The first time I visited Lake Titicaca in Perú I’d been traveling Latin America for five years and the list of memorable life experiences had already been rapidly filling up the pages of my journal.
In certain ways, I had become slightly desensitized to marveling at ancient ruins, exotic fruits, intricate textiles, howler monkeys, etc. Just days prior I found myself peering out over Machu Picchu and albeit impressed, I didn’t experience that all-consuming moment of awe that I had become so addicted to.
So, when I rediscovered that euphoric feeling at 13,000 feet on one of the world’s highest navigable lakes I was beyond thrilled. And no, it wasn’t just the mate de coca talking.
The day began with a leisurely boat ride from our hotel in Puno to the floating Uros islands. These man(and woman)made islands, constructed out of reed, are anchored and float slightly around the lake, serving as home to a variety of indigenous communities.
Here we were greeted by warm, friendly faces who were eager to speak to us in depth about their culture and society. To my surprise and delight, each small island had its own democratically elected female president and la presidenta on the isla we visited was sharp, charismatic and quite the comedian. After discussing culture, politics, gender roles and the problems the islands are currently facing (difficulty preserving heritage as most of the youth are abandoning the island to seek work and education in larger cities, such as nearby Puno)we switched to a lighter topic; clothes!
Before we knew it the local women were dressing us in the island’s traditional dress which, by the way, is very heavy! These colorful outfits included many layers as the temperatures on the lake drop drastically at night.
Obligatory photoshoot completed, we hugged our new friends goodbye, taking a shot at saying adios in Aymara, and continued cruising down the lake to our final destination of the day, Amantaní island.
On the almost two hour boat ride to Amantaní island our local guide, Heber, entertained us with a wealth of historical and cultural knowledge of the lake region and also talked about current events and Peruvian politics which was particularly interesting since they were in an election year.
Finally, we arrived on Amantaní island, where Heber is originally from, and we were introduced to our “host mamas”. Generally a skeptic of these overnight “cultural immersion” experiences, I was blown away by our time in the community.
Our “host mamas” as they are affectionally referred to by Heber, were endearing, engaging, and genuine. My host mama Magda, who stood all of 4 feet tall, took us a brisk 15-minute walk through this picture-perfect, rustic little village before arriving at our cozy home for a delicious lunch of quinoa soup, bread, and of course lots of mate de coca tea.
After a brief rest, the group reunited with Heber and our host mamas who took us on a tour of the island showed us how they grind quinoa with a giant mortar and pestle like tool, and accompanied us on a hike to the chilly top of the island, complete with a view of neighboring Bolivia and one of the world’s most uniquely located “cafes”.
While enjoying our time with the community we learned so many interesting aspects of life on the island.
For example, young couples who would like to get married are required to live together (at the man’s parents’ home) for a trial period before being officially tying the knot, and as long as no babies are produced during this trial period if they decide not to marry there is no negative social stigma if they call off the nuptials.
This seemed like a super progressive approach to love, marriage, and family especially in Latin America which is known for having strong Catholic values and is traditionally anti premarital sex and/or premarital cohabitation (although this is changing especially in larger cities), but it has been common practice on the island for centuries.
Later that evening we were taken to the town’s “event hall’ for a party to end all parties. We were liquored up on local wine, cloaked in traditional dress, and forced to dance by our host mamas as a live Andean band played nonstop for hours. It was nothing short of epic as we danced and sang the night away with our new friends.
One of the travelers even did a karaoke performance of Mack the Knife with an Andean flute twist. Exhausted and high on life, we closed the night with some stargazing. Let me tell you, being that high in elevation on an island on a lake in the middle of nowhere, the sky is pretty impressive.
Saying goodbye to the community the next morning was heartbreaking as we hugged and kissed goodbye, exchanging emails and vowing to stay in touch (many of whom have done so)before heading to the nearby island of Taquile.
Our afternoon on Taquile was equally intriguing and rewarding with the major highlights being the freshest, most delicious trout we’d ever eaten in our lives (no joke) and visiting a cooperative that sells beautiful items knitted almost entirely by the island’s male population.
I really can’t say enough good things about this experience as it was a perfect combination of natural beauty, cultural intrigue, and best of all, downright pleasant and authentic human interaction. You won’t catch me planning a trip to Perú without a pitstop at the lake to visit these friends I hope to keep in my life for years to come.