Uru women in traditional attire on the floating islands of Uros, Lake Titicaca
© Claire Trickett

Where islands float and men knit

Discover Lake Titicaca’s floating islands of Uros and the time-forgotten Taquile Island…

Sometimes you simply don’t know a destination is on your wanderlist until you actually see it, and then you have the ultimate responsibility to ensure it tops everyone else’s list. It’s a travel addict’s way of paying it forward in the world of wanderlust.

Now it’s my turn to pay it forward. Flying, speechless, over the ancient and achingly beautiful peaks of the Sacred Valley and setting foot in Peru was a long-time bucket list moment for me. I had always longed to stroll the quaint cobblestoned streets of Cusco; to sip on tangy pisco sours and devour fresh, melt-in-your-mouth ceviche; to feed an alpaca (who doesn’t love alpacas?!); and of course — top of the list by far — to marvel at the magnificent architectural wonder that is Machu Picchu.

But have you heard of the famous floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca? I most certainly had, many times actually, though I must confess (ashamedly) that drifting peacefully in a balsa (a traditional handmade totora reed boat) among these most peculiar floating islands just hadn’t been on my wanderlist. But don’t you just love those unexpected travel moments that surprise you in the best way? This was one such place for me and having now experienced Lake Titicaca’s magic and remote, postcard-perfect beauty, I can honestly vouch for its inclusion on your wanderlist. It is a place forgotten by time, where ancient traditions and local heritage are preserved and celebrated.

Lake bound

High up in the Andean mountains and straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca sits at a breathtaking (literally) altitude of 3 810 m (12 500 ft) and is the world’s largest navigable body of water. It is also the largest lake on the South American continent, measuring 65 km wide, 175 km long and (at its deepest point) 284 m deep. In the local Aymara language, titi means puma and caca means grey or stone-coloured and this ancient puma-shaped lake is believed to be the original birthplace of the Incas (though the local Uru people actually predate the Incas).

With morning coffee in hand, it was a quick 40-minute flight from Cusco to Juliaca, followed by a two-hour scenic drive through undulating fields of potatoes, corn, barley, quinoa, you name it. We passed through the fishing town of Puno (renowned for its red trout) and eventually arrived at my lakeside destination by 14h00. Titilaka, the most charming little gem of a boutique hotel, sits right on the very edge of Lake Titicaca and its 50 captivating shades of blue.

Adjust your altitude

As you walk through the back entrance, you aren’t yet struck by the beauty of this luxury property. It is only once you are inside, that the sparkly 180°view of the impossibly blue lake in front of you commands full attention. All I can say is that I wish I’d had more time here to actually enjoy the property itself, but its long list of fascinating activities and outdoor adventures keep you out exploring the area’s natural beauty and cultural heritage all day.

Having only one full day at Lake Titicaca, the choose-your-own-adventure selection process was a no-brainer. The Islands Adventure would introduce me to both the world-famous floating islands of Uros and the lesser known, but equally picturesque, island of Taquile, which is famed for its textiles and knitting that have been officially declared “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

Luckily the altitude didn’t bother me, but if the soroche (Quechua word for altitude sickness) does affect you, there is an endless supply of coca and muña tea to help settle any signs of stomach ache, nausea, headache or dizziness. It is caffeinated, so don’t drink it before bed.

Get lots of rest, walk slowly, drink lots of water (four times more than you normally would), avoid excessive alcohol and opt for lighter meals because digestion slows down at higher elevations. I recommend the incredibly fresh and tasty Southern Peruvian Salad (so good I had it twice!). To help you relax, there are even “bath butlers” who will draw a therapeutic eucalyptus bubblebath that is ready and waiting for you when you retire to your suite.

Rise and sparkle

The next morning was gloriously sunny and the lake literally sparkled below. It’s a leisurely 08h00 start, so you have time to enjoy the sunrise and twinkling reflections from the comfort of your bed (I was in a Dawn suite overlooking the infinite blue).

We hopped onto a (motorised) boat awaiting us at the lodge’s jetty, where we had the option of sitting on cushions on the top deck, or basking in the sunny cabin. The sun is powerful at such a high elevation and the atmosphere is thin, so bring a hat, plenty of sunscreen and the coca vanilla lip balm conveniently provided in your suite. There is also an oxygen tank on board in case the soroche hits you.

There were hardly any other boats out and it felt as if we had the serene lake all to ourselves. The passing scenery was hypnotising. The intense sunlight and the constantly shifting cloud formations, combined with the ever still and glassy lake, produced such surreal reflections and constantly changing hues of blue.

A quick escape

As we motored along, our expert guide Jhospani explained how the local Uru people, an ancient Peruvian civilisation that predates the Incas, still to this day construct their famous floating islands by hand using bundles upon bundles of dried, buoyant totora reeds. These aquatic reeds, which are endemic to Lake Titicaca and Easter Island, grow naturally in the lake and are also used to build the Uru houses and balsas.

So, why the need for floating homes? During the Incan and Spanish invasions, these ingenious tribespeople soon realised that the lake’s permanent islands were easily invaded and occupied. Instead they created their own mobile communities that could be quickly moved out of harm’s way to avoid incursion. To this day, the buoyant, solar-powered islands, which support three to ten houses each, are anchored with hefty eucalyptus logs to prevent them from drifting away.

Keeping afloat

We eventually pulled up alongside a traditional balsa, and Walter, a beaming Uru gentleman, who proudly ushered us onto his handmade fishing vessel. Speaking in the local Aymara language (with Jhospani translating), he held a long bamboo stick with a spear-like knife attached to the end of it and demonstrated how he cuts the roots of the living totora reeds and hauls them out of the water and onto his balsa.

It takes 18 months to construct one floating island and interestingly, traditional methods have been modified slightly with the addition of recycled plastic bottles, not only for increased buoyancy and lifespan, but also to help combat the area’s plastic pollution. It takes three months to build one balsa and the houses also need to be reinforced every two weeks.

We drifted over to Walter’s floating island, where the ladies and children of his family, dressed in their rainbow-coloured traditional attire, greeted us warmly. Walking on the soft reedbed, we were given the freedom to explore their homely island. Some ladies sat on the ground cooking Andean bread and thimpo de carachi (a soup made of potato, onion, garlic and whole carachi fish) in big black pots, while Walter explained their simple, traditional way of life and fiercely-guarded heritage to us.

A stitch in time

The second half of our day was spent on the nearby (natural, non-floating and much larger) island of Taquile, a 5.72 km2 piece of land that juts out near the middle of Lake Titicaca. What makes this remote little island so special is its extraordinarily beautiful and vibrant hand-woven and knitted textiles, which are praised and protected by UNESCO.

With an almost Mediterranean feel and an unhurried pace, this picturesque island is dominated by verdant hills, farming terraces, rustic farmhouses, plenty of livestock and a mere 2 500 residents. We maintained an intentionally slow stride up the stony pathways up to the island’s highest point at 4 050 m (13 287 ft) above sea level. At first glance this steep and steady incline actually looks quick and easy, but the extreme altitude slows everyone down, so take it easy, chew on some coca leaves and enjoy the view.

We eventually made it to the top and were greeted graciously by Luciano and Lucia, who offered us refreshing glasses of chicha morada (a deep purple juice made from Peruvian black corn) and welcomed us into their personal home. A small path led into their back garden and as cliché as it sounds, the view really was jaw-dropping. An al fresco lunch table was laid out beneath a thatch awning and our humble hosts demonstrated their enviable knitting and weaving skills, with the glistening lake as the backdrop.

Where the men give a yarn

This may surprise you, but it’s the men who knit. As Jhospani explained, the men learn to knit as young boys and as young girls, the women learn to spin (and dye) yarn and weave. Effortlessly, Luciano and Lucia were creating masterpieces before our eyes, captivating us with their respective 40 and 30 years of experience.

The different coloured skirts and pompoms worn by the women denote their marital status, and the chullos (long pointed knitted hats that are shaped like the sacred mountains) worn by the men express their current state of mind. If the end of the hat sits on the man’s right shoulder, it means he’s happy; on the left, he’s sad; and in the middle, he’s feeling indifferent. Luciano’s mood, as was further evidenced by his beaming smile, was indeed happy.

The young Taquileño men’s knitting is actually put to the test when they ask for a woman’s hand in marriage. To receive her parents’ blessing, he must knit a chullo and present it to his future in-laws. If the end of the hat doesn’t stand up firmly, then he must start over again until his knitting passes the test.

The women will then spend months knitting the most beautifully detailed, storytelling chumpi (marital belt) to equally display their weaving expertise to their future husband. As young girls, they collect stray hair from their hairbrushes and, using llama bones to create a loom, the bottom layer of the waistband is made from their own hair. The second layer is made from alpaca or sheep’s wool that is dyed naturally with vegetables. Each image that is intricately detailed on the belt (from houses and livestock to children and fertile land) symbolises the promises the couple plan to make to each other as vows.

Where time stands still

As we all marvelled at the Mediterranean-like view and Peruvian artistic talent, a modest, yet moreish, meal made from the freshest ingredients from Luciano and Lucia’s farm, was served. We smothered creamy coca leaf butter, tomato and onion salsa and uchucuta (a Peruvian chili sauce) onto warm, homemade toctochi (onion bread). The dishes just kept on coming: melt-in-your-mouth homegrown and perfectly boiled potatoes; grilled trucha (trout); a hearty quinoa soup; a light salad of Peruvian corn, red pepper and fava beans; followed by an Andean cheese platter with gooseberries.

Amidst the time-honoured traditions, wholesome food, vibrant colours, terraced farmland, cobbled footpaths, elaborate textiles, 180° lake view, warm sunshine and proud, smiling faces, we simply just took it all in. Time here truly does stand still. There are no roads, no cars and no noise, and the knitting, weaving, farming and cooking never stops. Taquile Island is a fascinating leap back in time and Lake Titicaca as a whole was an undeniable highlight of my long-awaited South American adventure. Definitely one for the wanderlist.

See what lies beyond…

Travel to Lake Titicaca to stand on the famous floating islands of Uros and watch the inimitable textiles of the Taquileños being effortlessly handcrafted.