Arriving in Puno from Cusco, there isn’t much to write home about. Dusty and a bit run down, in my opinion Puno best serves instead as a jump-off point to visit Lake Titicaca, on the blue shores of which the town lies. Straddling Peru and Bolivia and besides being the highest lake in the world, Titicaca is perhaps best known for its islands. On the Bolivian side there is Isla del Sol, which I sadly didn’t have time to visit, and on the Peruvian side are the absolutely incredible Floating Islands and Taquile Island, home of UNESCO world quality men’s knitting. We’d be visiting the floating island Uros first and then continuing to Taquile for a rural homestay.
So it was up early in Puno and we got tuktuks down to the lake, definitely a fun experience! By the harbour we stocked up on water and also presents for our host families; such as kilos of pasta and rice, fruit, and books and toys for the children of the community. We loaded it all onto our tour boat along with our day packs and off we went.
Our boat was slow but functional. Once out of sight from Puno and therefore the local authorities, we could get onto the roof to see further out and sunbathe – first slathered in suncream though, since the high altitude means thin air and the huge sparkling lake means reflections all round = extremely strong sun rays!
After an hour or so we reached the floating island Uros. To be honest, it was just mind boggling. It is quite literally a man-made island made from the dense layering and weaving of the lake’s reeds. An island takes about a year to make and every 6 years (or so I believe, need to check this) they have to abandon one as it gradually sinks. In the meantime, the residents top up the surface with reeds every day in the wet season and every week in the dry. There are 3 small houses on the island, which is about 15m², and these are also made from reeds!! The families that live there survive from fishing in traditional boats (you guessed it, made from reeds) and also now from the influx of tourists coming to see their way of life. We were even invited into their tiny houses (honestly as tall as me and about as long) and given some traditional clothing to wear before taking a reed boat ride.
While on the boat we perched up high on a platform to see better, when suddenly a small face popped up from the ladder. It was a little girl from the island, Rosemary, 6 years old. I chatted away with her in Spanish and she nestled in happily next to us, eating what looked like celery but was actually some kind of reed root (her dad was shouting up to us in limited English that it was ‘water banana’ haha). Actually she couldn’t get enough of it and it seemed to me that it was her special treat, like how I would be allowed a muffin or a poptart as a treat on Saturday mornings growing up. What a completely different way to live! I got a selfie with her which she seemed thrilled about – once again will add it here later.
(Pleased to say that since coming to Bolivia I have found a solution for getting my camera photos on here but sadly too late for the remainder of my Peru photos… just a couple of phone ones for now, and after this last Peru post I’ll be able to add more visual here from now on! 😊)
Anyway, continuing on that theme of a different lifestyle… Leaving Uros behind we landed on Taquile 2 hours later. There, we would be doing the Island homestay. After a brief lunch and some exploring of the main town (which was still very small), we continued the other side of the island, to the rural community of Luquina.
The locals were waiting at the football pitch overlooking the lake to firstly challenge our group to a football game (they won but of course had the altitude advantage!) and then introduce us to our host families. Melissa and I were with a youngish woman named Margre (unsure about spelling), and her three kids Evelyn, 12, Elvis, 8, and little Luciana, 3. However we were mainly with their grandpa Gavino, whose crinkled eyes and skin more betrayed a lifetime working under the beating sun at this high altitude rather than his age. It’s actually very hard to guess the age of Peruvians!
After the football, he gathered me and Melissa to the side and adorned us in their traditional dress (yes, second time in one day!), with the others having the same treatment from their families too. Big is beautiful in Peruvian culture and so for the girls this involved layers and layers of skirts ties with rope – suddenly I understood what a corset might feel like! In our colourful (and slightly comical on our taller frames) new outfits we stood watching the locals perform a traditional partnered dance… I think we would have watched a little more closely had we known we were then to imitate it for the local audience! All good fun even if there were bowler hats flying left right and centre.
Then it was ‘home’ where we found a lovely room especially for guests with comfortable beds absolutely piled with alpaca blankets and hand sewn throws. It could have been an Airbnb it was that well done – save for the cheeky inquisitive cow peering through the window!
We sat and chatted to Gavino and Evelyn, and I’ve never been so grateful to speak Spanish. It would have been so awkward I think, and it was nice to be able to express gratitude and ask questions. We were lucky that our family all spoke Spanish to be honest, as although the younger ones on the island typically do and learn it at school, most of the older generation spoke only Aymara, the ancient native language of the Altiplano area of Peru and Bolivia.
Dinner was a hearty soup and then a stew plus tea to wash it down – eating in the family’s traditional and cosy kitchen, where a wood burning stove kept the room warm. It was interesting to see the lay out of their house. Actually, it was like a series of small houses, each forming one freestanding room on their little patch of land.
We went to bed early, following the family’s routine and the pitch black that had descended. We got up at 6 ready to help with the morning’s tasks, although incredibly by the time we were awake it seemed that Margre had already accomplished a lot! Instead we accompanied Gavino. Mostly observing but trying to step in where we could, we spent time feeding cows, cutting corn, and even herding their raggedy gang of sheep. Gavino might have looked frail but he was tough as nails and had a special noise he made with his teeth while brandishing a rope – it made the sheep dumb into submission immediately (we noted with amusement that he used the same noise if one of the kids was misbehaving)!
Another task entailed making a kind of sticky fried bread for breakfast, which was truly and surprisingly delicious. It was hilarious how the kids were so much more talented at making it – at times we would put down our attempt at a round and flat patty of bread and Evelyn would then would come in and quietly correct the overly thick or hole-y parts!
Actually, the best part was definitely interacting with the children, who were a real joy to be around. Luciana in particular was very shy but as soon as we revealed the bag of goodies we had purchased at the harbour her eyes lit up and she didn’t put the toy truck down once while we were there. The same kind of reaction came from Evelyn, who was so perceptive and intelligent that you’d forget she was only 11 – until you saw her playing in the garden! The hula hoop went down very well and she invented several games to play with it during the course of our day with her. It really made you think about the way the younger generation behaves in Western countries – for example a hula hoop would probably now be considered uncool with many 11 year olds in England, in comparison to the latest iPhone or gadget.
It is such a cliche to say it but I think spending time with Margre, Gavino, Evelyn, Elvis and Luciana in their humble but happy and comfortable home did make me feel grateful for what I have; and I think attempting to help them with their tasks, and struggling, helped us to gain a new level of respect for their way of life. Our time with the family may have been short but I will always remember them, and was thrilled to buy a handmade cushion cover that Margre and Elvis had made together, also to remember them by (remember that UNESCO men’s knitting I mentioned – being a native male Elvis was already training in the art). Probably I paid more than the market price but it felt great to support them directly and knowing that my money was going towards this lovely family is absolutely priceless.