From Floating Islands to Soccer- 24 Hours on Lake Titicaca

Me and some fellow travellers in the traditional dress

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, is the world’s highest navigable body of water: Lake Titicaca. As one of the most famous lakes in the world, I was aware of it before my trip. However, my expectations were absolutely blown out of the water (excuse the pun) in a 24 hour period that included a visit to manmade floating islands, a terrible soccer own goal and a stint on a farm.

My day started in the city of Puno situated at the edge of the lake on the Peruvian side of the border. I had spent the previous day travelling there on a long bus journey from Cusco. The only plan that I had when I got to Puno was to take a boat out onto the lake and in the evening, I would be staying with a host family in a remote village on one of the many peninsulas jutting into the lake.

It was an early start, and immediately I should have known that this was going to be anything but a boring 24 hours. I left the hotel with a group of fellow backpackers, and we hopped into peddle powered tuk-tuks that took us down to the harbour. This was no simple ride. The driver of my tuk-tuk looked as though he was in his seventies, but I had barely sat down before we shot off down the hill and through the streets of Puno. It seemed as though the drivers must have had a bet on as to who could reach the harbour first as each one would cycle past one another, weaving in and out of the stationary cars, paying no attention to the colour of any traffic lights that we shot through. I felt as though I was in the Wacky Races!

Smiling as I survive the Tuk-Tuk ride to the harbour

Luckily, I made it to the harbour alive. I boarded the boat that was going to take me, and the others that I was with, around the lake. As I got on the boat, I noticed that the only member of crew was a boy of no older than 6, sat in the driver’s seat. I had learnt that things were done a bit differently in Peru, but this seemed to be a bit extreme. Fortunately, it just seemed to be bring your son to work day, as about five minutes later the boy’s father arrived and we were ready to explore the lake.

The first stop was the Uros floating islands. These islands are manmade by the Uru people out of the reeds that grow on the lake. As we arrived, it became clear that these islands not only contained the homes of the Uru people, but also a soccer pitch and a café to cater for the dozens of tourists that visit every day. I was delighted to find that this was one of the many locations in South America that you could get a stamp in your passport. These stamps, whilst technically not allowed in your passport, are something that I am always on the lookout for when I travel.

We went ashore onto one of the islands, if you can say ashore when talking about a floating reed island that is and were immediately invited into one of the houses owned by a family. It was an incredible mix of traditional and modern. All across the floor were strewn brightly coloured clothes in the traditional Uru style but in the back, there was a television connected to the massive aerial on the edge of the island.

The islands themselves were like nothing I had ever experienced before. As I stepped on the reeds, I could feel them give way slightly. It really was a little disconcerting. As larger boats passed by the islands, you could feel them move a little as they passed over the wake, but it seemed that the Uru were used to this as they did not bat an eyelid and some of the older men even laughed as I jumped up and down on the reeds, ensuring that they really were safe.

Before long, it was time to continue our excursion onto the lake. Back on the boat, we started our long trip to the island of Taquile, 45 km from Puno. As we travelled across the lake, the sun which had originally been firmly behind a thick layer of cloud, began to shine through and suddenly the lake looked like the perfect place for a cooling dip. That was exactly what I did as I climbed on top of the boat and subsequently hurled myself off before letting out a small yelp as I entered the water, it was far colder than it looked!

The view across the lake from the island in the centre

After I warmed up in the Peruvian sun, we arrived at Taquile island. What everybody had failed to mention to me was that the village is situated at the top of the island, approximately 200m above the level of the lake. This led to what can only be described as a hike up a narrow, winding path to the village. To make matters worse, this was all done at an altitude of around 4000m above sea level.

However, the hike was certainly worth it. In the village we were taken to a tiny little restaurant that seemed to be run out of the back of somebody’s house. Here I was able to sit at a table with the most remarkable view across the lake into Bolivia and eat one of the best meals I had whilst in Peru. It started with a portion of Quinoa soup, something that I would urge everyone to try of they haven’t already. Although, the best was yet to come. The soup was followed by the best trout that I have ever had. It was freshly caught by the island locals that morning and you could certainly taste that. All of this was whilst sat in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.

After a much easier walk back down the hill, it was time to set off for the location of our overnight stay. I was not sure what to expect. I was told that I would be staying with one of my fellow backpackers in the house of one of the local Aymara people and that I shouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t speak any Spanish let alone English.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately taken to the school that was at the heart of this little community. It quickly became apparent, that the local young men were challenging us to a soccer match on the little soccer court outside the front of the school. We accepted but soon realised that we were out of our depth. Not only did the locals immediately start putting on their brightly coloured soccer boots as we stood there in our walking shoes, but this whole match was also being played at around 3800m above sea level.

If you haven’t ever played a soccer match at such an altitude, I can tell you that it is incredibly difficult. Five minutes in I was as out of breath as I have ever been. We managed to hold on until it reached 4-4, at which point it was decided that the next goal would be the winner. It was at this point that I innocently passed the ball back to the goalkeeper, only to realise that the goalkeeper wasn’t stood in the goal. I watched in horror as the ball trickled over the goal line, condemning us to a harrowing 5-4 loss.

An action shot of our close soccer match

After such a terrible defeat, the obvious solution is to dress up in traditional Aymaran clothes and attempt to dance a traditional dance to a band made up of the locals, so that is exactly what we did. There is a video of me somewhere completely forgetting all of the moves that I was taught as I twirl around what I can only describe as large pom poms completely out of time with the music, but luckily for me, that is not included in this piece.

It was now time to be placed with our families for the night. My family was a young couple named Ricardo and Sandra and their 10 year old daughter Edith. We all ate dinner together around their table. It seemed Sandra had been preparing it whilst we had been out playing soccer and it was a very similar meal to our lunch, a homemade soup followed by fresh fish with some potatoes.

The next morning, we were woken up early as we had to help out with the breakfast preparation. It was some kind of fried bread which was surprisingly tasty. It became apparent that this was to fuel me for my work on the family’s farm plot that morning. I was sent out to do what I can only describe as serious weeding. Armed with something resembling a pickaxe, I spent about two hours digging up weeds and overgrown plants from the family lot. It really did make me feel as though I had earnt my bed and lodging there the previous night.

Me and Sandra

Before I knew it, it was time to return to Puno. My 24 hours on Lake Titicaca had come to an end. What I can certainly say is that from start to end it was an experience that I was neither expecting, nor will I ever forget. I mean how many people can say that they scored an own goal on Lake Titicaca!