Going to Heaven’s Door – and a Challenge in Gender ID in Lake Titicaca

Based on the recommendation of the local contact at work, I decided to spend the weekend exploring Lake Titicaca and its islands (Uros, Amantani, and Taquile) with a boat tour.  I barely scratched the surface as I stayed within the Peruvian side of the lake (I really had wanted to go to Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side).  I joined, among others, folks from The Netherlands, Belgium, and China.

Venturing into the lake – The Touristy but Nevertheless Curious Uros Islands

To get out of the bay of Puno, you pass through the Uros Islands.  These islands are built on the reeds that grow naturally in the lake. The history of the islands – so we were told – is that the local people on the shores of Lake Titicaca were being attacked 600 yrs ago or so by the expanding Inca empire. They didn’t want to be subjugated so they moved to the lake itself.

The islands have as a base the 3ft-deep root system of the reeds. They pull and tie the reeds together to build the islands.  Then they add layer after layer of cut reed. Each layer crisscrosses the other. After about 3-6 feet of this, they have their island!  They replenish the top frequently as the bottom layers of reed soften up over time (the islands have a life span of 30 yrs).  The islands are big enough for several huts and other key spaces but are really not too big.  They even have a school floating island. By the way, they are called floating islands but they are anchored 🙂

Residents of the one of the Uros Islands waiting for us to land

When you visit the islands, of course, the locals sell arts and crafts they make so if you are looking for some souvenirs, this would be a good spot.  The visit is quite colorful though I am sure is the same thing repeated for every boat.  While it may seem that their way of life has been “adulterated” for tourism purposes, I do believe they have their right to earn their livelihood as best they can.  Getting to the islands from the boat in the low floating canoes makes for a thrill ride – and excellent photography as you are very close to water level!

Hanging down low on the canoe taking us to the island

Here is a short clip where the local women send the visitors off with a song-and-dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIt7mJ29pZo.)


Further into the lake – Visiting Amantaní Island and Staying with a Local Family

After the visit to the Uros Islands we moved into the main part of the lake itself to visit a real island, called Amantaní (around 4,000 residents). We were going to stay overnight on this island as the lake waters apparently become dangerous after the mid-afternoon. Therefore, since there are no businesses in the island, much less hotels, visitors who stay overnight, stay with local families who are very poor and subsist on the food they grow in their lots.

Someone clued in that there was an opportunity here both for the locals (income) and for the tourists (staying with a local family).  Local families were trained on how to host tourists at their humble homes and they PROUDLY display their certificates.  In return for providing lodging and meals, they receive some income from the company organizing the visits and they get to sell their crafts to their captive audience – er, guests (GREAT deals though).  Guests are expected to bring a bag of rice, sugar or something similar as a gift to the host family.

Our hostess waiting for us

The family is trained on what food to prepare for their guests as guests have nowhere else to eat on the island.  The hosts prepare 2 meals for the guests:  dinner and breakfast.  All the houses served exactly the same menu for the meals we had (the group compared notes when we left the island) and the food was mild and of the low risk kind.

Our meal: a variety of potatoes and a fried cheese (and a bowl of some broth on the top left)

Challenged to Make a Gender ID

Upon arriving in the island, the group had been divided into the host families in groups of 2 or 3. The 3 of us who were traveling solo got grouped together with one family to share a massive bedroom with a few beds.  The beds were OK (I sleep on ALMOST anything) and with about 3 or 4 woolen blankets each (there was neither heat nor electricity available). I slept in my jeans with gloves and my traditional hat.

My heavenly bed…

For bathrooms, we had outdoor latrines which were fairly nice as far as latrines go, though I suspect these were built with the tourists in mind. They were “fairly nice” because the seating area wasn’t actually above the latrine hole but, instead, by pouring a bucket of water, the stuff was pushed through a pipe to the latrine hole proper a few feet away.  Having used regular latrines, I was happy for this improvement!

Who did I stay with?  A Belgian woman (who I still keep in touch with named Liesj) and… someone else.  No, not trying to be mysterious.  We had no idea if said person was a man or a woman.  The person was from China and the name was something we didn’t know if it was male or female (Chong, I believe).  By the person’s physique we could not tell either what gender the person was.  Adam’s apple, breasts, etc. were not perceptible.  Liesj and I had a moment alone after arriving at the home and we asked each other, almost at the same time, if the other knew what Chong was.  We both laughed and shrugged it off as we walked downstairs to have dinner served by the owners.  At different moments, we tried to ask Chong questions that we hoped would give us via her answer the right piece of data as to its gender.  We failed miserably.  For the moment…

So let me make a parenthesis here needed for the story:  Part of the entertainment for the evening is to have a little party where the boat’s guests get together, listen to local music, and buy a beer or two.  It also entails wearing some local attire:  a poncho for guys and a skirt & blouse for the women.  Remember this.

Back to the story… Liesj spoke Spanish and Chong didn’t.  I did most of the talking to the owners (whose main tongue is actually Quechua).  They were quite shy (perhaps somewhat uncomfortable hosting people from other countries? or perhaps simply their nature?) but I tried to ask questions to learn more about them.  Our hostess, it seems, was sharing Liesj’s and my struggle as she asked me during our conversation (how smart!) how many ponchos and how many skirts/blouses she needed to get for us.   I told her with a smile:  Ï don’t know (how smart!).  Liesj and I quickly had an aside in Spanish and we came up with a BRILLIANT plan:  we told the lady to bring two of each and THEN we would know what Chong was!

When the moment came to get ready, Chong volunteered that she didn’t feel like wearing the skirt and blouse so she would do the poncho!  We were thankful that Chong didn’t just take the poncho without that comment because that comment solved our riddle!

A Hike up to Heaven’s Very Doors

That afternoon we hiked to the top of the mountain to see pre-Inca temples and watch the sun set over the lake. The hike was hard as most of us hadn’t been in Puno a full day yet and we were hiking to 4100m… (Puno sits at 12,421 ft or 3,860 m).    At some point, a young woman from another boat asked me “Are you from Atlanta?”.  I was a little surprised that someone guessed and when I said that I was she said:  “Oh I work at Figo Pasta and I recognize you because you go there a lot.”  Guilty as charged and so amazed she could place me in such a different setting!!!  Me?  Oblivious…

Hiking up Amantani Island in Lake Tititcaca in Peru to watch sunset from a temple

Making our way up

The lake is a beautiful blue and the sky picture-perfect. You can see in the distance the high peaks on the Bolivian side of the lake covered with snow. Since it is so high there, the air is thinner and the color of nightfall seemed different.  The images will stay with me forever!

Sunset from the top of the island…

Sunset from the top of the island…

A Final Island to Visit – Taquile

As we left Amantaní we headed to neighboring Taquile Island which did have more of an infrastructure.  We went to the main square (a small hike but on a very pleasant path) and enjoyed a great lunch at a local restaurant.

Looking towards Amantaní from Taquile

I have to say that though Taquile has more of the comforts, Amantaní and the “realness” of the experience made it far more memorable for me!  While not a crazy adventure, staying in the quarters we did may not be for anyone but I actually recommend it if you normally do not things like that – it is only one night and it will give you stories of gender ID, latrines, or just about the beautiful night skies high up in Titicaca!


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