Peru: The Incas, and All That

Titicaca, a lake and its people

One of the Uros reed islands, located in the shallow waters of Lake Titicaca.

By tradition, the Incas originated in the area of Lake Titicaca in the Andean Altiplano (plateau) on the Peru-Bolivia border, but — like many tourists — we came to the lake to visit people with cultures that predate even the Incas. It doesn’t hurt that the lake is special, too. Titicaca, deemed the world’s highest-altitude (12,500 feet) navigable lake, is a stunning deep blue surrounded by agricultural terraces that predate the Incas and Andean mountains as high as 21,000 feet to the east, on the Bolivian side. The site is good for cycling or hiking on the Andean plateau or kayaking or sailing on the lake itself. We spent our time visiting the Uros people, who live on islands in Titicaca’s shallows, islands that they build with the totora reeds that grow in the lake, and the Taquile people, who live on a rocky island of the same name and are renowned for centuries-old textiles traditions.

Uros reed islands.The Uros create floating islands by layering totora reeds as if weaving, first east-west, then north-south, and so forth until an island is about 13 feet deep. The reeds rot, so new are added at the top every couple of weeks. The Uros people, now numbering 2,000, have lived on their reed islands since before the Incas appeared. There are up to 60 islands in the lake currently. Strolling on real estate built with reeds can feel like walking on a waterbed, but the island on our itinerary was firmer than that. Maybe it had just gotten a new totora layer. We were free to roam the small island, watching women cook or do their embroidery. I was invited into one of the oh-so-tiny houses, also built of reeds. The Uros people own motorized boats, but use reed boats for hunting seabirds, fishing — and hosting tourists. We enjoyed our chance for a short and very smooth float on one such bundle of reeds. The boatman pushed us forward using a single pole, touching the lake’s bottom. The visit concluded with an informal market where women sold embroidery and other items, another way that tourism helps support the Uros way of life.

Taquile host Juan, in front of his home. He wears the islanders’ traditional cap and calendar waistband.

Taquile and textiles.At Taquile (population: about 2,200), we were met by Juan, whose traditional clothes illustrated some of the textiles for which his people are famous. He wore the so-called calendar waistband, a wide woven belt with illustrations depicting annual agricultural cycles. He wore the knitted Taquile hat, too, a topper that resembles a nightcap. He led our small press group up a steep incline of rough and uneven rocks and pathways to lunch at his residence. The menu included alpaca (with a mild taste like some pork dishes I’ve eaten). The visit afforded us great views over the island’s extensive terracing as well as the Andean scenery that rims Lake Titicaca. Juan also demonstrated how the Taquile people grind corn — grown on the island — to a fine grain and make soap from an indigenous herb. Of course, we exercised our option to buy some of the textiles, made by men as well as women. UNESCO has declared the textiles a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Views from atop the rocky Taquile Island can be dramatic. Here, visitors look down on shoreside grazing land and the deep blue waters of Lake Titicaca.

The cities: Lima, Arequipa — For this report click here.

The Sacsayhuaman fortress, with stones weighing from 100 tons to about 138 tons, was built in the 15th century without benefit of the wheel. These and other tidbits about Peru appear in Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was written by Nadine Godwin, the author of this article on Peru. The book was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

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