Seeing the world, one country at the time

Tombs and Floating Islands


From Puno we took a tour to Sillustani, a cemetery used by four Andean cultures, but most notably and most recently, the Incas. Sillustani is impressive; burial towers or chullpas, scattered over a windswept plateau overlooking a lagoon and Lake Umayo. The age of the funeral towers, which are, remains a puzzle. The Incas were the last to use this as a burial ground, building these large, round 12 meter (40 foot) high stone chambers with inside wall niches where they placed the mummified remains of the deceased. Other cultures buried their dead only individually in the ground.

We walked around and found a gorgeous place to lounge on a large stone and overlook Lake Titicaca. It was tranquil and beautiful. Young girls dressed in typical costumes came up to us, wanting their photos taken for a few soles. Lars would have, had they not demanded it. He doesn’t take orders well. Sitting in front of us with their heads together, they made a gorgeous picture, which Lars refused to take out of principle and which he later regretted.

Our bus stopped at a “typical” home after the cemetery. It was more of a showcase of their daily life. There was no way the spotlessly clean dirt and stone homestead could be a real home, but it was interesting to see and to listen to explanations of their lifestyle. That is when I saw my first live “cuy”, or guinea pig. It is a main staple of the diet in this region and I had been waiting to try it. It looked just like Fluffy the hamster, my first pet. After that I couldn’t bear to try cuy. Instead, we ate yummy pizza at a pizzeria back in town. It was filled with lots of locals and tourists. I had my last pisco sour before beginning antibiotics for my eye as a band played “Humahuaquena”, a haunting carnival song I had danced to in a pre-school performance when I was four. It made me cry.

Uros Islands

The next day we joined a tour to the famous reed islands called Los Uros on Lake Titicaca, which means “rock puma” or “gray puma” in Aymara or Quechua, respectively. It also has many local names. Our tour guide, Bruno, insisted that we pronounce the “caca” of Titicaca in a gutteral tone. He found it insulting to the people of the lake that it be named after feces, though he did joke that the Peruvians claim they got the “titi” and the Bolivians got the “caca”. It is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world at 3821 meters (12,536 feet) above sea level. It is also South America’s largest freshwater lake, with a surface area of approximately 8300 square kilometers. With so many superlatives, we found it surprising that we never saw a yacht club or any sort of sailboat out on the water.

We crowded into a minibus with other foreigners where a chatty Brit named Roland and a Minnesotan named Kim Weber immediately charmed us. They had just met and were traveling together. Roland is a shaggy, bearded backpacker who lives a double life as an insurance manager in the UK. Kim is a real estate developer who likes to take off and travel for months. They made an odd couple, but wonderful company. At the harbor we boarded our launch and climbed onto the roof. It was a cool but sunny day and we had the best place from which to enjoy it.

These floating islands are populated by people who escaped conquest by the Aymaras
in 300 AD. The islands are constructed from layers of reeds, called totora, which are piled two meters (about 2 yards) thick and float with the currents of the lake. We were told you can swim clear under them, which Roland kept threatening to do, if only the water weren’t so cold. We stepped off our boat and onto the islands, which felt like walking on a tight trampoline. As they are no longer growing, the reeds in the water tend to rot and force the inhabitants to pile new reeds on top every ten days during wet season and every month in dry season. The dried reeds are also used to construct their boats and everything on the island, including their houses and beds. They have no other furniture. The roots of the reeds are even used as food, providing protein and making for a very handy snack. We tasted some, peeling the outer layers back like a banana and biting off the bland but juicy fibers.

The people of the islands are very dark-skinned and the women are round, even though they only eat fish, fried bread and reeds. These women were either selling crafts, or cooking. The women cooking sat together outside on the ground around black iron pots and kettles. The houses were too small too cook in and probably too prone to fires. Only the men, women and youngest children were visible. The grade school kids were at school and the teenagers leave the islands to live and study in Puno, on the mainland. We had probably seen some of them dancing in the streets during the festival.

We took a reed boat to another island. It was very touristy, but still pretty fascinating. This was the same kind of kontiki boat that the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdal sailed from Peru to Polynesia in the 1940’s and this was where he had gotten the idea. Lars was, of course, very proud of this fact and his Norwegian heritage became a point of conversation. As we continued on our boat we passed several more islands, one with a school, which actually had a tin roof and a solar panel. I guess modernization finally caught up to them.

Our next stop was Paradise on earth, according to some of the guidebooks. Taquile island is an agricultural community. The whole island is covered in terraces that the men plow by hand. It is also the home of skilled male weavers who sell wool and alpaca garments. Consequently, it has a growing tourism trade, but still retains many of its traditions. We were given 45 minutes to climb uphill along the trails to the main plaza on top of the island. It took us 30 minutes. With the high altitude, it was hard going, requiring many stops to gasp for air and look out over the water. The views are literally breathtaking. Along the path, children were begging and offering to sell us plants or spinning tops. All the young women we saw wore black shawls over their heads. Every single house had a solar panel and a view of the clean, deep blue water.

We passed through the entrance to the square, which had funny cement heads with hats and sheep or llamas decorating its crown. The square was filled with tourists and waiters resembling old-fashioned Catalans, wearing a red elf hat, black sash, white shirt, black pants and a short jacket. It was weird. We people-watched. There were only tourists and vendors and we didn’t see men knitting like Bruno had promised. The only one we spotted didn’t seem very engaged. His heart wasn’t in his work. He seemed to be doing it just for our benefit.

Our group rendezvoused to go to a designated restaurant together, but we had brought our own picnic lunch and didn’t like being told where to eat and then have to pay. Some kids came begging while we ate our lunch. These were dirty, sad children. They seem lost deep down, but I just don’t give them money for nothing. This island is self-sustaining and begging from tourists becomes a habit that will never teach them industriousness or independence. Many would disagree with me, but aside from street children, handicapped or elderly, I don’t give money. I would have given food, but I was starving and I am not fun to have around with an empty stomach. After lunch we found a rock to sit on and look out over Lake Titicaca. It was calm and endless. We told our group we were heading out and walked slowly down the tourist path. Many men and waiters passed holding radios (no headphones around here) with what I guess was the latest soccer match.

A little sheepherder girl approached with her flock and whispered (all the kids here whisper!) “caramelo”, a candy. “Why are they tied up?” I asked, ignoring her request and referring to her sheep, which had one front and one back leg tied together. No answer. “Do you speak Spanish?” Sheepish look. Lars and I decided to give her a candy. Suddenly I heard a whispered “so that they won’t run away.” “How could they run away? They wouldn’t leave such a pretty girl alone.” She smiled and giggled.
“They’re your friends.” “Yes”. I gave her a candy. “Do you like orange? No? Peach?” “And one for my sister?” “What does she like, strawberry?” “No, cherry”. We handed her the candy and she went on her merry way.

Down at the harbor we settled down to a game of backgammon until it was time to board.
We sat on top of the boat with a bunch of people and had a good chat with Roland and Kim. As we drew closer to shore, clouds gathered and the wind picked up and ushered us down into the hold where the waves, motion and smell made me nauseous. Afternoon storms are common on the lake. Back on land, we said our goodbyes, went for a delicious chicken dinner at El Rancho, a local hangout. We looked out of place and everybody stared at us, but we knew we had hit the jackpot. It was delicious. Most food is, after a good workout in the Andean highlands.