With only three days left in Cusco, I have started to reflect on the things I have done here, and what life has been like for the past five weeks. I have studied, traveled, and lived in ways entirely new for me, and it will be interesting to return home and discover how I have changed. When most people think of experiences in Peru, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Machu Picchu. While this truly was an amazing experience, one that left a greater impression on me was my trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca.
This trip was not an included excursion in my program, but with the recommendations of our coordinator six other people and I bought bus tickets and made a skeletal outline of a plan for the weekend. The drive between Cusco and Puno was beautiful, winding through an expansive valley between jagged mountain peaks, dotted with sheep, cows, and small villages. We arrived in Puno late afternoon, with time to book a hotel and a tour for the following day.
Puno was not the most impressive city, but the lake was absolutely breathtaking. At about 12,500 feet, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, and also South America’s largest, covering some 3,200 square miles. If it weren’t for the distant mountain peaks on the other side, it would be difficult to even believe that it is a lake. Many Andean creation myths stem from the lake’s grandeur – for example, one version of the Inca creation myth tells that the stars, sun, and moon all originated from the lake. Today, there are still some very interesting cultures that live off Lake Titicaca.
One of the lake’s biggest attractions is the man-made floating islands. Home to the Uros people who fled the shores from the Colla and Inca people, these islands are constructed with the root and plant mass of the totora reeds that grow in the Lake. The decomposition of the reeds and the influx of tourism mean that a new layer must be added every two weeks, but it is a marvel that this way of life has survived for several centuries now. The people on the islands build reed houses and boats and sustain themselves through fishing and tourism. As a mechanical engineering student interested in renewable energy I was especially excited to see a solar panel mounted on a wooden pole outside one house – an excellent way for this culture to experience modern amenities while retaining their own unique identity.
The next stop on our tour took us to Taquile Island, one of the Lake’s largest natural islands. This island is known most for its hand-woven textiles, but what struck me most was the agriculture and way of life of the people on the island. There are no cars, hotels, or major business centers – almost the entire island is covered with 500-year-old Inca terraces that support about 2000 people today through cultivation of potatoes, maize, and other crops. Families on the island are happy to host tourists, and my one regret for this trip was that we didn’t have time to enjoy that experience. I certainly would have welcomed more time on the island for exploration, as the view was gorgeous, and the current culture is firmly rooted in a very interesting past.