Lake Titicaca is the famed birthplace of the Incas, where Manoc Kapac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo emerged to establish the Inca empire. The lake is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,811m Its peaceful, blue-green waters greet us as we climb aboard the motorboat that will take us to Uros Islands, the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca.
The islands are made of the tortora reeds that grow along the shallow edges of Lake Titicaca. We clamber aboard one to meet the Aymara-speaking Uros islanders and learn about their way of life. They shoot ducks, collect eggs, eat tortora reeds and barter for potatoes and corn on the mainland. Their huts, like the spongy, bouncy islands they live on, are made from tortora reeds, as are their boats.
Traditional skirts of Amantani
Our first homestay is with a family on Amantani Island. The family house is a double storey concrete building with five or six rooms and an internal courtyard. Mama cooks on a wood stove in a charred, blackened kitchen. They own sheep, penned in a stone holding by the potato-sown gardens. There is a tap, clean sheets, electricity and light bulbs, but no showers. I spend an afternoon learning Quechua over a lunch of quinoa soup potatoes, fried cheese and rice.
Collecting tortora reeds; herding sheepIn Llachon, a village on the peninsula off the mainland, we stay with grandparents Mama Candelaria and Papa Jesus. Their grandchildren run around the dirt courtyard of the house, helping with chores and playing football with Henry. We help to sow fava beans and new potatoes, harvest tortora reeds, bring the cow and sheep to pasture, and cast fishing lines in the lake in the sunset light while the boys play Cowboys and Indians with wooden sticks from the old oars of a boat.
It is a simple, profound way of life on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Our families rise with the dawn and go to bed at sunset. The nights are clear, with starlight reflected in the still, quiet waters of the lake. On a hot, sunny morning just before we leave, I brave the icy lake for a bracing, refreshing swim, just to share the same waters that the ancient Incas were said to have emerged from.