).


And for me this additional trip soon felt fairly unnecessary as, although an autonomous island owned by the inhabitants, the place felt like a big tourist trap. Starting during our 30-40 minutes walk up from the harbour, and continuing all the way through, the locals were selling bracelets and anything else that a tourist might like. The whole place actually felt like it's existence is completely based on the loads of tourists arriving here every day. It probably isn't. But that was the feeling I got and it made me feel highly uncomfortable.

In addition, as we only had a couple of hours on the island and one of them was spent having lunch (which was excellent by the way with a yummy quinoa soup and delicious fresh grilled trout), and most of the other hour was spent walking up from or down to the harbours - it really felt that we actually just went that whole way for the lunch.


A bit of a disappointment, in fact, and if I would do it again, I would spend a bit more time visiting the Urus islands and would skip Taquile altogether.

Still a nice day though, that we finished off with a stroll through the main plaza before using about half an hour collecting the ingredients for the dinner of pasta with vegetables and guacamole that we were planning for the night. Each set of ingredient having to be bought from its particular stand. But we finally got it all together and enjoyed a nice home-cooked meal. Something which I can miss as we most of the time eat out.

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