The Marvel of Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands of Uros People

Few such memories of beauty and purity one can have as those of the inhabitants of the Taquile Island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, just a stone-throw away from Bolivia and a three-hour boat ride from Puno. Indeed, one of the places you want to visit while in the area of the lake, serene, sacred, and steeped in rich cultures past and present.

From Raqchi to Puno

The entrance gate to Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side is the city of Puno. We arrived there after spending some amazing time in the peace and quiet in the rural village of Raqchi (about 3 hours away from Cusco and 4 from Puno), where the local ancient community (who mostly speak Quechua, rather than Spanish) offers accommodation in their humble houses, welcoming always about four to five people into one family.

The community keeps its cultural traditions intact, including the folklore costumes, songs and dances, the regional cuisine and the traditional crafts of ceramic-making and pottery (made of the local volcanic clay).

If ever going there, make sure to spare enough days to do all the great things the community offers (among sharing their home-made food cooked on open-fire, their dances, a ceramic workshop, bonfires etc.), such as the visit to the Wiracocha Temple and the community viewpoint, a walk through a part of the Qhapac Ñan (otherwise known as the Main Andean Road, the backbone of the Inca Empire’s political and economic power which used to cover over 23,000 km in length and took more than 2,000 years to build), the Kinsa Chata volcano hike, or offerings to Pachamama (Mother Nature) and Apus (Mountain Spirit).

Puno and Surroundings

Except for being the main base for anyone who wants to visit the highest navigable lake in the world (with the altitude of 3812 m), Puno is also considered the folk capital of Peru.

I would claim that the surroundings of the city are much more interesting than the city itself, the ambience of which is rather busy and chaotic. However, when in the city, you might want to visit The Cathedral of Puno which is located in the Plaza de Armas and follows the Baroque style. Its facade is of stone, decorated with human images, wild plants and mermaids carved in wood.

Another interesting visit is that of Carlos Dreyer Museum. This German painter and collector lived in Puno and was a great enthusiast of the Andean culture. The museum is housed in a well-preserved mansion and exhibits a collection of some archaeological pieces, the artist´s paintings and three mummies exposed in the position they died.

Mirador El Condor also called Mirador de Kuntur Wasi is a panoramic viewpoint of the city and a part of Lake Titicaca. With good luck, you might see some condors from here too.

If you´re coming to Puno in early February, Puno is the best place to enjoy La Candelaria, a Catholic feast in honour of the Virgin Mary. The streets are full of music, food, dance, parades and traditional attire. The festival lasts for about two weeks.

About 30 km northeast of Puno, you will find the pre-Inca Sillustani ruins which comprise of 28 stone burial towers (chullpas). The site is overlooking Lake Umayo. Historians suggest that the tall cylindrical tombs served as status symbols for the deceased elite and their families. They were commonly filled with fine foods, crafts, jewels, and other exquisite worldly possessions.

The Inca Uyo in Chucuito, also known as the Fertility Temple, is located several kilometres away from Puno and is one of those places that leave you speechless. Literally. Though it holds a sacred purpose between its ancient walls, the first look is rather shocking as it is a site laced with phallus-shaped menhirs (some say they are magic mushrooms). Archeologists believe that Inca Uyo could have been a temple dedicated to fertility; allegedly, women were cured from infertility here by performing a ritual where they used to sit on these monuments and pour Chicha (corn beer) on them. However, some claim this has been discarded since those lithic monuments were planted by the locals in the 20th century to promote tourism to the region. The ancient temple was simply dedicated to the worship of Mother Earth, ceremonies in honor of the agricultural productions were performed here.

If you want to make your way to the Bolivian side of the lake, you’ll find Lake Titicaca’s largest island there – The Island of the Sun. You can visit the Gold Museum, home to many Inca artefacts, and the Fountain of Youth there. The Incas claimed that their civilization was born upon this world on this lake and this island but allegedly this is not true as the legends should rather belong to the Bolivian communities.

What visitors mostly want to see when in Puno are the floating islands of the Uros people, a community (tribe) which pre-dates the Incan civilization. The islands the Uros people live on are built entirely from totora reeds that grow on the lake’s banks. Lake Titicaca has in between 40 to 70 of these islands. Only a small cluster of people can live on such an island, usually about 4 families. More information about the islands follows. 

Titicaca and Puma – A Bit of History and Spirituality

The name “Titicaca” combine words from the local languages of Quechua and Aymara and would best be translated as a “Rock of Puma”.

In the Inca “animal totem spiritual trilogy”, the condor, the puma and the snake are of utmost importance. These 3 creatures represent heaven, earth and the world of the dead. The puma is a symbol of strength, wisdom, patience and intelligence. It represents the ‘Kay Pacha’, ‘the world of the living’.

The Andean puma is the subspecies of the puma that inhabits the territories of South America. The puma adapted to the tropical areas as well as to the rugged terrains of the Andes. For its agility and strength, it was a divine animal for the Incas that represented the power of the world.

It is believed that Cusco, the capital of the empire of the Incas, has the shape of a puma. The head of this animal shape is located in the fabulous fortress of Sacsayhuaman.

Taquile – Paradise Found

The Island of Taquile looks like nothing else in the country and indeed will make you feel as if in a different world. The inhabitants live their modest lives laced with their folklore, customs, rules, cuisine and hand-made clothing. Electricity has only recently been introduced on the island, there is no Wi-Fi or reception, and pipelines (bringing water from the lake to the households) are scarce. In fact, it is uncommon for the locals to use the water from the taps. They are used to utilizing water from the lake directly – washing themselves and their clothes in the lake. As means of transport, they use simple boats, donkeys, horses.

Arriving to the island, to reach some homestay, you have to climb up to about 4 thousand meters of altitude. That is why the locals chew on coca leaves abundantly. In fact, when the residents encounter, walking the tiny paths built of rocks, they exchange a handful of coca leaves as a manifestation of respect and friendship (it is a custom that substitutes e.g. handshaking). They always have a colourful hand-made pouch on them in which they carry the leaves.

The president of the island and Hector exchanging coca leaves.

We had quite an experience when going to the island from Puno, as we were coming after the sunset, in complete dark, lightened only by the flashes of storm in the sky everywhere around us. The boat had no lights and we had to trust the (amazing) intuition of the captain and our host Hector to bring us safe and sound to the island. Fears, phobias and emotions were dense. The good ending of this stormy dark night story was that later on some of us visitors left our torches, headlights and searchlights (with which some were trying to help out when anchoring the ship on the wild waters whipped by the storm-wind – and one person even during the ride) with the locals as a gift – our guide Zuzka Bartakova even left her water- and wind-proof jacket for our host, Hector.

After arriving to the island and hiking up to Hector´s homestay in extremely strong wind (luckily without rain), we got warm dinner and tea and dropped into our beds. I cannot remember the last time I slept so well, a truly peaceful, undisturbed sleep of seven hours after which I felt amazingly invigorated. After washing my face and brushing my teeth in a handful of cold water I hiked barefoot to the top of the hill on which the homestay is located to enjoy some breathtaking views and a vibrant meditation which I began before 6 am which is rare for me as I normally do not wake up before 7:30.

I shall long remember this vivid morning topped up by an amazing pancake and fruit breakfast together with a selection of traditional local foods. The locals later showed us some of their arts and crafts, among which there is knitting (mostly from alpaca and baby alpaca wool) reserved for men and knitting reserved for women. During our walk around the island later that day I was admiring the beautiful simplicity and harmony in which the residents lived, their folklore dances, delicious ice cream and fish for lunch.

Bathing in the lake on one of the beaches is yet another experience I am grateful for and shall long cherish as a treasured memory.

The Floating Islands of Uros People

The floating reed islands have long been inhabited by the Uros community. The islands, as well as their houses and some of their boats (their only means of transport) are made of reeds growing along the shores of Lake Titicaca. These islands usually anchor around a place not far from the coast and float on the water. As the layers of reed naturally decay, the people need to renew their islands (bring more layers on) every 14 days.

According to their legends and mythology, the Uros people existed long before the sun, when the earth was still dark and cold. They were impervious to drowning or being struck by lightning. They lost their status as super beings when they disobeyed the Universal order and mixed with humans, making them susceptible to contempt. They scattered, losing their identity, language, and customs. They became the Uro-Aymaras, and now speak Aymara. 

Because of their simple and precarious lifestyle, the Incas thought them worth little and accordingly taxed them very little. Yet the Uros, with their basic reed homes, outlasted the mighty Incas with their huge stone temples and mountain-top enclaves.

The islands are part of the Titicaca National Reserve, created in 1978 to preserve 37 thousand hectares of marsh reeds in the south and north sectors of Lake Titicaca. The reserve is divided into two sections, Ramis and Puno. The reserve protects over 60 species of native birds, four families of fish and 18 native amphibians species.

The floating islands are protected within the Bay of Puno and are home to approximately 2000 Uros, who claim to have “black blood” and are consequently immune to the cold. They wear layers of clothing, mostly woollen, to protect themselves from the cold, the wind, and the sun which at this altitude can burn fiercely. They call themselves “people of the lake” and consider themselves the owners of the lake and its waters. They continue living by fishing, weaving and now – tourism.

They catch fish for themselves and to sell on the mainland. They also catch shore birds and ducks for eggs and food. Occasionally, if the level of the lake decreases, they may plant potatoes in soil created by the decaying reeds, but as a norm, they are not agricultural. 

HERE is a video from Lake Titicaca and the community of Uros and Raqchi as well as that of Taquile Island; time sequence from 0:35 till 2:40.

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