Travel: Peru’s Lake Titicaca, the Highest Navigable Lake in the World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Lake Titicaca, Peru – The boat bobbed along the water’s edge, sidling up to the dock at Amantani Island in southern Peru.  For three hours we’d skimmed across the black water of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, after leaving port in Puno. We were here to spend 24 hours living as the Peruvians do;  staying with a local family; an opportunity to experience life far removed from tourist hotels and fancy restaurants. Life on Amantani Island hasn’t changed much since it was settled.  It’s largely an agricultural existence; ancient terraces cut into the mountainside hundreds of years ago are still farmed today.  We can clearly see those shady steps as the boat pulls in, and several locals dressed in traditionally colourful clothes grasp ropes flung into the air to tie up our boat. We’d been warned the altitude here could be a problem; causing headaches, dizziness,  and sapping our energy.  Within minutes we found the warnings were true.  What looked like a short and simple climb from the water’s edge up to our meeting spot was actually excruciating.  The hike took about 5 minutes, but by the time we arrived at the top, our legs burned and it was impossible to catch our breath. Clustered in a group at the top of the cliff were a dozen young women.  All wore the traditional coloured skirt, beautifully embroidered white blouse and black head scarf of the Amantani people.

Two Tourists and a local.  Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence
Two Tourists and a local. Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence

The women peered out at us from under their scarves, giggling and whispering,  wondering which of us would be in their care for the day and night. Our guide read our names from a list and introduced each of us to our temporary “mama”. These families have been here for centuries, and speak the native language Quechua, though most understand Spanish too. I am introduced to Norma and she shyly shakes hands.  The formal, Western greeting seems odd when delivered by someone who still wears the clothes of their ancestors.  Pointing up the mountain, she gives a hint of how far I’ll have to walk to get to our new home. Pack strapped tightly to my back, we begin trudging up the hills, and within minutes we’re panting again.  Norma, having lived on this mountain island all her life walks easily, and her feet seem to hardly touch the ground.  Smiling, she offers to carry the bags of fruit and pasta I’ve brought, which are gifts for her and her family. I grudgingly have to let her, and even loaded down, she makes the climb look easy. The pathway we’re using is virtually the island’s highway.  It’s narrow and uneven– laid with ancient stones hacked from the soil.  Every few minutes we pass someone Norma greets with a smile and the traditional Quechua greeting, “Alillanchu!”

Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence
Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence

The walk takes nearly half an hour and by the time we clamber up some dirt and stone steps into Norma’s yard, I’m exhausted.  I take a moment to breathe, and take in the homestead. It sits high on the side of a mountain, and the view is stunning.  I can see the rest of the island spread out before me, and the oceanic expanse of the lake glimmers in the distance.  The “house” is actually a complex of buildings spread across a flat section of the mountain.  There are four main buildings, all made of mud bricks with corrugated tin roofs, and there’s an outhouse in front. An elderly woman is crouched on a rock in the yard, surrounded by a rooster and a scattering of chickens.  Two children, a boy and a girl, peer around the corner, and watch curiously as I’m led up a wooden staircase on the first building, and into my room.  The inside is quite cute, and in stark contrast to the muddy straw exterior.  The walls have been smoothed and painted bright pink, there are three single beds, covered with warm blankets and children’s sheets.  Sheer gauzy curtains hang in the windows.  I’m instructed to relax before lunch, and  lay down for a nap immiediately. Lunch gives  a chance to really see how the Peruvians live.  I’m brought to the kitchen, which is a small, dark, cramped room with rough mud walls and a dirt floor.  The homes here, as in much of Peru, are not heated, so this is the warmest place in the house, and thus fine for a visitor.  The heat comes from the fire burning inside a small clay stove which sits at one end of the kitchen.

Andean clay stove.  Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence
Andean clay stove. Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence
Lake Titicaca Vista
Views of Lake Titicaca. Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence

The stove is circular, a bit bigger than a beachball, and has two round openings on top, which easily balance the round clay pots the food is prepared in.  A stack of wood is heaped in the corner, and another older woman feeds small pieces into it.  There is a pipe which vents the smoke to the outside, but black soot is still streaked up the wall and onto the ceiling. The woman is Norma’s mother. She’s crouched on a slice of log, tending to the steaming pots.  Other log stools line the room.  We’d been told that our accommodations, depending on the family, could be rustic, or the family may have taken pains to make us comfortable, by supplying more western comforts.  Sure enough, a table made of planks has been set up at the opposite end of the small room, and a plank bench is wedged behind it . The small boy, and teenage girl join us, but several of the stools are vacant.  I ask about the family, as hot soup is ladled out. They explain, in a travellers combination of Spanish, broken English, the odd Quechua word, and some hand gestures that most of the family is out working in the fields, a job they do from sunup to sunset.  The ladies mind the children and take care of the animals and the home.  Norma’s father, and two brothers will join us for dinner. Our soup is quinoa, a tiny, that very typical Andean grain, mixed with vegetables and a delicious broth. The soup is followed by a plate of rice, potatoes and a small bit of meat, with chunks of white, squeaky cheese. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch of the rest of the meal is eaten in silence, since it seems the family doesn’t want to disturb me or seem rude by asking lots of questions.  That makes me wonder if I should cut out the questions for fear of being rude myself.  Fortunately, internal etiquette debates are ended, as the time has arrived for an afternoon of hiking this island.  Norma gives me a knitted woolen hat with ear flaps and long strings to tie up under the chin.  As I arrive at a meeting point I see all the others in our group with similar hats, in different colours.  The hat is typical of this region, but now the reason for our wearing them now becomes clear—it’s the only way our mamas (accustomed to several tourists every week) can remember which of us belongs at their house.     Again we set off uphill.  Bundled back in the comfort of a tourist group, we  climb towards Pachatata, or “Father Earth” mountain—one of two sacred peaks on this island.  On top, surrounded by a stone and wooden fence is a sacred temple which is only opened once a year during a ritual to ask the gods to ensure a good harvest.  There are no cars on this remote island, meaning all farming and industrial work is done by hand.  Looking up at the layers of terraced fame land hacked from the earth, it seems what’s been done here is monumental. We climb slowly, muscles burning, breath shallow, sweat soaking our bodies.  We stop every ten minutes to rest, and get a chance to enjoy the stunning vistas of the massive lake.  We arrive on top in time to see the sunset.  And as the light begins to fade, our guide encourages us to pick up a stone and carry it three times around the temple, for good luck. By the time we begin heading back down towards our homes it’s dark.  The hardscrabble pathway of loose rocks and rough earth is dangerous by day, but by night it seems strangely easier to navigate.  There is no tripping, no sliding—our footing seems to have solidified under the growing moonlight. Back at village level, Norma picks out her hand-knitted hat at a distance and returns me home for dinner Dinner is roasted guinea pig, veggies, rice, and a potato and quinoa stew that’s simple but very delicious.   I’ve brought a stack of postcards of my hometown of Vancouver for just this occasion, and I pull them out so they can understand where I’ve come from.  The family patriarch is in absolute awe of the Lion’s Gate Bridge.  He lives in a place where bridges are built by hand and with timbers hewn from logs near home.  This structure is as tall as Pachatata, and forged with iron.  He just sits and stares at it. Everyone has questions about such a place; how many people live in Canada? Do I have a husband? Do I work? What does my house look like? I answer questions long into the evening, and ask them many as well. By the time I head for my cotton-stuffed mattress with woven covers, I’m exhausted with talk.  Tired, and full, rest comes too easily.  And I only have a moment of looking forward to tomorrow, before I slip into sleep. Author: Erin Lawrence

Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence
Photo Copyright: Erin Lawrence


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