Lake Titicaca’s Floating Islands

I’m up at dawn, the boys aren’t far behind and we’re all feeling pretty great. Puno was freezing cold last night – it was literally below the freezing point – and I’d called it an early one and buried myself under the blankets before 10 pm. My first really hot shower with water pressure was a major bonus too, as was the killer breakfast spread in the hotel. Something like ten types of fruit, scrambled eggs and several cups of coca tea. ZANG! We’re ready to go.

We walked over to our designated pick-up spot for our tour out onto Lake Titicaca, a hostel a couple of blocks from our hotel. The morning traffic in Puno is incredibly stupid, not because it’s extraordinarily busy but because of how overused horns are. A bus stops to pick someone up or let someone off? HOW DARE THEY!?!? A cacophony of auditory middle fingers blasts out through the street in indignation. This happens every ten or fifteen seconds. I shove in my headphones and try to drown it out but with little success. Murphy was taking notes of the day’s progress on his phone and he pretty much nailed it with this comment: “MacKay’s cord is getting shorter.” Retarded driving habits are really one of my main pet peeves about Latin America and my patience for them has worn thin, even as a pedestrian.

A van eventually shows up and runs us down to the waterfront. Along with us for the trip are a couple, a Belgian guy and a German girl, travelling in the opposite direction we are. They’d just come from La Paz and had a rather low opinion of the place but gave the Bolivian Death Road high marks. There’s never been a question whether we’d do the Death Road or not (we are) but hearing more positive feedback about it definitely got us more stoked.

At the lake we walk down the docks and jump across the back of a half-dozen rocking boats to get to the one we’re supposed to go out on. There are seats on the roof but for the start of the trip we’re required to sit inside, where we’re entertained by a local playing “The Sound of Silence” and some Beatles tunes on pan flute while we wait for the captain to get everything ship-shape. The Sound of Silence is without a doubt the most overplayed pan flute song in the Andes – this is probably the fifteenth or sixteenth time we’ve heard a similar rendition since Ecuador. These guys definitely need to learn some more diverse material. He comes around asking for tips but my motto with regard to the pan flute is, “No Reign in Blood, No Tips”.

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The boat starts moving, our captain introduces himself and gives us some information on the lake. The first thing that’s really noticeable is how alive the lake is – there are hundreds of birds everywhere we look, with dozens of species represented. I honestly have no idea what any of them are but a duck with a bright blue bill stands out as does something that might be some kind of grebe. Apparently pronouncing the lake’s name like “Titty-ka-ka” is incorrect, it’s more like “Titty-ha-ha”, or “Titi-xa-xa” for you linguist nerds. The Cap’n then tells us about some of the fish in the lake – for one reason or another someone decided to introduce several foreign species into the lake, including a trout from Canada and something else from Australia. Just before we’re to the point where we’re allowed topside he also tells us about Jacques Cousteau coming out here with a sub and finding the sunken remains of pre-Incan cities. Apparently the lake has risen quite a bit since the olden days.

We approach a large cluster of what look like – and in fact, are – floating piles of reeds with reed buildings constructed on top of them. These are the “floating islands”, and after going through a kind of border control where locals tell us which island(s) to visit we pull up to one and jump off. There aren’t many men around but the women on the islands are built like brick shithouses and dressed in fairly typical Andean style, but minus footwear. The Cap’n and one of the women living on the island give us a twenty minute presentation using a map of the island and a miniature representation of the island (complete with dolls) to first explain where the name of the lake comes from and then how the islands are made. “Titicaca” means something like “stone puma”, and turning the map of the island south-side up the Cap’n shows how the lake looks like a puma leaping to catch a rabbit. Well, he tries to – it looked nothing like that to me and I think the Cap’n felt the same way, as he followed up that statement with, “You kind of have to use your imagination.”

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The process of how the islands are constructed is far more interesting than the lake’s etymology. (I’ll try to get this right but I may omit or simply screw up some of this info.) The lakes really are floating reed beds but with a floating soil base, and the first step is to dive into a shallow part of the lake where the reeds grow and use large saws to cut blocks of soil out with the reed’s root systems more or less intact. These root-blocks will float and several of them are tied together and left to float. The exact number depends on the size of the island to be constructed; the island we were on used twenty. Over the course of several months the root systems expand out from the soil blocks, eventually intertwining all of the blocks into a single piece, and many more layers of reeds are then added to the top of the floating mega-chunk. Extra layers of reeds are added where houses are to be built for insulation, fish farms can be cut into the center of the islands, and a ceramic base is added for where the communal kitchen will be, allowing fire to be used without burning the island down. The islands each house extended families – the one we visited had five families, all of whom were related. The Cap’n also explained how the islands are anchored down so that they don’t drift off to Bolivia in the night – “The people here don’t have passports, so that wouldn’t be good.”

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Also discussed is the reed itself, tortura grass (or something like that). Not only are the islands, the buildings and parts of the boats made of the stuff, it’s also dried and used for fuel, and some parts of the grass can also be eaten. One of the ladies in the village passes around a few pieces and we strip back the green parts to get to the edible white center – it doesn’t really taste like anything and has a texture similar to celery. The Cap’n points out that everyone on the islands has bright white teeth, but it isn’t from brushing – eating the grass also cleans one’s teeth.

The presentation ends and we’re then invited separately into the small rooms that each family lives in. The hut I walk into has a single room with a small bed where a married couple and their child all sleep. There isn’t really anything else in the room – it’s unclear where they keep their belongings such as clothes and pinball machines. I can appreciate their openness but I kind of feel awkward just standing in this woman’s bedroom and talking to the boys afterwards I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

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We have twenty minutes of “free time” on the island where the women all pull out “handmade” swag like ocarinas, tapestries depicting Incan spiritual iconography, throw pillow cases and mobiles. We all pick a few things up – after all, how cool is it to buy handmade things from artificial islands on Lake Titicaca? I put handmade in quotations though because after we cross the Bolivian border we find rows of stores filled with the exact same things we bought on the floating island, but at much-discounted prices. I suppose I can’t really rule out the possibility that they are handmade but we were led to believe they were made on the island and unique, which is definitely not the case.

To reach a second and much larger floating island that includes a school house, a couple of restaurants and a lookout tower a traditional-style boat is brought around that our Cap’n refers to as the “Mercedes Benz”. The boat consists of two canoes apparently made mostly of dried reeds woven together (and presumably something else to make it waterproof) connected side-by-side. Each canoe has an ornamental animal head attached, also made of reeds, similar to the stereotypical dragon’s head on a Viking longboat. Between and across the canoes is a platform with benches and an eagle’s nest with a few more seats. As we board the boat the women serenade us with one of their traditional songs and follow that up with a traditional song of the English world, “Row Row Row Your Boat”. Pretty sure none of the women speak English and they’re reciting the words phonetically, much like Ah-Ha.

Murphy and Drisdelle jump up into the eagle’s nest but I’m hesitant – it seems pretty wobbly, so I sit off to the side rather than underneath of it. Two of the women paddle us over to the large island while a young girl of four or five sings songs in five or six different languages, classics such as Frere Jacques. When she finishes we all applaud and she says thank you in half a dozen or more languages, with unexpected phrases like “Domo arigato” thrown into the mix. She then takes off her hat and asks us all for tips… They start them hustling young here, that’s for sure. Getting off the boat the women inform us that the ride wasn’t free… Yup. The hustle is non-stop.

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At the island we grab some coffee and Drisdelle gets some fish which he says is the shit. I’m allergic to fish and rarely have the desire to eat it but it does look really goddamn good. Sitting with us are an Irish girl in her twenties and her father. They’re on their way to Bolivia where she’s going to work with some animal conservation projects and he’ll be flying back to Ireland. They hint at having previously worked with lions in Zambia, sounds like interesting stuff but they don’t delve too deeply into it.

The Cap’n rustles us all back up onto the boat and we head back into Puno, where we jump out at the tour organizers wave taxis down to send us back to our respective hotels and hostels. We grab our bags out of storage and head down to the bus station to grab a ride to the Bolivian border.

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