There’s plenty to see on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. While Puno itself doesn’t have the best reputation, it makes a great base for exploring both the floating reed islands of the Uros people and the permanent islands of Amantani and Taquile.
It’s great fun visiting the reed islands and dressing up like the locals, but these have become highly commercialised, so it’s well worth visiting the other islands as well. Since it takes at least 3 hours to reach Amantani or Taquile by boat, the best option is to do an overnight homestay on Amantani. This also gives you the chance to immerse yourself in local traditions and to experience the warm hospitality of the locals.
A day trip to the floating islands and Taquile (the closer and more touristy of the two) costs about S/50, while staying overnight on Amantani allows you to visit all three places and only costs about S/90. You’d pay about S/30 a night in Puno anyway, so it makes much more sense to do the 2-day trip.
My friends and I decided to go independently to try to save a bit of money. This turned out to be very simple. We met some men at the port who sold us return tickets to Amantani via the floating islands for S/30 and asked us to pay another S/30 each to our host family.
After bouncing around on the floating islands and learning how they were constructed, the boat to Amantani took 3 hours. I tried to do some Spanish audio lessons, but a combination of the intense sun and the early morning meant that I fell asleep mid-phrase. It was a good thing I’d brought and applied copious amounts of factor 50+ ‘kids’ sun block!
Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous weather and blue skies. Both the windy boat and the dark nights on the lake are freezing.
We arrived on Amantani at about 2pm and were greeted by a large group of local women wearing massive, brightly coloured skirts and embroidered black shawls. We immediately spotted one woman with a cheeky look about her who kept cackling with laughter and we hoped she’d be the one to host us.
Our luck was in and, along with two Spanish women and a guy from Colombia, she invited us to her home on the hillside. It was a quaint adobe house with red painted doors and colourful blankets strewn everywhere.
Our host’s name was Silveria and she showed us to our cosy bedrooms before cooking up a feast on the tiny kitchen stove.
Our only complaint was that she made far too much! The massive bowl of quinoa and potato soup we had as a starter was more than enough to fill us. This was followed by a big plate of rice, potatoes and a giant piece of fried halloumi.
As we forced it down, she fried more cheese and we had to ask her to stop before we burst. Later, we found out that another group had received barely any food, so I guess it’s pot luck, and a good idea to take snacks just in case.
After lunch, my friend Christina and I helped wash up the dishes in the courtyard. Silveria sat with us and giggled when we failed to wash all the little specks of quinoa from the bowls. She seemed to really appreciate the help and brought out a bag of woollen items so she could show us how she knitted them.
When we were done, she walked us all to the main plaza and we waited for the other groups before setting off up the hill to check out the temples. There are two – Pachamama and Pachatata. The latter is slightly lower in elevation, but both are over 4100 m, which it’s easy to forget when you’re by the side of a lake. Pachatata has better views of the sunset. Either way, it’s a breathless climb because of the altitude, although there are donkey ‘taxis’ if you really struggle.
On January 20 each year, all the locals come up to the temples (half to each), and they leave offerings. This is the only time the temples are open. Each group nominates someone to run a race to a midway point between the two and, if the person from Pachamama is the winner, it is believed to bring luck for the next year’s harvest.
You can see the temples through the gate, and it’s more or less just a patch of grass inside some stone walls. As is tradition, we all walked round Pachatata three times and I left a rock there that I’d carried up the hillside and made a wish. We took photos of the sunset and posed creating silly silhouettes against the lake backdrop.
On the way back down, there were many women selling handicrafts. There were some of the best knitted hats I’d seen, as well as jumpers, slippers, bracelets and toys. They even had chocolate bars, beer and wine for those desperate enough not to wait until they returned to the village. Children ran along with us trying to sell bracelets or play tunes on pipes for money.
We reached the house again just after 6 and it was almost time for dinner. None of us was hungry, but we didn’t want to seem rude. Silveria’s husband, Romolo, joined us at the table and he grilled us (in Spanish) about our lives – where we were from, our ages, our relationships and professions. He said he would try to find me a husband that evening at the ‘party’! He also told us, in front of Silveria, that he had had a girlfriend from school who he’d moved to Lima with, but that his father had brought Silveria to Lima and forced him to marry her! At least they seemed to be happy now, 25 years later.
After dinner, some people dressed up again in the local clothes, but I was too cold to part with my llama jumper and wooly hat. We went to a barn in the town, where everyone had congregated for the party. It reminded me of school discos – with chairs around the sides and no one dancing or speaking to each other.
To my relief, the band started playing and local men and women pounced on the tourists inviting them up to dance.
Some of the tourists acted like they hadn’t been to a party in years. One old lady was throwing such wild moves she looked like she was having a fit, and another asked her husband to film her as she waved her arms in the air and circled the room alone, before kissing the floor and raising her hands to the Gods. She was more mesmerising than the local dancers.
It was only 9 when the party ended, and no one had been drinking, but the early start, tiredness and cold made us all long for our beds. We brushed our teeth outside and crawled onto very hard mattresses with even harder pillows. Just before we fell asleep, Silveria appeared in the doorway to tell us that there were bed pans for our use under the beds!
Our wake-up call was at 6:20am and we were greeted downstairs with a plateful of pancakes. We exchanged contact details with the family and promised to send them some photos. Silveria walked us to the port so we could catch the 8am boat. The official guided trip went to Taquile, but we had arranged to take a boat back to the peninsula and then a minibus to Puno so that we could catch the last bus to Copacabana in Bolivia (which leaves at 2:30pm).
There was a baby lamb on our boat and Christina and I took turns holding it. The woman with the lamb also joined us on the minibus and as we passed a field of sheep, she pointed and said to her lamb ‘Look, it’s your mother!’
I’ll never forget the warmth and sense of humour of the inhabitants of Amantani.