Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Peru: Life on a lake

On a Peruvian lake, Anna Leask finds people living on man-made islands.

Uros Island locals get around the lake on boats made of totara reed, a material they also use to build their houses. Photo / Getty Images
Uros Island locals get around the lake on boats made of totara reed, a material they also use to build their houses. Photo / Getty Images

At 7am, Lake Titicaca's waters are as black as midnight.

But as the sun creeps over the hills that surround the edges of the world's highest navigable lake and strikes the surface, those waters transform into a majestic blue and showcase how special the area is.

There are six islands dotted around the lake - named after the grey puma that used to stalk its shores - and our first stop of the day is Taquile Island, the third largest.

A two-hour boat trip takes us out to Taquile across water that's a mere 9C. It's a place steeped in tradition, where old daily routines are still ingrained in the locals' way of life.

We hike uphill from the jetty to the centre of the island, and although it's less than 200m walk, the fact we are at altitude makes it a mammoth effort.

Along the winding path, a natural cobbled stone staircase, we take in the sights of the island and the stunning view across the glassy lake which stretches to the Bolivian coast.

The island was used as a prison during the Spanish colonisation of Peru, but became the property of the Taquile people in 1970. The population is about 2200 and it's fair to say the residents have not been overtaken by modern times.

There are no cars on the island, no electricity and no hotels or shops. They don't have a single llama, horse or dog. But what it lacks in modernity it makes up for in its rich and vibrant culture.

The people of Taquile make their living through fishing, growing potatoes, barley and quinoa on terraced farmland, and tourism. But, refreshingly, the tourism sector lacks the hard-selling, pushy market mentality of mainland Peru.

The islanders are well known for their handicrafts and run a co-op in the plaza. Knitted scarves, hats and other textile art is abundant - and much of it is fashioned by the island's men.

All of the knitting on Taquile is created by the men who start the craft at a young age.

The sun shines brilliantly on the plaza as locals begin their day. Everyone dresses in traditional clothing and although the tourists are keen to snap shots of the picturesque environment, the locals are shy and hurry away from the camera lenses, keen to get on with their day.

Different hats are worn to signify whether a person is single or married - and, as if I didn't feel old enough approaching my 30th this year, I'm told by our guide that any woman unmarried by 20 on the island is essentially "on the shelf".

The sky above the lake is a tremendous blue by the time we set off for our second island visit. We cut through the now-sparkling waters and head for the Uros floating islands - a place that really has to be seen, and felt, to be believed.

On the way our guide Roger tells us about life on the lake. He hails from one of the islands and only moved to Puno, the main city on the Peruvian side of the lake, to study and work.

"It was something really natural, growing up on the island. There were no cars, no computers, no electricity. I remember lighting candles or sometimes using kerosene," he tells us.

"It was a hard life, but I think it was a happy life."

He was schooled on the island and his first language was Quechua, still spoken by most of the island dwellers. He later attended a language centre in Puno to learn English and study tourism at the local university, now working as a guide showing travellers real life on the island.

The Uros islands are a spectacular and intriguing place to visit. They are man-made, built using the 36,000ha of totara reeds that grow on the lake.

Two thousand people live on the 44 floating islands, which were originally built by locals fleeing the mainland to avoid being forced into slavery.

Each island houses up to four families, and has its own boss. The settlement has its own mayor and medical centre and is a tax-free zone. As our boat chugs up the middle of the channel that separates the two sides of the area like a watery main street, we get a good look at daily life. Some locals zip about on handmade reed boats, others fish or play with their children, women hang out washing.

We pull up beside one island and we're greeted by a swag of smiling barefoot women, keen to show us how they live. It's clearly set up for tourists, but fascinating all the same.

Marta, a mother of five who has lived on the island all her life, talks us through how her home is made by layering reeds up to 20m from the water's surface over several years.

As she talks, children play nearby, men work on a reed boat and women sew. The reed floor underfoot feels odd, almost like you're going to fall right through into the lake below. It's slightly springy and takes a while to get used to it and get your balance.

Marta and her family live in a small hut that would be no bigger than my kitchen at home. They cook outside and wash by hand. But she's possibly one of the happiest people I've met. Rosy-cheeked and with a broad smile she epitomises traditional island life.

As our guide ushers us back on to the boat we're waved off by Marta and her crew. It's just another day on the lake for them - but for us it was a day of striking scenery, vibrant culture and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a lifestyle none of us could imagine.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six Airbus A340-300 flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima and other destinations around Peru. Contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373 or visit lan.com.

Getting around: Adventure World's 12-day/11-night Highlights of Peru tour costs from $3135 a person, on a twin-share basis, for travel until 23 December.

Further information: Visit adventureworld.co.nz or call 0800 465 432.

Anna Leask travelled to Peru and Lake Titicaca with LAN Airlines and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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