Touring Lake Titicaca

Part 3 of Incan Empire, Story & photos by Raghbir 'Raggy' Jin
A man clad in decorative clothing paddles a small boat constructed of reeds across the water's pristine, blue surface as our own vessel rumbles noisily past. Passengers scramble to the deck to take photos of the man, pulling their scarves tighter to fend off the morning chill and speaking amongst one another in an assortment of languages as colourful as the ancient culture of Lake Titicaca.


According to Incan myth, Lake Titicaca on the border of Perú and Bolivia is the birthplace of the son and daughter of the sun god Inti, who he sent down in order to found the Incan empire.


Though it was symbolically a very important part of the empire, the lake's former inhabitants outdate the Incas by about six centuries. When the Incas captured the lake, some of the islands changed their local language to Quechua while others continued to speak the area's native Aymara.


The later Spanish conquest further changed select islands, especially in their style of dress. But through it all, many aspects of the culture on Lake Titicaca have remained completely unchanged -- as we realized when our boat finally pulled up to our first destination. We were greeted by a small group of barefoot, traditionally-styled locals who tied the skiff to their "Uro," a floating island constructed of reeds from the lake.


Bound at the roots and stacked metres deep with the dried stalks, the islands were originally constructed so that they could be moved in the event of a battle or incoming threat. They now mostly serve as destinations for tourism. The area of the lake closest to Puno, Perú has become a popular destination for the Uro tours, with nearly every travel agency in Puno selling a variety of lengths and styles of trips.


The Uro we arrived to contained a sunken, netted area in the middle for farming fish, leaving the rest of the island shaped like a doughnut around it. Four small, thatched huts stood along the far side with a small kitchen area to the right -- the basic set-up inhabitants have been using for hundreds of years. The islanders explained their way of life, their culture and the construction of their Uros and reed boats, and even graciously opened the doors of their homes to the visitors' curious eyes.


From the first floating island, we took a reed-built double-decker catamaran (top photo) to another, which held a small artisan market and coffee shop as well as a traditional look-out tower to take in the views. But after a couple short rounds and a cup of joe, we were back on our original boat to make the long trip out to the next island in line.


Two and a half hours later, we arrived to the stone docks on the Isle of Taquile (photo at left), home to 2000 people -- and the most unique mixture of cultures I've seen yet.


The hills of this picturesque island are lined with Incan farming terraces from the 14th century, punctuated by a series of stone pathways leading around the hills. At the highest point of the island stand Incan ruins, while another high point holds a Spanish plaza left over from the years the island was used as a penal colony by the conquistadores. Small rock and adobe homes speckle the hills.


The Quechua-speaking people of Taquile have been influenced by the Spanish in their clothing and many still wear the traditional styles of the original colonials. But certain aspects of their dress have carried over from pre-Spanish times: Their red or red-and-white toques, as well as their belts, serve to show marital status.


The Incan moral code has survived unscathed as well. Don't lie, don't steal and don't be lazy. There are no pickpockets or thieves on the island. If you drop your camera, it will remain where it falls until you return for it.


Our trek brought us to a small home about halfway up the face of the hilly island, which operates as a restaurant for visitors. Sitting at the large tables they had set up outside, we admired the view of the snow-capped Bolivian mountain range on the other side of Titicaca. As we waited, a group of three elderly men and a young girl in ornate colonial clothing approached our table and started to play music on a large drum and pan flutes. One of the musicians in the group, who also works the terraces of the family farm every day, is a living testament to the Incan law against laziness. And at 94 years old, Timón's also the eldest man on the island.

After a meal of fresh lake trout and rice, we continued to follow the stone trail up through the plaza at the top of the island, past a series of quaint shops and houses, farming terraces and flower gardens; past several vendors with equally impressive apparel, set up on rocks and pathways. We pressed on until we reached the other side of the mountain where our boat awaited us at another elaborate stone dock.


Tour agencies in Puno often offer the option of an overnight stay on Amantaní, more or less a sister isle of Taquile, where the locals cook fresh meals hold traditional dance shows every night of the week for their guests.


Though the Incas left terraces on every island on the lake, the most impressive sets of ruins are on the Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna on the Bolivian side of Titicaca. These islands were believed to be the sacred birthplaces of the sun and moon by the Incas, who left behind large works in their honour.


Lake Titicaca is reachable either by a six-hour bus ride or 10-hour train ride from Cusco, both of which will take you to the shore town of Puno. From there, any of the travel agents in town offer a variety of tours and packages for prices far lower than those offered by out-of-town agencies.