Lake Titicaca is the world’s largest high-altitude body of water. It reaches depths of 284 metres and covers 8500 square kilometres. From Puno, you can easily visit the floating Uros islands in half a day for just S/15 to S/30, but it really is more worthwhile combining them with the less touristy natural islands of Amantani and Taquile.
If you’re spending a night or two in Puno, I can highly recommend the Kusillo’s Posada hostel. It’s run by a very friendly and helpful lady called Jenny who goes out of her way to make your stay comfortable and to offer advice on tours and local restaurants.
The showers are strong and hot (once you’ve located the switch) and she cooks up a great breakfast for an additional S/5. She even tipped me off that the President of Bolivia is single, but I think I’ll pass on hunting him down and chatting him up…
Boats leave at 7:30 from the port so we got up at 6 and organised a trip to the Uros islands and Amantani independently. Many of the families on Amantani have sons working on the boats and one of them was our driver. We paid S/30 for the return boat and promised to give another S/30 to the family on Amantani for their hospitality.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about these families not being paid by tour companies, so doing it independently ensures they get what they deserve.
You should bring some spare change with you, because it also costs S/5 to disembark on both the Uros islands and Amantani, and you never know when you might be hit with the desire to buy locally made handicrafts.
Our boat filled up with other tourists who had all arranged the trip through an agency. This meant we had a guide on board, which was an added bonus for us. The boat chugged through the reeds while the guide taught us Aymara greetings.
Once we were out of sight of the police patrol, they said we could climb onto the boat’s roof to get a better view. The reed islands were surprisingly close to the lake’s shore and it only took us half an hour to reach them.
A woman boarded to take the S/5 fee and I discovered that one of my few remaining Peruvian coins was fake – not great news when I was trying to avoid having to make another withdrawal before crossing the border to Bolivia.
Our boat pulled up to one floating island and we all got off and sat in a semi-circle. The guide and a local man gave a presentation on how the reed islands were made, how long they last and how modern-day methods are much more sustainable than they used to be. These days, the islands last up to 30 years.
He showed us how the Uros people anchor the islands and he joked that if they didn’t do this, they risked floating into Bolivia overnight.
The islands had been established when the Incas arrived on the mainland and the local people fled in their boats. They tied their boats together and added more and more reeds as the old ones started to disintegrate. Eventually, the boats joined together to form islands and the Uros people continued to live there.
During the presentation, the men used toy houses and dolls to represent the villages and people, and they showed us locally made blankets and clothes.
Next, we were invited in small groups into different huts by the local men and women. They showed us their beds and we were given the opportunity to try on their clothes. They wear massive colourful skirts, clashing waist coats and pompoms, and a small bowler hat, which doesn’t even fit their small heads properly, let alone my massive one!
We took a lot of photos of us twirling in the skirts and posing by the reeds before browsing the stalls of locally made souvenirs.
I bought a friendship bracelet because I felt I owed them something for their time. It was incredibly commercialised and I felt bad that their way of life had been reduced to a show for tourists.
Some people paid an extra S/10 for a boat ride in one of the reed boats. Pretty much everything the Uros make and use has the totora reed as its staple ingredient. A lot of the food the Uros people eat is made from totora reeds too, and they are also used in medicine.
We stopped briefly at the islands’ capital and had a look at more souvenirs. We only had 10 minutes there, but I had a chance to climb up the lookout tower for a better view after asking permission from one of the residents.
As we boarded the boat, we could see men replacing some of the island’s reeds. It was interesting to see this ancient process still going strong, many hundreds of years after the reason for their existence (the Incas) had been wiped out.