At 3,812m above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. This huge, 190km lake sprawls over both Peru and Bolivia and both sides of the lake are obvious stops on the Gringo Trail between Cusco and La Paz.
Travel advice from fellow backpackers is easily found at any hostel bar or dorm room. It was this advice that informed most of my plans through South America. But in regards to Lake Titicaca it was confusing. Many people labelled the lake a tacky tourist trap and urged me to bypass it straight for La Paz. Others said they had a wonderful time and it was definitely worth a stop or detour.
For those that loved the lake, there was a clear divide between the best way to see the lake. Spend a day, spend a couple of days, book a tour at Puno on the Peruvian side or Copacabana on the Bolivian side. Finally, after the advice of one of our friends, we decided to stop at Puno on the Peruvian side and book an overnight homestay tour from there.
The two-day homestay tour we did is one of the most popular ways to see the island and can be booked at any hostel, bus station or tourist agency for very minimal money. We arrived late on a bus from Arequipa and were quickly able to book the two-day tour at our guesthouse for 115 Peruvian Sols ($44 AUD/$35 USD) for the very next morning.
The Floating Islands of Uros
The tour included a pickup from our guesthouse on a weird and old double decker tourist bus that deposited us at the dock for our boat out onto the lake. The first stop of the day is the most visited part of Peruvian Lake Titicaca, the floating islands of Uros.
The Uros islands are completely man-made by the local indigenous population, who have been using lake reeds for hundreds of years to fashion homes and land on the lake. I have to admit that this part of the lake felt a lot like a tourist trap. I can imagine that if you only spent a day in Puno and only saw Uros you might condemn Titicaca as tacky.
People still live authentically here, but the islands have transformed themselves for tourism. Every boat makes a stop in one designated island or spot of the island where you are shown how the islands are made. There are lots of people selling things, and you can fork our extra cash for a ride on the lake (which we didn’t do). There were some great photo opportunities and hearing about the building process was interesting but it did feel a little like Disneyland out on Uros.
After a quick visit to Uros we hopped back on our boat for the two hour trip across the lake to the island of Amantani. Unlike Uros, Amantani was formed by nature rather than man. It’s one of the few natural islands on the lake and a beautiful place to stop and learn more about the local indigenous people that live on the island.
We were met at the jetty by our specific homestay families, with most groups getting their own family or sharing the family with one other group of travellers. Three of us ended up being met by our homestay host. Despite having spent almost a month at altitude, I was still suffering from being at 3,800m above sea level, the slog up the hill to the homestay up the village path was a real struggle as I attempted to breathe. Apparently, the locals of Amantani are born (or grow) bigger lungs to compensate for the fact that are constantly deprived of oxygen by the altitude.
For us normal size lunged humans, the solution was a local herb picked from the beside the village path that my homestay mother picked for me and brewed into a tea with lunch. I’d gotten accustomed to drinking coca leaves to help with altitude sickness, but the mint flavoured herb used by the villagers of Amantani was significantly more delicious.
After a simple lunch of quinoa soup and some rice dish, we met at the village football pitch where the locals were engaging in a fierce game of football/soccer. Considering I was barely managing to breathe, it was crazy to see them running around the field. I think I’d have blacked out if I attempted that much exercise.
The final activity of the day was the most difficult, a walk up to the temple of Pachamama to watch the sunset. The walk doesn’t look like that high up, but at 4000m above sea level the peak is a challenge to reach. When I finally arrived at the top, after frequent stops when I felt my vision blurring, I was allowed a sense of accomplishment after reaching the highest point of Lake Titicaca.
Pachamama, which translates to Mother Earth, is celebrated once a year when the temple is opened on the island. Unfortunately, we had missed it by only a couple of days. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful place to watch the sunset.
After making our way back down the hill we grabbed another simple dinner at our homestay before being donned in the traditional Amantani dress for a night of traditional dancing. Did I feel tacky and touristy dressed up in traditional dress and dancing at an event that clearly only existed for the benefit of the visiting tourists? Hell yes. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun!
Day two of the tour is an early start. But for me it was an even earlier start because, unbeknownst to me, we were so close to the Bolivian border that my phone thought we were in Bolivia and automatically switched my phone to Bolivian time, one more earlier. I was up, dressed and ready to go when my friend realised my mistake! Do yourselves a favour and if you are out on the Lake, turn the automatic time update off!
We left Amantani for the nearby island of Taquile. It was another hard altitude climb up into the main square of the island where we rewarded ourselves with a cold drink and some fresh fruit. The view from the square over the island and the lake was also well worth the extra effort! We had some time to explore the area, including the various shops where traditional Taquile items are made, such as the handwoven blankets that can literally take years of work.
We then continued walking on to the other side of the island where we enjoyed a lunch of trout fresh from the lake. I even got double because my friend doesn’t like trout. It was delicious!
It was then time to head back to the boat for the ride back to Puno.
Is Puno Worth Visiting?
It is true that parts of the tour were touristy and tacky. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an incredible time visiting the lake, and that parts of my experience weren’t authentic. Maybe the villagers put on the dance and dress up for our benefit, but that doesn’t mean that before tourists came they didn’t engage in the same behaviour, just less frequently. Similarly, even though Uros is now full of people selling stuff, the islands and the things that are being sold are still being made the same way they were hundreds of years ago. I don’t regret my visit to the Lake and to Puno at all!