Islas Amantaní and Taquile
Staying for a night or two with a family on Isla Taquile, about 35 kilometers from Puno, or the slightly farther Isla Amantaní, has become a classic Lake Titicaca experience that some travelers may consider excessively touristy nowadays.
In these islands, visitors are picked up at the dock by a family member and led home to clean but rustic accommodations: a simple adobe room next to the family house, a lumpy mattress, and an outhouse without running water.
With luck, visitors are invited to help herd the sheep, work in the terraced fields of potatoes and quinoa, or learn how to weave with backstrap looms. Evenings are spent watching the sunset, and usually there is music and dancing, arranged for the visitors, in the town square at night.
Taquile is closer to Puno and has been receiving an increasing number of overnight visitors for nearly three decades. Because Taquile is just six kilometers long and one kilometer wide, it is possible to walk around the island in two hours on walled paths carved into the hillside that bob up and down along its contours. There are a few beaches, which can be nice on sunny days and conducive to a plunge in the lake’s icy waters.
There are pre-Inca ruins, though not very elaborate, on the tops of the hills, and an elegant stone arch at the high pass separating the two sides of the island. Everyone speaks Quechua, some speak Spanish, and almost no one speaks English.
Taquile can receive as many as 500 overnighters during the high season (June–August), so during high season it can be hard to have a secluded experience. Restaurants have sprung up in recent years, locals pose for photos, and people hawk handicrafts in the village and along popular walks.
Slightly larger than Isla Taquile, Isla Amantaní, about 40 kilometers from Puno, rarely hosted foreigners for overnight visits, but since 2000, travelers have begun to stay the night here and homestays have become an important means of making a living on the island. The quality of each homestay experience often depends largely on the family you are offered when you arrive.
Your host family might teach you how to weave blankets and farm potatoes at high altitude. Or you might join them for family meals, with guinea pig as the main course.
As tourism has become an increasingly important source of income for the islands, the local elders, or varayocs, have struggled to find a system to spread the new wealth evenly among all families or, as they say, ensure that “todos comemos el mismo pan” (“all of us eat the same bread”). Their solution, based on the communal ayllu system, is run by the varayocs, who meet boats at the docks and rotate visitors to nearly a hundred families. This equitable system has faltered somewhat in recent years because tourist agencies are allowed to do direct deals with certain families, which end up getting a disproportionate share of guests. These family homes can have as many as four guest homes, which seems to water down the homestay experience.
Taquile has a true guest lodge, TikaWasi (House of Flowers, in Quechua), which has been built by former varayoc Alejandro Flores. It clearly raises the bar of quality with wood floors, reed ceilings, comfortable foam beds, clean whitewashed walls, and a spectacular terrace with lake views. Because of its privileged access to one of the island’s only springs, it is also the only home on the entire island with running water and solar-heated showers. On Amantaní, Hospedaje Kantuka (amantani_ [at] hotmail [dot] com) has a similarly elaborate set up. Though comfortable, these kinds of lodges represent a critical challenge to islands’ communal way of life.
If you go on a prepaid tour to one of the islands, go with a socially responsible agency and ask a few questions beforehand. Ensure, for instance, that the agency pays the islanders the going rate—US$6 pp per night for lodging, US$3 for breakfasts, and US$4 for lunches and dinners. Ensure also that no more than two people will stay with each family and preferably away from the touristy area. Otherwise, arrange your own homestay by simply hopping aboard the US$6 boat that leaves from Puno’s public pier every morning between 7:30 and 8 a.m.—you will be assigned a family upon arrival and will need to pay an arrival fee.
Whether you stay with a family or eat at one of Taquile’s restaurants, you are likely to be served the same delicious and wholesome food: quinoa soup, steamed or fried pejerrey (the local fish), an omelet, or tortilla mixed with potatoes and vegetables. The main handicrafts are elaborately woven hats (chullos) and cloth belts, both of which play an important role in island culture. Travelers are advised to bring their own snacks and beverages—even a small bottle of beer can cost US$2 on Amantaní. Beds are likely to have a woolen blanket or two but it is a good idea to bring a sleeping bag to stay warm, as well as a water bottle, soap, and toilet paper.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition