The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

When we get within a few hours of the next border, we start to get the itch to move on – hardcore! Pretty much since Machu Picchu, we have found ourselves looking at each other and going, “are you sure you want to stop and do this or that, we could reach the border today?” It’s especially hard right now because we are on a bit of a tight schedule to get all the way to Northern Argentina before June 19th(just less than a month from writing this) so we can store our truck and get ready to fly home for the summer. By spending a little extra time in Cusco due to a quick bout of sickness, and a little longer in Arequipa eating everything in sight, we are already a few days behind our set schedule, but something made me stop and check in with myself about skipping something as amazing as visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. So, we posted up at another overlander camp in the parking area of a hotel just out of Puno and booked a tour to visit these floating islands!

The name Titicaca, while hilarious, has a very different meaning when translated into the language of the people who inhabit the area, Aymara. In Aymara,titican be translated as either puma, lead, or a heavy metal. The word caca (kaka) can be translated as white or gray hairs of the head and the term k’ak’a can be translated as either crack or fissure or, alternatively, comb of a bird. According to Weston La Barre, the Aymara considered in 1948 that the proper name of the lake is titiq’aq’a, which means gray discolored, lead-colored puma. This phrase refers to the sacred carved rock found on the Island of the Sun. Lake Titicaca, as we would translate it in English, is often called the "highest navigable lake" in the world, with a surface elevation of 12,507 ft. It is also the largest lake, by volume and surface area, in South America, measuring over 100 miles long and over 900’ deep at its deepest point. Peru has about 60% of the lake, with Bolivia claiming the other 40%. (sources: Wikipedia and our guide Walter of Suri Explorer)

Funny side story about setting up our tour. We did it through the adorable lady who runs our hotel and is always rushing around doing something in her apron and sun hat. The night before the tour, we got a knock on our camper door at about 8pm saying there was a problem. Apparently the Transportistas (bus and taxi drivers) in the area were going to be protesting for the next couple days so the roads would be completely blocked in to Puno, leaving us no way to get in to town. Sadly we would miss our tour. But in a happy and unexplainable to us twist, at 7am we had a knock at the camper door and it was this same lady informing us there would be no protest after all and we could leave as scheduled… crisis averted! 

So like kids being taken to our first day of school, we threw our backpacks over our shoulders and this sweet woman escorted us to the road and flagged down a collectivo (very cheap transit van) for us and told us where to go and how to get back here when the tour was over. We arrived early to the docks and eventually met up with the other four people, plus our guide, who would make up our tour. I was so happy to see it was only six of us on the tour, because most of the groups we saw leaving were 15 or more people. We boarded our boat and were given a wonderful history lesson about the lake and the people who dwell on the islands we were about to visit. He even taught us how to say Kamisarakior “Hello, how is your energy,” the customary greeting in Aymara, and its response Waliki which roughly translates to “it’s fantastic!” 

Besides the border itch, one of my reservations about this tour was its invasion into the lives and homes of the people who live on these islands. What I found however (at least on the small island we visited) was that the people were absolutely thrilled to see us visiting. Sure we are bringing in Gringo money and our guilt at disturbing their lives causes us to buy way more handmade trinkets and tapestries than can fit in our suitcases, but it was more than that. The people we met seemed genuinely happy to be sharing their way of life with us. The tours rotate between islands, only visiting each island once or twice per week, so the disturbance is even less and the distribution of wealth is balanced. 

The leader of this small island, with the help of our guide for translation form Aymara and Spanish, gave a wonderful demonstration of how the islands are constructed and maintained. I caught most of that on video and the process can be heard in the clip here, or click below. 


After this demonstration, we were given time to explore the island and its goods, and I was immediately accosted by the woman you can see working on a tapestry next to us in the video. She grabbed my hand and pulled me right in to her home, introduced herself as Maria, and then began adorning KP and I in the customary clothing of the locals. This tiny woman was so insistent we couldn’t help but go along. Next, festooned in the local garb, we were shepherded to where she had laid out all of her handmade tapestries. She explained to us that they feature her family and her house and the flora and fauna of the islands. Though a bit of a hard sell, we were completely taken in by this woman and her love of her home and family and we bought two beautifully adorned pillowcases to display in our someday home! 

The visit culminated in everyone singing us traditional songs and then a reed boat trip around the lake, before returning to our fancy jet boat for the ride back to Puno. This whole experience was so much better than I expected. Getting to feel the squishy surface of the islands, meeting these lovely people who invited us so warmly in to their homes, and getting to take home a small piece of the experience, was really more than I could have hoped for. Now I feel ready to leave Peru knowing that we experienced a truly wonderful part of its culture and I don’t even feel bad that we are now even more days behind schedule!! 

Next stop: Bolivia!