Peru and Bolivia share the immense Lake Titicaca, home to wonderful landscapes and a distinct culture developed over hundreds of years. It lies at almost 4,000 metres over sea level, so get ready to feel a bit of altitude sickness or at least more fatigue than usual. Tourism here has developed in the form of turismo vivencial (homestays), which consists of staying with a local family and sharing their food for a day or two.
My advice: DON’T go on a tour. The local community has organised tourism perfectly well, so there’s no need to hire a guide or a tour. Signing up directly with the locals ensures that your money goes entirely to the community, and in a very spread way as I will explain. Going with an agency not only is more expensive, but in some cases host families are given an unfair treatment, and only a small fraction of the money goes to the families that actually provide accommodation and meals.
On the contrary, the most advisable is to do the following. You should arrive at Puno’s port at 8 am. You can buy the boat ticket (S30=US$11 return) from the local cooperative Servicio de Transporte Colectivo de Amantaní, that uses boats owned by locals on a rotating basis. You are then taken to the next boat. Actually, you don’t need to do anything else because they offer a well-designed two-day programme. That’s unless you have other specific requests, which they’re also willing to accommodate, like staying longer or heading for the peninsula at the end of it instead of back to Puno.
The first stop was in the Uros Islands. These are a very interesting concept (so weird!). The boat stops on one of those islands, also assigned on a rotating basis. These are no natural islands, but floating artificial constructions made out of the bulrush that grows in the lake.
We were received by the “president” of the island. Sounds important but this is more like a president of the homeowners association, since each island only hosts 3-4 families. Their houses, their boats and even the island itself are made out of bulrush. This requires a regular maintenance, constantly adding layers of bulrush and abandoning the island altogether and building a new one every few years. Their tradition has it that they first occupied such islands fleeing persecution by the Incas. Today, their inhabitants make a living out of fishing, handicrafts and, of course, tourism.
After stopping by at Uros, we headed for the island (a real island this time) of Amantaní, which is 3 hours from Puno. On arrival, they assigned each visitor (or group) to a local family. They allocate visitors on a rotating basis, so as to ensure that the benefits of tourism are equally spread among all the families in the island. The price is 30 soles per person per day, full board. If you skip this rotating system, and try to negotiate directly with a family, you’ll get a lower price. However, I didn’t think it was worth doing that because the standard rate is reasonable and the system fair.
Staying with one of these families is really worth it. Keep in mind that there’ll be no basic amenities such as hot water or heating (and it get’s quite cold there). But sharing day-to-day life with these families is the best way to experience life in the island. While I had lunch or dinner the woman would always stay with me and give me interesting information about the island. Her husband was almost always labouring in the plantations and the children got in and out from school.
I had this soup and a main with potatoes and cheese and went to explore the island. There are two summits: Pachatata and Pachamama, where rituals are performed yearly, and from where you can see beautiful landscapes.
We visited the third island, Taquile, on the third day. It’s somewhat more touristy and has a few restaurants and hotels, something completely absent in Amantani (since everything is provided by families). The inhabitants of Taquile wear beautiful ethnic clothing, and the village is well worth a visit.
To conclude, a visit to this islands is highly recommended. You can sample and share with them their traditional lifestyle. Homestays so typical here are gaining ground in many countries, as visitors are keen to explore alternatives to conventional tourism.