Lake Titicaca – Lake Tahoe on Steroids

Swan boats, waiting for riders in the early morning light, with Puno in the background.  The surface of the lake near shore is covered with a green algae.

Swan boats, waiting for riders in the early morning light, with Puno in the background. The surface of the lake near shore is covered with a green algae.

Lake Titicaca is a huge, high, lake in Southern Peru.  It´s as big as Switzerland.  At 12,500 feet high, it is the highest navigable lake in the world.  Imagine if Lake Tahoe were 17 times as big and 2 times as high, and populated by cultures going back 8,000 years or more before Christ. Titicaca is famous for its pueblos situated on floating islands.

We spent several days in Puno, the major Peruvian city on the shores of Titicaca, adjusting to the altitude, before visiting several floating islands and a couple of real islands.

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A potato painting

A potato painting

The pre Inca (Huari) people here invented potatoes, quinoa, ocra, and they domesticated llamas and alpacas.  This seems all the more remarkable because it´s basically a cold, high, dry climate over generally rocky soil. In fact they invented freeze dried potatoes.  To freeze dry potatoes they take the potatoes up to a high altitude and leave them out at night. The next day they step on the potatoes to squeeze out the water.  After repeating this for 7 days you have freeze dried potatoes!

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A boat made from Tortuga, floating in front of miles of Tortura

A boat made from Tortura, floating in front of miles of Tortura

One of the most interesting aspects of Lake Titicaca is the 2,000 people who live on 70 floating islands made up entirely of a reed called the Tortura reed.  Truly, they make their entire island out of it, then their houses, watch towers, boats, beds, chairs etc. They even eat Tortura. Evidently the Huari people made boats out of the reeds which grow along the lake shore.  When the war mongering Incas arrived, they started living on their reed boats.  Eventually they learned how to build islands.  They cut out root masses roughly 10´square, and tow them to the spot where they want their island.

The President of the iIsland we visited showing us how they lash together sections of root mass.

The President of the island we visited showing us how they lash together sections of root mass.

They tie the squares together, and then cover the root mass with more reeds laid alternately left to right and then up to down.  This creates their basic island.  Every 3 months they have to build it up with more layers of horizontal reeds, and every 25 years they have to start over completely because the root mass at the bottom has rotted out.  They build up their cottages on top and the cooking fire is supported on a flat rock.

Their primary activity is fishing, which they traditionally do from 2 person reed boats.  These small boats are also used by the kids to get to school.  The second biggest activity is the maintenance of their homes and islands.  They also hunt birds, and of course they make crafts to sell to tourists.

Dan is worried they need composting toilets because when one of the 2,000 residents needs to do #2 they are supposed to get in a boat (very slow boats) and row to the one island that has 3 outhouses. We wonder how often that happens!

Our host family at dinner.

Our host family at dinner.

Next we spent a night on Isla Amantani with a host family and tasted a life style that hasn´t changed significantly for thousands of years.  This island is roughly the size and height of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. People live primarily by fishing and farming without irrigation on terraced fields.  Fairly recently they began hosting tourists such as ourselves as an additional way to raise money to buy items such as cooking oil and rice.

In the evening we wore local clothing to attend a village dance.

In the evening we wore local clothing to attend a village dance.

There is no running water, hot water, heat, vehicles, or electricity (other than a few solar powered lights).  They grow barley, quinoa, ocra, and wheat.  They maintain herds of sheep, a few cows, and a few horses.   Evidently they are unable to grow any fruits or vegetables other than onions.   Our host family consisted of 2 grandparents, 2 parents, and 2 kids.  Our primary host was a 16 year old girl named Delia who is one of the 2 kids.  The father was extremely anxious to learn English and he kept asking us questions to help him learn and practice.  Their first language is the Inca language, Quecha, but our host family also spoke Spanish.  Evidently it is pretty difficult when guests arrive who don´t speak any Spanish.  One humorous item was that

We all tried grinding barley the way they do every day, between two stones.

We all tried grinding barley the way they do every day, between two stones.

we were supposed to refer to the mother and father as Papa and Mama.  This was funny because we are twice as old as them.

Our guide, Elvis, had grown up in this village.  He said he was one of 20 students accepted into the 5 year tourism program at the University, from 2,000 applicants.  It was very difficult for him to pay for his food and lodging over the 5 years but he´d succeeded.  He attributed his success to the fact that when the other students went out to play soccer he would read any books he could get his hands on.  He is now championing the development of a library in his town.  We visited the library and it is modest by any definition.  It consists of one 5 foot wide bookcase with everything from heavy dictionaries to readers for pre-schoolers.  We´d brought along a few books which the boys hanging out in there grabbed eagerly and started to read immediately.

Amantea has lots of arches

Amantanea has lots of arches

The last island, Taquile, was seemingly more “wealthy”. We saw lots of direct TV antennas.  It is still a farming, fishing and tourism economy like the other one.  It was just a very scenic and beautiful island.

It is interesting on these islands that everyone knows the medicinal value of all the plants and they tend to use them more than western medicines. That’s not necessarily true in the cities from what we can tell.  We have been drinking teas of coca leaves and Andean mint (munya) to help with altitude sickness.  To be honest we have our doubts about how effective they are, as Char was sick anyway, but maybe they smooth down the symptoms.  We did get a demo of a plant that you grind and grind and eventually end up with a lathery soap that is very effective for doing laundry!

Spinning wool into yarn

Spinning wool into yarn

And you should see how the women make yarn! It’s amazing!  They walk around with bags of sheep wool attached to their waists, and they carry a spindle. As they walk along they pull wool out of the bag, sort of stretch it a little, and then the other hand is spinning the spindle and the yarn wraps around it. A 45 second video is here.

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Elvis modeling the headgear worn by a person of authority.

Elvis modeling the headgear worn by a person of authority.

On this island you can tell the marital status of both the men and the women by their clothes.  For example unmarried men wear red over white hats, and unmarried women have big pom-pom´s on their hats and head scarves.  A multi colored hat means that you were an authority at one time.  If you put a black hat over your multi colored hat you are currently the mayor of the island.  Each village also has a president – we are not sure what hat they wear.

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It is interesting to contemplate whether this island lifestyle, or our California lifestyle, is more sustainable.

Below are some other favorite photos from Lake Titicaca.  Click on one to go into slideshow mode and see the captions.

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5 thoughts on “Lake Titicaca – Lake Tahoe on Steroids

  1. Janice

    Hi Char and Dan!
    What an Adventure you are on!!! Love the story of the Lake in Peru–I have never heard of this (and I spent a couple of weeks in Peru myself about 15 years ago). Very interesting! And the eggs were super interesting like that in a chicken… never saw this either, even growing up on a farm where we raised chicks!
    Enjoy!! Thanks for sharing–
    Janice

    Reply
    1. danmarshall22 Post author

      Hi Janice, Somehow we missed your comment. Sorry! Glad that Peru can be surprising to you even though you have already been there!
      Hope to see you again soon!

      Reply
  2. C Nagel

    I enjoyed reading your post. The only thing I disagree with is the location of the lake. It’s not in southern Peru. It’s actually shared by two countries… It’s in southeastern Peru and Bolivia’s Northwest. I would even dare to say that most visitors to the lake visit it because of Copacabana… Not even Puno… And Copacabana happens to be in Bolivia… Even brasilians liked Copacabana so much that named their beach in Rio after it.

    Reply
    1. C Nagel

      I’m sorry … Forgot to add that with regards to the plants/reeds used for the boats… The actual word is Totora… As Tortura means Torture.

      Reply

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