On our recent trip to Peru, we traveled from the Sacred Valley by train to the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. (That train ride was an unforgettable experience. And, in case you missed it, here’s our post about our visit to the Sacred Valley.)
We found the city of Puno itself to be pretty unremarkable. It has its charms, but mostly it’s a somewhat grungy agricultural and industrial center for southern Peru. We spent two full days in Puno before taking the bus to Arequipa, and that was plenty of time. Most memorably, we got to explore the lake and learn about two colorful and ancient indigenous peoples based there: the Uros, famed for their floating reed-island homes, and the residents of Isla Taquile with their colorful knitting and weaving traditions.
A Life Afloat: the Buoyant Uros
The Uros people have been living on their floating islands, crafted of dried totora reeds, for several centuries. They originally decamped to the reed islands as a defense against the invading Inca. Over many years, they lost their original language, and now they speak a combination of Aymara and Spanish.
Sadly, only about 2,000 Uros remain, and roughly half live on the floating islands. They’re struggling to preserve their way of life as the modern world continues to encroach upon and threaten their culture, including (according to our tour guide) a plan to explore for oil in the lake. If oil production ramps up, the reed islands may not survive.
Yes, the Uros islands are touristy – but tourism is one of the things that is keeping these people afloat, so to speak. That made visiting the Uros an easy decision, and we were happy to have the experience and purchase some souvenirs.
Where Men Knit: Isla Taquile
Taquile is a lovely island about 40 km offshore from Puno. About 2,000 people live there, and, like the Uros, they fiercely guard a unique culture that dates back many centuries. The Taquileños speak a dialect of Quechua, the language of the Andean people, and their heritage is intertwined with that of the Inca. In fact, the island is laced with old Inca-era terracing that the locals still use today to grow crops.
The Taquileños are best known for their knitting and weaving, recognized as some of the finest in Peru. The men are trained to knit as young boys, and their knitting skill is considered a benchmark of their suitability as a mate by prospective brides. The women do some mighty fine weaving in their own right, and we we charmed by the way they spin the yarn by holding the bobbin in their toes.
Our Tips for Lake Titicaca
- Rather than book a boat tour in advance, we wandered down the main pier from Puno and chatted up one of the numerous boat operators. They all offer basically the same types of services, but be sure you choose a fast boat. We were able to book an eight-hour tour for about $40 for both of us, which included visits to both islands, an excellent, English-speaking guide, and a simple lunch of fish, rice, and coca tea on Taquile.
- We stayed three nights at the Hotel Tierra Viva Puno Plaza for about $60 including breakfast. It was secure, comfortable, and centrally located near the main plaza and numerous restaurants.
- Restaurants we enjoyed included Mojsa, La Casona, and the Cafe Bar de la Casa del Corrigador. There are also numerous little cevicherías that serve up the freshest ceviche and some true local flair. I think the one we tried was Cevichería Ricopez.
- Other sights. The main plaza and cathedral are lovely and teeming with all kinds of activity. The Museo Carlos Dreyer is worth a visit – the former home of a local artist who also collected a treasure trove of pre-Inca artifacts. We also spent an interesting hour wandering around the Puno cemetery, with its stacked concrete tombs and colorful memorials to the dearly departed.