Tuesday, April 10, 2012
I wasn’t feeling well when I arrived in Puno. Food poisoning rendered me useless when I got off the plane in Juliaca, which was the nearest airport to the Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca. But I was in Puno for one reason, and not even illness could stop me from seeing what I traveled all the way there to see: the fabled floating islands.
Woozy, I took a shuttle to my hotel, the Libertador in Puno. It was located on its own island just off the shore, and had spectacular views of the lake. As soon as I arrived, I asked the reception staff if there was any way I could see the islands that day. They quoted me a ridiculously steep US$75 for a private tour, but with an air sickness bag in one hand and my wallet in the other, I was ready to pay anything.
I had two hours to recover from my food poisoning before the tour. I left the spacious lobby, with its airy bar and restaurant, and immediately headed up to my room. The hotel had offered it to me for the night, and it had great wall-to-wall windows overlooking the lake. I immediately fell asleep on the comfortable bed and slept until it was time to go. I woke up feeling about the same as before, so I grabbed another air sickness bag, went down to the lobby, and hoped for the best.
My guide took me to our boat, which was conveniently moored right by the hotel. We climbed on board and sat outside for the 30-minute ride through the reeds. Being out on the water made me feel a bit better, and the fresh air went a long way to keep my illness at bay.
The sun was shining and there was a nice breeze as we motored past small islands with foraging farm animals. Apparently the locals drop them off in the morning and let them graze unsupervised all day because there is no way for them to escape. Clever.
As we traveled deeper into Lake Titicaca, my guide told me that the floating islands—which are also called the Uros Islands after their inhabitants—are made from the reeds that grow in the water. Their roots stick together and form a base on top of which the islanders place many more layers of reeds. The end result is a surface study enough to build houses, restaurants, and even hotels on.
Pretty soon we reached the islands and were able to see for ourselves the miracle on the water. The archipelago consisted of a chain of small floating squares, each of which was connected to the one adjacent to it.
We alighted at one island and were greeted by two of its inhabitants. They gave me a demonstration of how the islands are built and let me climb an observation tower to see across to the neighboring reed platforms. They also showed me the interior of their home, which was a simple one-room structure with a bed in one corner.
Nearby was a cut-out in the “land” where the islanders were farming fish. Close to that was a beautifully decorated boat that was used to ferry people between the floating islands and Puno. Apparently the trip took two hours each way, and the children in secondary school had to make the journey there and back every day.
Back on our boat, we made a circuit around the rest of the Uros Islands. We passed several large ones that housed elementary schools, hotels, restaurants, and other commercial buildings. We drifted by smaller ones that held only homes and the boats that were moored to their sides. We even went by one that had a giant bird-shaped observation tower.
Regardless of size and ostentation, all of the islands were similar in that everything on them was built with reeds. Those were the same reeds we saw on the way to the Uros and the same ones we saw on the way back to Puno.
When we arrived at the dock in the city, we could still see the islands in Lake Titicaca in the distance. They looked like small mirages on the water, and those images made them all the more mythical.
It took several more days to overcome my food poisoning, but I could not have been happier that I took my chances and visited the floating islands on Lake Titicaca. I didn’t think that anything in Peru could top Machu Picchu and the Amazon, but the miracles-in-reeds were as impressive as both.