It was almost six in the morning and the market in Capachica was already starting to bustle. People were slowly arriving, slinging large bags of produce or hauling carts of merchandise. It was drizzling and rainy season mud seemed to be caking up everything: tires, boots, dog hair. Our shared taxi van from Puno was parked on a side road, waiting for a few more passengers before continuing to Llachón.
For the Incas, Lake Titicaca was the centre of their world. Their ancestors had emerged onto Earth from its waters, and in it, the world of above, of earth and of below intersected. It had long been a dream of mine to get there. The fun-to-say name, the incongruous high-altitude location on the map, pictures of water and sky effervescing in every shade of blue, films of communities living on floating islands, all had conspired to create a very surreal image of the place in my mind.
I'll admit though that arriving on its shores in Puno the day before was a bit underwhelming: the winds raged cold, the streets were agitated, people seemed weary and stressed*. You realize that Puno is a frenetic hub town for the Peruvian Aymara altiplano region, bolstered by its strategic location close to the border. Once you understand this, its half-constructed rural-urban face makes sense, however it still feels like a shame to arrive at the lake and find its shores riddled in garbage. With a growing illegal mining industry along its tributary rivers, pollution remains a serious threat to the lake's environmental integrity. Then your eyes drift into the vast horizon.
Like many tourists, we had planned on also visiting one of the lake's islands. Most people go to the Bolivian side to visit the Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (Sun and Moon Islands), but on the Peruvian side you also have Taquile and Amantaní that share a similar cultural heritage remoting back to before the Inca empire and are somewhat less frequented. Our plan was to stay the night on Amantaní, the more remote of the two main Peruvian islands but we succumbed to transport schedule limitations and opted for Taquile in order to arrive with time in Cusco the next day. We still managed a pretty good DIY route around the limited ferry trip options!
* It has since been explained to me that there is a lot of social tension between the Aymara people living in the flat central areas of the city and Quechua residents living above in the surrounding hills.
Purple = departure point for shared vans to Capachica (blue) and Llachón (turquoise), by Mercado Buenavista; red = local dock where you might arrange a boat to Amantaní or Taquile, Mirardo's house is just above; pink = centre of Taquile.
Llachón is at the end of the large and fertile Capachica Peninsula. Different from the rest of the region, its people are mostly Quechua, the result of a migration into Aymara territory some 500 years ago. We arrived around eight in the morning. In a few very warm, kind, helpful conversations, we got to meet Mirardo Mamani and his family who run a small pension by the dock (called Asociación Turística Pachamama Suyos). We worked out that he'd transport us to Taquile by boat for 60/s. This suited him well too because he was due for a visit to the in-laws: his wife is Taquileña and his third son had been spending a few months with his grandparents on the island to get over an illness. Whilst waiting on the dock, we noticed that there were thousands of small dead fish everywhere strewn over tarps. "It's so that they dry and we can eat them later!" we were told.
The boat ride took less than an hour, enough for the weather to turn clear and warm for the nice walk through the island. After paying an entrance fee, we proceeded through incredibly pretty terraced fields and gardens along a well-constructed stone path until we arrived at the island's central square. Along the way, Mirardo's sons found their brother, healthy and eager to play, and then their proud grandfather, current community leader of Taquile. From what I have gathered, the island started experiencing a lot of tourism pressure in the 1980's. Rather than succumb to outside forces, Taquile's citizens came together to develop an integrated tourism strategy. To this day, they retain autonomous communal management access to their bucolic island.
With only one path to follow, our visit felt somewhat staged but in such a small territory, it's the only way for a traditional way of life to continue whilst still offering tourists an opportunity to glimpse at it. We could tell that people were proud of this accomplishment and of their heritage. Much like the unique dark black and red textiles worn by Taquileños, the textiles on display for sale at the central cooperative were coloured and impressively detailed unlike any I had seen before in Perú.
Our walk lasted around 3 hours, including a pleasant lunch at the central cooperative restaurant of Titicaca trout, steamed potatoes and green beans. For the boat back, we followed the tourist schedule and made our way to the western side dock around 15h. We got to bargain our passage between three boat operators and ended up with a friendly captain working alone with his young son who was on school vacation. We just crawled onto the roof deck and took turns napping and photographing the awesome morphing skyscapes around us during the 2.5h trip back.
At one point, after my longest doze, I woke up to find a Taquileño man sitting just ahead of us, also enjoying the warm sun. I learnt that he'd tried to live in Lima for a while, but thankfully got to come back to his island and make a living there once the community's tourism plan took shape. When I offered him some of our coca leaves, he reached into his pouch to pinch a few leaves from his stash, and so did I with mine. I put mine in his pouch and he added his to our bag. It made us both smile. I'd learnt to do this from a Colombian who'd worked a lot in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the country's Caribbean coastal mountain range. It moved me to experience this custom so far south in the Andes.