September 11, 2015
Not knowing what to expect we booked a two night/one day stay on one of the floating reed islands just off the shore of Puno, Peru. Our host, Luis, met us at the bus station and took us in a taxi to a “port”. So small you would never know it was a real port, just a few motor boats by the side of the lake at the end of the road in front of the big white hotel.
At just after 5:30PM the light was getting low on the lake. We sat on blankets on the floor of the boat and set off for the 20 minute ride to the family island.
The family compound has a guest area on one corner of the reed island with about 5 small cabins for guests and another with a table for dining.
The quarters are very simple, mattress on the floor dressed with 4 heavy blankets needed for the bitter cold nights in the unheated cabins. Another small cabin houses a bathroom with a toilet and sink but no shower.
After we settle in Luis meets us in the dining cabin to explain the next day’s activities and to register us. With limited English skills, he speaks slow clear Spanish.
The dinner hour is set for 7:30PM. Well past 8PM with no one around, we wait and wonder in the cold dark night if we will ever be fed. The food is cooked on another island and brought over by boat. Just as we are starting to give up hope, the simple meal arrives. I ordered the omelet and Don the trout, both served with potatoes and rice. Not piping hot but reasonably good when you are cold and hungry.
Across the dark lake the lights of Puno sparkle in the distance.
We woke early. The spongy reed ground was blanketed in thick frost. By 6AM the intense sun was starting to take the chill off the morning air. Thank goodness we had our camp stove and could heat water for coffee as none appeared until breakfast was served after 8AM.
While we waited we hung around the “port” drinking coffee, absorbing the sun and playing with the 4 year old daughter Daide. Dressed in traditional costume she glowed pink against the golden reed floor.
Breakfast included scrambled eggs, bread, yogurt, bananas, packaged cake and jam. Filling enough, the eggs and bread were quite good or we were quite hungry.
After breakfast we watched Luis’s mother and his wife (both in traditional dress for the tourists) pull little fish called carache from the nets that had been placed in the lake overnight.
Luis then took us to the port to explain the local Uros island culture and his family history, starting with the development of the reed islands.
Before he begins his talk he has us dress in local costumes (over our regular clothes) and snaps a few photos for us. Luckily we could shed them after the photo shoot because they were quite hot in the intense sun.
Luis then sits us down on a log to begin his talk. Spoken in slow Spanish his stories blend history and myth to such an extent that it is hard know which is which. His ancestors were once nomadic people living on boats on the other side of Lake Titicaca.
One day they discovered that these reed islands floated on their thick root base and could support the weight of buildings. Soon after they made the transition from boats to floating islands.
After the on shore explanation he took us in the motor boat into the reedy shallows of the lake. Here there are no tourists, just us, reeds and more of Luis’s stories about how his people lived in the past and how they live today.
Every five days Luis comes out here to cut the reeds needed to replenish the island floor.
Cutting reeds is much harder than it looks and to demonstrate this point he had us try our hand at cutting the stiff reeds with a long handled blade. He also showed us how to peel back the outer skin of the tender new shoots in order to eat the white spongy interior. Tasty – not too bland nor too sweet.
We then circled around through the reeds and ended up in the main channel of the village, stopping first at the
community museum that houses incredible reed birds of various shapes and sizes crafted by the curator’s talented son. As we pass through the museum’s diorama exhibits, Luis uses the figures to illustrate the main points of the stories he has told us.
After the museum, we traveled the short distant across the channel to Luis’s sister’s restaurant for lunch.
followed by a nicely done trout a la plancha.
The outdoor restaurant is quieter than the other restaurants a few “doors” down. Luis comments that these other restaurants are too touristy catering to the day trippers coming in from Puno.
After lunch he took us back to the lodge to rest saying that he would pick us up at 4:30 to take us along when he puts out the fish nets to catch the carache.
It’s closer to 5PM when he finally showed up to get us. We board the motor boat and head out on the main channel.
The late afternoon light is beautiful on the water. He stops in the middle of the channel and starts to carefully untangle the netting and lower it into the water.
The fine net, he explains, was sewn with a thread along the top and again at the bottom. Weighted at the bottom and with floats on the top the net sits at the bottom of the channel with the top floating above it to catch the passing fish.
At one time there were lots of fish but now he only collects a few kilos of the small fish that they bake and take to market to barter for other goods.
We return to the lodge for dinner. The same choice as the previous night of omelet or trucha.
Returning back to Puno the next morning.
We needed to leave the reed island early, 6AM, to catch the bus to Copacabana. For once Luis was on time. Even at the early hour they provided a simple breakfast consisting of hot water for coffee, bananas, yogurt and packaged cake.
The boat ride back to town is pretty at this hour. The taxi was waiting for us as promised and Luis accompanied us all the way to the bus station. We made good time and arrived just after 6:30AM.
These islands have gotten a lot of negative feedback, generally complaining that they are too touristy and the locals unwelcoming and too insistent that you buy their crafts. We, however, found the family reasonably friendly and they didn’t work too hard to sell us their crafts. On the negative side service is very slow and the separated guest area is rather small with no good places to lounge comfortably or any place to walk around and explore much. That said, a short stay on the islands is an interesting and worthwhile experience.