Exploring Lake Titicaca and The Islands of Uros & Taquile | One Day in Puno, Peru
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Lake Titicaca, in addition to being incredibly fun to say, is the highest navigable lake in the world and home to some incredibly unique cultures. This large lake spans Peru and Bolivia in the Andean Highlands. It is believed, by the Andean people, to be the birthplace of the sun. The Peruvian side of the lake includes the ingenious Uros people who live on man-made floating islands and the pre-Inca inhabitants of the beautiful Taquile Island. One day is all you will need to visit the mysterious and charming islands in Lake Titicaca and the sights around Puno.
Guide to the city of Puno
The city of Puno is the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is divided between two countries: Peru and Bolivia. La Paz is the largest Bolivian city near the Lake. Puno is the equivalent for Peru. Puno can be a bit tricky to get to; be sure to check out our guide on Best Way to Get from Cusco to Puno, Peru. Puno is the capital of the Puno region of Peru and is important for trading and tourism. Puno is located in the Andean mountain range.
At 12,556 ft (3830 m) in elevation and towards the south of Peru, Puno is typically chilly but with a more intense sun. Temperatures average 59ºF (15ºC) year round, with it dropping close to freezing during the night. A thick coat and sunscreen is a must. Like the rest of the Andean Highlands, the dry season is from April to September. You will likely experience no rain at all if you are visiting during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.
Where to Stay
Most hotels in Puno are located within a couple blocks of the main square. We stayed at Tierra Viva Puno Plaza, a moderately-priced hotel with free breakfast and comfortable rooms.
If luxury and spectacular views is what you are after, the Libertador Lago Titicaca Hotel is the place. It is on its own island, allowing for panoramic views of Lake Titicaca. While it is not close to town, it doesn’t need to be. It has everything there: a restaurant and a private pier for boats to take you to Uros and Taquile.
For those on a budget, you can get a private room at a hostel for $15.
what to Do
Most of what to see in Puno is actually outside of the city. The city of Puno itself can be explored in less than half a day. Even still, the sights of Puno are not quite as remarkable as Cusco, Arequipa, Lima, or other touristy cities in Peru. Puno does have a large Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas, however, the exterior of which is more impressive than the interior. There is a small museum nearby, Museo Municipal Carlos Dreyer, which we skipped. To get a great view of the expansive city and Lake Titicaca, climb up the many steps to the Mirador de Kuntur Wasi (Condor Hill). At the top of the steps is a large metal condor and observation platform. If you are after some handmade alpaca products or other woven goods, the Mercado de artesanía (artisans’ market) typically caters to tourists.
However, the real reason to go to Puno and what should be the focus of your trip is Lake Titicaca.
How to Get out on Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 ft above sea level. That just means, it is not actually the highest lake (a label which belongs to a lake in the Himalayas), but it is the highest lake which a commercial vessel can sail in. The lakes at higher altitudes are shallow and comparatively small. Prior to visiting, I had little understanding of how big Lake Titicaca actually was. It covers 3,200 square miles (8,300 square km), the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus.
If you are visiting the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, the highlights of the Lake are the Uros, Taquile, and Amantani Islands. These islands are best visited by speedboat, but due to the large size of the Lake, it takes several hours from Puno to see them. Typically, Amantani island is only visited if doing a homestay.
Due to the popularity, competitive nature of tour companies, and the government setting prices, it is actually fairly cheap to take a tour boat to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. We paid $25 for a full-day tour of Uros and Taquile Islands, including a delicious lunch and hotel pickup. Unless you are staying on Uros Island, the only practical way to see Lake Titicaca is by a shared boat tour. At each island, you are given a bit of information and then allowed to explore by yourself. If you want to visit Amantani and spend the night on the island, expect to pay around $64.
The dock at Puno where you load onto your boat is not a full dock as you might expect. Since tourism has increased so rapidly for tours of Lake Titicaca, the boats are just all tied together. To get to the boat for your tour, you will have to climb over a few other boats to get there. The boats leave at the same time, so the skippers just untie themselves from the boats around them and the boat leaves when the ones around it have gone. A bit like organized chaos, but it works.
Quite incredibly, the Uros Islands are man-made islands made from living reeds that float in the lake. These floating reed islands are just a 30-minute boat ride from Puno’s dock. The Pre-Inca Uros people began constructing and living on the islands hundreds of years ago when the Inca Empire expanded and the Uros were forced to retreat onto the lake. Still to this day, they continually rebuild their islands, laying down new layers of the Totora reed as the bottom ones disintegrate.
Not only are the islands made of the reed, but also their homes, furniture, boats, and much of their handicrafts. For the longest time, they made their living from fishing, which they can do from a hole in their islands. In the last decade, they have experienced a popularity among tourists and are able to make a decent living charging boats of tourists to visit their homes or selling them souvenirs.
There are 120 floating islands, and that number keeps increasing. However, it is not because of a growing population. There used to be a few larger islands, but as families had disagreements, they would sever the island in two. That has continued to happen. There are still multiple families to each island, but now it is more like 2-10 families rather than dozens. Each island is only separated from the one next to it by less than a foot of water (probably a short enough distance for one to jump), and the community is still strong.
These people are still very much connected to the modern world. Most islands have solar panels to run televisions, phones, and radios. They have an elementary school in the island community, but the older children attend high school and college in Puno. During the week, these teens live on the mainland. Their reed boats are mainly for show, as they use motorized boats to go to Puno. Some of the younger Uros people get jobs in Puno after school.
When you visit Uros, your guide on the boat will pay the fee to enter the islands. The boat is then directed to one of the many islands that are open to visitors. You will likely see 30+ other tour boats attached to other artificial islands in the complex. A few members of the families will welcome you with a thoroughly rehearsed (and very cheesy) song in their native language of Aymara, Spanish, and English.
Walking on the island feels a bit like walking on a mattress. It is a little springy, but your feet can also sink a bit when stepping around or just standing still for a few seconds.
The family then invites you to ride in their traditional reed boat for an extra fee (10 soles per person). The ride is about 20 minutes and allows you to get a better look at more of the islands. The reed boats have two pumas figures out in front. A Puma figure, to honor the mascot of Lake Titicaca. The couple people that skipped the boat ride just sat on the island waiting for the others to return.
Once we got back, the island’s chief (with translation by our guide) gave us a demonstration of how they build the islands and what they eat. We were then given free time to look in a few of the houses, walk around the 90 ft wide island, or buy some of their handicrafts.
All of the tour boats that are split onto the individual islands all visit the central island before leaving. On this island, you can buy a drink or snacks and get a stamp on your passport.
From the Uros Islands, it is a 2.5-hour boat ride to Taquile Island. Taquile Island is an extraordinary terraced island near the middle of the lake. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, not for its beauty (although it very well could be) or rich history, but for the quality of textiles that come from this island of 2,000 people. Both the men and women make these gorgeously intricate textiles – the women do the weaving and the men knit. The men learn knitting as part of their early education and it is intensely integrated into their culture.
Similar to Uros, the people of Taquile control the tourism on their island and charge fees for visitors. This allows them to control the level of tourists and collect all of the funds to support the island. The inhabitants, known as Taquileños, speak Quechuan and have changed religion over the years. The people are either Catholic or Seventh-day Adventist, but either way, they pray to their traditional deities and have a common set of cultural customs.
The society works as a collective, with all families sharing funds and food. Along with tourism, the people fish and farm on the hundreds-of-years-old terraces. The kids, in addition to learning textiles, go to school taught by teachers who come from Puno for rotating stays on the island. Young men are told to use their knitting abilities to attract a spouse. Putting time and effort into knitting shows they are hard workers. All of the men wear hats with patterns that change depending on their marital status. Once a couple decides to be together, they are allowed to live together for two years to ensure the relationship will work before getting married. The couple is allowed to split at any time during this period unless they have a child. I am sure this long-held practice was a bit upsetting to the Christians trying to convert them hundreds of years ago.
In between the boat dock and the main square of Taquile is steps. Lots of steps. Being that you are 4,050 meters above sea level, climbing up the steps is rather difficult. We were given about 45 minutes to make it up to the top, which we did with a bit of time to explore around the area by ourselves.
Taquile is just so alluring. You are surrounded by the deep blue of Lake Titicaca, with views of Bolivia in the distance. Being the dry season, the empty yellowing terraces cover the island with stone homes dotted around. The island is rather peaceful with many of the Taquileños making yarn, knitting, or tending to their livestock.
We were then invited to a local family’s home for lunch. We ate very frugally while in Peru, splurging a bit here and there for a couple of nice meals. This meal on Taquile Island was the best meal we had. They began by giving us a tasty flatbread and dip and quinoa soup. There were two options for the main: trout or a vegetarian omelet. Both were served with potatoes and other vegetables. The meal ended with tea.
After the meal, we were then allowed more time to explore and eventually work our way back down to the boat, which had moved to a dock on the opposite side of the island.
After visiting Taquile, your tour will either take you the 2.5 hours back to Puno or for an overnight stay on Amantani.
Most people solely go to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, ignoring the many cultures and experiences around this large country. However, on Lake Titicaca, there are several examples of ingenious people and resourceful cultures that have persisted, almost unchanged, to this day. Culture and history that is surrounded by beautiful landscapes.