If you find yourself visiting Lake Titicaca, the western hemisphere’s highest and largest lake, don’t miss these two unique islands!
This day trip from Puno to the Floating Islands (Peru) and Taquile was easily one of the most memorable parts of my 3 weeks in South America!
*Island Tour– From the Puno port, find one of many “island tour” options for the day (we went with “Edgar Adventures”). These involve going out on Lake Titicaca with a local guide, and visiting a variety of small island communities. Lunch and drinks are usually included so make sure to walk around and find the best bargain.
*Las Islas Uros– Known as the “Floating Islands”, the Uros Islands are a 30 minute boat ride away. These islands are unique as they are man-made out of reeds stacked together to float on the water, which are tied to the floor of the lake. The people who live on these islands are from a long line of descendants who have been living in the same manner for centuries. Their ancestors built these reed islands out in the lake to isolate themselves from the violent Incas in Puno. The current residents speak the native Aymara language, as well as Spanish and even a little English (so they can barter with us tourists!). They make a living from fishing and tourism, and their homes are very uniquely crafted and decorated.
These floating islands are made by combining layers of totora reeds (which you can also eat) and they are constantly replenished as the layers on the bottom rot. The ground is somewhat bouncy or spongy feeling, and it is a very odd sensation!
Although the one island we visited was clearly used to hosting day tourists, apparently there are many more isolated islands where the people live in a traditional fashion and prefer not to be photographed.
*Taquile Island– Another 2.5 hour boat ride away, this unique and isolated island has stunning vistas. While here, make sure to try tea made from coca leaves (mate de coca), which can really help with your altitude headaches!
Once you arrive, prepare to climb a steep trail up the side of a hill. It consists of over 500 steps from the dock to the high center of this hilly island. It wouldn’t be difficult, except for the fact that you are at a very high altitude. The views are stunning though! You can see a panorama of the lake, and mountains of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia in the distance. As you walk you’ll likely be stopped by kids trying to sell crafts, or wanting you to take their photo for payment.
The island is a tiny place, with a Quechua speaking population. They are a “self governing body” within Peru, and have a strong sense of group identity. They rarely marry non-Taquile people, and until recently (thanks AirBNB!) lived relatively unaffected by the modernity of the mainland.
In the main square, you’ll find plenty of souvenir and food options, with several outdoor patios overlooking the lake. From our guide, we learned a few fascinating customs about the Taquile peoples’ courtship rituals:
Most of the unique handicrafts are made according to a system of deeply ingrained social customs. The men wear tightly woven woolen hats (looking like a floppy Santa hat) which they take great pride in knitting themselves. If a man’s hat is red it means he is married, red and white means single.
When a man is interested in a girl, he will give her a woven hat for a night. To judge if he is a proficient knitter (thus good enough to be her husband), a girl will pour water into the hat to see if it holds. If she likes it, she will then begin making him a thick, colorful waistband. These decorative belts are given to the man once they marry.
When a man is interested in a girl, he will take a mirror and aim the sun’s reflection on it at her face. If interested, she can come over to talk. No interest? The girls have shawls with decorative pom-poms on the end, and they can use that to hit the guy until he goes away. Good stuff!! We also learned that it is normal to carry around a little pouch full of coca leaves every day.
At some point before you leave, make sure to stop at the famous stone arch overlooking the lake. I went here before the days of Instagram, but I heard there are lines now for photos! There are also local kids in traditional ware holding lambs or llamas trying to make a buck from a photo. The boat ride back to Puno is about 3 hours, and that wraps up your great day of seeing the unique floating islands!
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