Locals say Lake Titicaca is the only place on earth you can get altitude sickness and seasickness at the same time. At over 3,800 meters above sea level, it is the world’s highest navigable body of water.
We’d just made the stunning, mountainous seven-hour bus journey from Cusco to the lake’s closest Peruvian city, Puno, near the border of Bolivia. It was nearing the end of our nine-day Classic Peru trip, and there was a feeling of excitement coupled with mild anxiety over our upcoming homestay. To be honest, I pictured mud walls and mattresses on the floor, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.
That morning, we left all of our big luggage at the hotel and carried just an overnight bag as we set off on our boat from Puno. Everyone in the group had their fingers crossed for calm waters. The lake’s deity must have heard us because the ride to the Uros Floating Islands was nice and smooth.
We were greeted by a colorfully dressed group of indigenous people. We learned that many of their children have graduated from the local island school and moved to the city to live and attend college.
The Uros Floating Islands consist of around 70 manmade totora reed islands, and the area around them is inhabited by a civilization older than the Incas. Our Intrepid tour guide, Daniel, let us know us that they are a friendly but shy people. They welcomed us into their community with firm handshakes and toothy grins.
Our group sat surrounded by five small huts made from reeds with solar panels nearby (yes, solar panels; I was shocked too!). We listened to the president of their island speak in his native language, Quechua. Our local guide translated for us as they told us their names, how many family members they live with and which home was theirs.
After gobbling up the little fried dough snack they passed around, pairs were assigned to each of the women, our guide’s name was Sonia. She showed us around her reed hut, which was no bigger than a single small bedroom. She shared the space with four other people. A small radio was the family’s source of entertainment after the sun went down and knitting handmade goods was their job while the kids went to school.
The afternoon was humbling beyond words. We all drifted away from the islands feeling surprised that this way of life has continued on for centuries. Our group also shared a chuckle that the Uros community couldn’t completely escape the modern world. Most of the inhabitants still had cell phones to call over to their children living in Puno.
After another 45 minutes on the boat there we reached our destination for the night, a peninsula that the 5,000 inhabitants call Llachon. We were greeted by our new “mothers” and fathers” on the rocky edge of the lake with donkey hee-haws in the distance.
Our group was reminded that the families may be shy, but thanks to visitors like us, they feel more comfortable interacting with travelers and each experience opens their eyes to different parts of the world. Along with weaving handmade items, growing produce and selling it at local markets, it’s also an importance source of income for them. So they were more than happy to have us.
Once we were assigned our new families for the night, we set off with them on the journey up the steep hill to their mud-brick homes. The altitude definitely made the climb harder but the sweeping views of the lake and mountains were worth it.
My partner and I got lucky when we were assigned to Magno, the president of the community. He had a sprawling compound with three different spare bedrooms and indoor plumbing. Many of my fellow group members were assigned smaller huts with no running water or electricity. They were glad they brought along some hand sanitizer and extra bottles of water.
Once we settled in, we helped the president with his daily chores. We quickly learned he had an infectious smile and kind, very patient heart. He showed us how to wash purple potatoes for dinner, create a small rock wall to keep the small animals out and lead the goats down to the lake for a drink. After, all the hard work was done we had some fun and games – literally.
We were assured by our Intrepid guide and our local guide that we would not win a volleyball match against the locals. It went best two out of three and if one of the travelers hadn’t offered the local girl another serve then we would have won the match. It became a running joke that the little girl tricked us into thinking she couldn’t play, but was actually a volleyball star the entire time.
The sun was starting to set over Lake Titicaca so we started to help prep for dinner. We each got a job and mine was to snap peas. My partner Pat was tasked with chopping up carrots. But the real work was being done by half a dozen women in the kitchen. After about an hour they brought out a beautiful feast of quinoa soup, chicken and fresh veggie salad.
We watched a stunning sunset over the lake and slowly made our way to our individual bedrooms for the night. With no heating system I was a little worried that I would freeze so I packed extra layers. But the beds were piled high with alpaca blankets and they gave us hot water bottles too (an idea I’ve adopted for my freezing cold New York City apartment).
The next morning we woke up early for a breakfast of Andean peppermint tea, hard boiled eggs and fresh fried bread with jam – it was so addictive we practically finished the entire basket.
When it was time to leave we posed for pictures with Magno and made our way back down to where our adventure started, the rocky edge of the lake.
Everyone was given a warm hug goodbye and the Peruvian national flower, a type of fucsia called Kantutas. In their native Quechua language they told us we must offer the flowers to the lake to ensure a safe ride home. So, one by one everyone in the group threw their flower off the bow of the boat as the island shrank in the distance.
Before our Peru tour ended, we all reminisced about the highlights. Of course Machu Picchu was a on the top of everyone’s list, but the homestay was a close second. The experience had impacted us all in ways we did not expect. All of us were touched and refreshed by our unique experiences with the ancient civilizations of Lake Titicaca.
Want to visit Peru’s Lake Titicaca and experience a homestay like this for yourself?
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x4, Katie Lockhart x3, Intrepid Travel.)