Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet above sea level and is 118 miles long. About one third of the lake belongs to Bolivia, representing the country’s only port of call ever since Chile wrested Bolivia’s only access to the ocean in the War of the Pacific (circa 1880). To this day, the quest to reclaim this ocean access remains a national obsession (elementary students sing songs evoking Bolivia’s desire for a ‘little piece of ocean.’) One man said to me, “it is the only thing that unites us. Otherwise we would just end up killing one another.” A self-declared multinacional state by law, Bolivia faces strong internal divisions. Historical antagonisms divide Altiplano indigenous from the eastern cruceños of Santa Cruz, as well and those from the southern region of Tarija. Many of these issues revolve around resource extraction and wealth distribution.
The remaining two-thirds of Lake Titicaca belong to the Puno region of Peru, a beautifully bleak treeless landscape which in winter season is brilliantly alight in golden sunshine as the last grain and potato crops are harvested. Sparse adobe buildings dot this provocative landscape while the continuous lakeshore provides an endless horizon.
We set out by boat from Puno to the islands of Uros. The islands are famously known as the ‘floating islands.’ The lakeshore was once home to the Uros people, who were later conquered by Aymará and later the Quechua speaking Inca. Seeking refuge, they fled into the lake and developed a system of floating reed islands, subsisting off of fishing, hunting, and small scale agriculture. Islands could hold up to five families and when conflicts arose, islands could be cut in two and set a drift. In the last 50 years, the Aymará speaking residents, no longer the Uros, have come to depend almost entirely on tourism. Island communities receive visits on a rotating basis. Visitors are treated to a didactic lesson in island history, translated by bilingual guides, and are then ‘invited’ to a family’s home and dressed up in local costume. Lastly, and almost obligatorily, handicrafts are offered up for purchase. Our girls enjoyed the experience and despite the circus-like nature, I too was fascinated by the dwellings, islands, and boats, all built from the totora reed. As we paddled the lake my host unashamedly admitted that things have changed with tourism. “Even this boat (a rather large catamaran raft) uses recycled 2-liter bottles for flotation in the hulls, in order to save labor and time.” He concluded, “gracias al tourism, vivimos felices.”
Two more hours on our tour boat brought us to the island of Amantaní, one of two large mountainous islands whose inhabitants also benefit from tourism but who also continue to pursue subsistence agriculture. These islands have no roads and thus no cars. Only walking paths.
There are few meat animals, so they villagers are largely vegetarian. There are primary schools, with teachers traveling from the mainland each week. Quechua is the primary language and families live in small ‘comunas’ dotting the island. We were housed with a local family with two small children the girls’ age. Not nearly as over done as the floating islands, here we were able to observe the natural pace and activities of daily life.
Engaging with a local family was wonderful for the girls. We also got to practice the Quechua phrases we were taught by our guide. Not to be outdone by our reception on the floating islands, we were also dressed up and accompanied by our families to the town hall for dancing to live musica nacional.
Overall, we were struck by the isolated, pastoral life on Amantaní. The beauty of Lake Titicaca left a lasting impression.