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Waterworld, or the Floating People of the Lake
May 11, 1999

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Map of the Lake Titicaca area
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On Amantani Island, a local woman stands below the granite arch on
Llacastiti Hill.
You Say Potato..

Freeze-dried potatoes, fried potatoes, boiled potatoes. Potato bits in potato soup. Potatoes with rice. Hot potatoes, cold potatoes. Lots of potatoes!

Liz and I are on Isla Amantani in Lake Titicaca, about four hours from the Puno docks, on the Peruvian side, and we're eating lots of potatoes. We had three meals and stayed with a family for a night in their second-floor guestroom. With us were French-Canadian siblings, Ben and Isabel, who both spoke Spanish, French and English perfectly.

While motoring to the island, we stopped for a break on the Capachica peninsula that juts out into the lake. From Capachica, you can see the steep agricultural terraces of Amantani rising up. Stonewalls demarcate plots of land, creating a jigsaw-type effect around the whole circular-shaped island, which has a diameter of 3.4 km. At this altitude, I ran out of energy pretty quickly and started to look forward to lunch, which the five daughters and mother prepared. Along with chickens, the people of Amantani keep chickens, sheep and cows, and do some fishing like the Uros people, but mainly grow crops of potatoes, oca, barley, and peas. Our family, however, appreciated a bag Liz and I gave them of bananas, apples, bread and oranges, because not much fruit grows here.

On the Inca Trail, Liz's roommate Sybill got an upset stomach and our trip leader Cesar made up a salve of mate de mua, a type of herb with a strong, spicy smell, and rubbed it on her stomach: its medicinal properties help with stomach pains and upsets. After all those carbohydrates and the bright sun reflecting off the water all day, I immediately fell asleep and missed the sunset, but Liz took some great photos at the granite arch on Llacastiti hill (4130m). You can see south across the lake to Isla Taquile, including a "roca misteriosa," a mysterious rock that fisherman don't go near because it's encantado (bewitched).

By looking at the granite arch at the top of Llacastiti, it's easy to see how the people of Amantani would have such a magical connection with the island and the lake. Many of the inhabitants specialize in stone cutting and carving, creating stone tools for grinding grains. The people here also cut and shaped the stone that paves the streets all the way in Puno. One can also still see the Inkatiana, or Seat of the Inka, a carved stone that could have been used to define agricultural cycles by determining the sun's position as it sets behind the Capachica peninsula. This is not to say, however, that the Incas controlled the island. When the Spaniards arrived, they realized that the Amantani were different from the Quechua-speaking inhabitants of Cuzco. The people on Amantani, its sister island Taquile, and the peninsula of Capachica all spoke Pukina, and were part of the Pukara culture.

On Llacastiti hill, there is an area called Pachamama, or Mother Earth, where, in February during the Feast day of the Virgen de la Candelaria, the people of Amantani dance for three days. This dance is called the "Negritos" and lasts from Saturday through Monday, continually danced by individuals divided into seven groups. Along with this festival, the inhabitants celebrate dozens more throughout the year.

Festivities on Amantani
A cycle of ceremonies takes place on Amantani, marking the calendar.

January: Ritual ceremonies for Pachamama and Pachatata, including lots of playing of instruments like the pinquillo, tarka, and zampona (link to Abeja dispatch on zamponas).
February-March: Carnaval! Dance competitions between all the young people's dancing groups.
April: Amantani's anniversary celebrated on April 9, with dances like the traditional Waca Waca, Llameros, Auqui Auqui, Choquela, and Chasqui Puli, as well as the more modern Morenada, Rey Moreno, Diablada and Tuntuna.
June: Pentecost, where all the children go to the Inkatiana on the Saturday after Easter Sunday and collect circular and flat stones, considered good luck, which they exchange a day later in the community for potatoes and other small objects.
August: Collection of seeds from every family... these seeds become ingredients in a shared meal prepared for everybody, a way to give thanks to Pachamama and to unify the island.
November: Offerings for normal rains from the Apus (spirits).

People that walk on water (sort of)! Islands that float! A floor that isn't a floor, a house made of reeds, ground that's always changing... where on earth is this place?

I'm at Lago Titicaca, on the Peruvian side, heaving for breath at 3810 meters above sea level. Lake Titicaca looks like the ocean, but it's a huge, clear lake, nestled on a plain in the Andes. "Titicaca," in the Aymara language, means "Puma's Rock," and refers to a sacred boulder found on Isla del Sol, on the southern, Bolivian side. Reaching a depth of 284m, covering an area of 8562 square kilometers, and at a volume of 903 million cubic meters, this is the world's largest high-altitude body of water. It's deep, deep blue except near the Puno dock, where it's greenish scummy, but today Liz, who I met on the Inca Trail, and I took a boat from the docks to visit the Uros Floating Islands.

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Sunset over Lake Titicaca
There is no place like this on earth. The Uros people have lived for centuries on the lake on reed islands they make themselves, surviving invasions of the Kollas, the Aymaran, the Lupacas, the Quechuan-speaking Incas, and the Spanish conquistadores. Nowadays, many of the Uros have incorporated methods of the 20th century into their traditional fishing and bird-hunting lifestyle, including putting solar panels on their reed houses!

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panels on the hut roof! What's next...satellite dishes?
The history of the Uros has been one of living free on the lake. When the Pukina-speaking peoples arrived with alpacas, llamas, potatoes and quinua, the Uros exchanged fish for these products, but continued to live apart from the Pukina. Today, as a reflection of that trading, one sees cows and sheep grazing, standing on reeds in the middle of the lake. Now, a cow in a lake is not something you encounter everyday! The Incas also attempted to control the Uros communities with their worship of the sun god, Inti. They built temples on Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (Island of the Sun and Island of the Moon), in the south. The Spaniards, too, tried to get the Uros to work in the Potosi mines in Bolivia and as laborers and farmers, but the Uros continually fled to their floating, waterworld existence.

The Uros use reeds for everything: shelter, food, and transport. They build houses out of reeds, raising a higher platform off the "ground" and implanting wood stakes to form the base of the house. Quesana, or estera, are bundles of reeds used for walls.

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How would
you like a ride in this Uro boat?
Some believe that, because of their long existence on the lake, the Uros were the first human race, and that they could communicate with Mama Qota, the spirit of the waters. Read this legend, told by the older community and recounted in Juan Palao Berastain's booklet, "Lake Titikaka: Children of the Sacred Lake"...

"...Our forefathers used to live in the Lake before the sun began to shine and when the Lake was much bigger. In that time there was a war with the "chullpas," people who lived in dark places in the caves and hills. It was during that time that the sun appeared for the first time... Later, when other men were brought by the Gods, they offended the Father of the Gods who arrived on earth. As a result, he left Earth to go to the skies from where he sent heavy rains, which flooded everything, saving only an Uro couple in a reed boat. They were to begin the new Uro community."


Oh What a Web We Weave...

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A young resident of Isle Taquile
Can you chew gum and rub your stomach at the same time? I'm not coordinated enough, but the inhabitants of south of Isla Amantani in Lake Titicaca, can spin yarn, knit it, and walk barefoot across rocky paths, without even looking at what they're doing. I was amazed.

Just a one-hour boat ride from Isla Amantani lies Taquile Island, 5.4km long and 1.3km wide, with 3500-year-old Pukara ruins rising above agricultural terraces. About 400 families live here in six different suyos (sectors): Kollata Pampa, Huayllano, Kollino, Chuno Pampa, Lakano and Estancia. In the main plaza at the center of the island, there's an artesania cooperative, which sells different weavings, clothing and hats, all of which are created by all of the suyos. To get to the plaza, you have to climb up 533 stone steps.

Liz and I decided to stay a night in the Hospedaje Pacha Mama after walking around the island for the day. We visited ruins on the southern side of the island, where one can see the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia in the distance. The Taquile are famous for their textile production, and everyone on the island wears traditional dress. All males wear either a Yurac umac chullo, a hat with a white upper part and a red lower part with designs, or a Pintai chullo, a totally red hat that droops a bit like a Santa Claus hat. The women wear black or dark blue flared skirts if they're married, brightly colored ones like green or pink if they're not. They cut their hair short if they're single, but let it grow long and attach it into braids if they're married. They also wear long black shawls over their heads. Everyone wears the waist wrap, called the Tayca waca, which is woven with straw, as well as the bayeta (a sheep wool shirt).

The designs on all the clothing supposedly relate to each of the six sections of the islands, although it's difficult to understand. Woven into the cloth you can see llamas, stars, fish, circles, lightning, and other details. The people dye their cloth with natural plant dyes, including chilca (light green), thola (dark green and yellow), kalli flower (orange), sinela (yellow), and eucalyptus (green), and rumi sunca and pea leaves for grey. The sale of these cloths provides income to the communities, which our guide told us they share or trade in a barter system. I felt very much at home on this island, perhaps being of island descent myself. There's really nowhere to go, so you do have to make an effort to get along with everybody.

Since the 1960's, the inhabitants here have slowly bought back all their small farms from other non-island owners, and they have managed to focus on their textiles, music, dance, and agriculture. In doing so, they have both attracted attention worldwide from groups interested in preserving their culture and traded products with lakeshore peoples.


Kavitha - The Children of the Sacred Lake
Kevin - Banished or Delivered?
Abeja - What Next? A Roller Coaster to the Temple of the Moon?
Shawn - Coca and the Environment
Team - Coca: Modern Vice or Traditional Power?
Making A Difference - Save the Redwood Forests (and the Coho Salmon, and the Spotted Owl, and All of Us)!!!

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