There were two main attractions that I was particularly keen on seeing while in Peru – Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. The photos of Lake Titicaca looked gorgeous. It wasn’t too hard to convince Ben that we had to see Lake Titicaca as well when we were planning our Machu Picchu trek. Another reason why I really wanted to go to Lake Titicaca was because there was an opportunity to do a homestay, overnighting with a local indigenous family. I tend to like these types of opportunities that allow us to have a glimpse of what a local’s life is like and is off the beaten path. The Tripadvisor reviews on the homestay were mixed, so I asked a friend of mine who went to Peru some years.
“Are you going to Amantani?” she asked. Amantani is one of the islands of Lake Titicaca.
“Yes. You did a homestay, didn’t you? Did you like it?” I queried.
Her eyes lit up. “Yeah! Do it! It’s weird.”
“Weird? What do you mean?”
“I can’t explain it. It’s weird. Just go!” she enthusiastically endorsed.
Well, with such ringing endorsement there was no way I could *not* go. I booked the homestay and island tour with Mystery Peru. There are several tour companies that offer these homestay/tours, and nearly all follow the same basic trip of seeing Uros, Amantani, and Tinquile. Lake Titicaca has several islands, but those three are the most popular ones. Mystery Peru was quite cheap at $85 per person for a two-day tour with a homestay.
The night before someone from Mystery Peru came to our hotel to give us a rundown of the next two days’ itinerary. She recommended that we bring a small gift for the host family with us. Usually people bring a kilo of rice, pasta, or sugar. Bringing notebooks, pencils, and stickers for children is also common. One of the people in our group brought some apples because they heard that the families appreciate having fresh fruit because it’s difficult to get. We woke up early, stashed most of our belongings at the hotel, and boarded a shuttle bus that picked us up at 7 am. The bus took us to the port where we had a few minutes to buy a gift for our host family. Ben scouted the different vendors and discovered that the cheapest vendor was a few stalls down. The most convenient vendor (the one that the bus dropped us right in front of) had the most expensive prices. We bought a kilo of rice and a large bottle of water.
When everyone was done with their shopping, we were herded into a boat. As we were waiting, a man playing Peruvian music entered the cabin and entertained us. Our group thought it was nice that we were already getting entertainment from the company. We each gave him a sole. Then we watched him climb out of our boat and go to the other boats filled with other tourists. We belatedly realized that this wasn’t someone hired by the company to entertain us, but a Peruvian busker.
Soon we were off. Our first island visit was Uros, man-made reed islands. There are approximately 40 islands made out of totora reeds. The totora reed is everything to the Uro people. They make these islands, their homes, and boats out of those reeds and the reeds are a food source as well. I was told that the Uro people are pre Incan people who speak Quechua as their first language, not Spanish. The Uro people are very friendly, extraverted, and eager to interact with us, tourists.
The first thing I noticed as I walked on the reed island was so spongy and soft the ground was. We learned how the islands are made. First there’s a thick foundation that created by the reed roots and earth. Big blocks of this foundation are tied together until the island reaches its desired size. Then layers and layers of reed are laid upon it. A small island is about 500 square feet and has a few reed huts that houses a multi-generational family. Larger islands have a few different families living upon them. The president of the Uro-people spoke to us about how the islands are made, the food they eat, and their culture. He told us how the islands need to be anchored down or else the next morning you find yourself in Bolivia because the island floated away. Conversely if you don’t like your neighbor, you can pick up the anchors, float farther away, and re-anchor your island. If you wanted a divorce, the island would be sawed in half right down the middle. We laughed at the last statement, but he insisted that this was true. The other interesting thing that I learned is that the Uro people also eat clay because of its minerals. He showed us pieces of hard white clay and then proceeded to happily chew on it. He has really good teeth. I think if I tried to chew on it, my teeth would have chipped. I don’t think they normally eat clay like that. I think it’s usually ground up and mixed into their food. We got to see inside their little huts and how they slept. Then they tried to sell us some reed trinkets. (I bought a reed baby mobile and a reed boat that you can hang up. I buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Ben was already worried about how we were going to carry all the stuff that I would potentially want to buy and was doing his best to rein me in.)
We had a choice in paying an extra 10 soles to ride in a traditional reed boat to the next reed island. Most of us choose to go in the traditional boat. The next reed island was bigger and had more people selling reed trinkets. The prices were cheaper on the larger island. Also you can haggle about the prices. I recommend that you do because the original prices that they give you are inflated.
Then we got on our original boat and motored our way to Amantani, one of the largest islands in Lake Titicaca. This is where we did our homestay. There are about 10 communities on Amantani. Each community gets a couple of tour groups per month and then it’s the next community’s turn to host a tour group. This way the tourist dollars are spread equitably among the communities. Each family hosted a couple of tourists. There’s a separate room for the tourists to sleep in. The family cooks for us too. Our meals are prescribed by the tour group so no matter which family you’re staying with, you get the exact same meal (or you’re supposed to). Definitely bring snacks with you because on the first day, we didn’t get to eat lunch until 2 pm. Ben and I had some trail mix to tide our hunger.
We met our family at the port and walked to their home. We ate lunch by ourselves in a little room. We had soup, a cheese omelet, and some tomatoes. After every meal we had some muña tea. Muña is an Andean herb that has a lovely fragrant minty smell. It grows in the mountains. You pick it and steep it in some water and you have a delicious tea. Ben and I were big fans of this tea. I drank several cups of it after every meal. After lunch, the grandma and her daughter came to us and laid out several different Peruvian hats and gloves. I wanted to buy a hat, but there was a communication problem because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish. I thought the hat costed 3 soles, but it was really 30 soles. It was a bit awkward giving back the hat and indicating that I didn’t want it after I said I did. We gave them their gift of the rice and quickly fled to our room.
The typical house in Amantani is a series of small buildings consisting of a single room (maybe two small rooms) connected by an interior labyrinth-like courtyard. There was some electricity inside the rooms, but none outside. The bathroom was consisted of nothing but a toilet and a sink. There’s no shower. Running water is limited. While ours did have running water, based on our guide’s comment, we think some houses don’t have running water. Our bedroom was a large room with two beds that could easily accommodate four people. Our bathroom was in another nearby building. We ate in another room/building.
After our nap, we were taken to meet up with our tour group to go on a hike up a mountain to see the sunset. It was beautiful, but cold once the sun set. We went back to our host family’s house for dinner. Now Ben and I expected that we would have dinner with the family. We thought we had lunch by ourselves because lunch was late and we figured the family already ate. Nope, we had dinner all by ourselves again, while the family ate in another room. About halfway through our meal, the grandma came into our room. We thought she was there to serve us our next course. Instead she came in with her own bowl of soup, sat in the far corner of the room, and quietly ate her meal while NOT looking or speaking to us. We got very quiet and stared at her. We wondered what was going to happen next. I giggled nervously because it was sooooo awkward. We finished our dinner. The grandma took our dishes. We then rested in our room until it was fiesta time. Later that night, I asked our tour group if the people on Amantani are very shy. He confirmed that they are. I imagine that they’re much less shy than they had been before because they’re reliant on tourists staying with them, but man, these were just about the most introverted group of people I’ve ever met. We would have liked to have spent more time with them. Even though we don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate a little. The Uro people didn’t speak English, but the entire time we were on the island, we didn’t feel uncomfortable or isolated because of it. The Uro people were very keen on trying to bridge a connection with us.
In an effort to give tourists a taste of indigenous life (or possibly just to play a joke on tourists *wink*), there’s a “party” every night where tourists are dressed in traditional costumes and made to dance. Ben put up with it because I really wanted to do it. We’re very bundled up looking because we’re wearing our winter clothes underneath (it’s winter in Peru in June, July and August). Musicians played music and we danced with other tourists (not just from our tour group) and the villagers.
The best part of the night was actually seeing the Milky Way. Because there’s absolutely no light pollution (there are no street lights, we had to have flashlights or headlamps), absolutely clear air, and being so high up (12,000 ft) we had an incredible view of the Milky Way. My mother told me stories of growing up in Korea and seeing the Milky Way on warm summer nights. I’ve always wanted to see the Milky Way and previously at best, I’ve only seen a part of it. But that night we saw the full band of thickly clustered stars stretching from one side to the other. It was magnificent and breathtaking.
The next day we had breakfast with our family. By now familiarity got the family to spend more time with us. The grandma came over with her grandchildren and talked to us. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I got the gist of what she was saying from the little bit of Spanish I knew. We said good-bye and we went off in our boat to the next island, Taquile.
Taquile is famous for their textile arts, particularly for the knitted goods made by the men. There’s a museum devoted to textile arts (and of course, you can buy more Peruvian hats and gloves). We went on a lovely hike on the island. The views of Lake Titicaca were amazing. The water was so blue. Our guide gave a detailed talk on the culture and people of Taquile. In Taquile, you can surmise the status of the men by the types of hats they wear. If he wears a black hat, you know that he was high status. If he wears a stocking cap with a white tip, you know he’s unmarried. If it’s colored all the way, then he’s married. They also did a demonstration of a plant that the Taquile people use as a natural soap. The plant gets pounded by a rock. Then the pieces are rubbed between the palms with some water. Suds are generated and whatever item needs to be cleaned is then cleaned with it.
We had a great lunch of quinoa soup, grilled trout with some lovely picante salsa made with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and pita while overlooking Lake Titicaca. Ben and I were starved, so the two of us plowed down a whole kettle of soup, along with the salsa and pita. We have no shame when we’re hungry. Then we had a long boat ride back to Puno. During the ride, we wondered with the rest of our tour group if we should tip our guide and if so, how much. Ben and I were the only Americans. The rest were Europeans and Australians. They all commented how in their travels, they noticed that Americans tip really well. The US is a big tipping culture. I hate tipping, not because I hate giving people money they deserve, but I hate trying to figure out how much to tip when I’m in a new country. I know what to tip in the US because I’m well-versed, but I find tipping really stressful when out of the country. On the one hand, I don’t want to be cheap, on the other hand, I don’t want to be a cash cow. We all came to the agreement that we should all tip a couple dollars each to the guide. The cost of living in Peru is inexpensive and a few dollars goes a long way. In the end, only Ben and I ended up tipping our guide and no one else did. He was happy for receiving a tip, but he wasn’t expecting it. Ben’s only comment was, “Here we go again, living up to the American stereotype of tipping well.” I didn’t mind because 1) $4 is a small amount of money and 2) the tour guide spent two days with us, so I did want to give a token of my appreciation. Dealing with people all day long is not an easy job.
We had a great time with our tour of Lake Titicaca, including the awkwardness. Honestly, it makes for a great story. I definitely recommend that you should do a homestay if you’re interested in staying with locals and observing a little bit of life of the indigenous people of Lake Titicaca.