A Homestay with the Aymara on Lake Titicaca

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A raft made out of reeds by the Aymara people, who live on floating islands on Lake Titicaca in Peru. Photos by Eva Piccozzi and Alexander Miller.
A raft made out of reeds by the Aymara people, who live on floating islands on Lake Titicaca in Peru. Photos by Eva Piccozzi and Alexander Miller.

Getting Familiar with the Aymara on the Big Lake in Peru

By Eva Piccozzi

Lake Titicaca, shared by Peru and Bolivia, is the highest navigable lake in the world, lying at 12,500 feet (3,810 m) above sea level.

On the lake, there are floating islands that the Aymara indigenous group still occupy and uphold their traditional culture. There are several larger islands also inhabited by the Aymara in which tourists may spend a night with a local family.

Pepe serves as a mediator between the realm of the indigenous life and the traveler’s eager curiosity.

A Glimpse of Farm Life

His tour business allows extranjeros (foreigners), from developed societies a glimpse of a day in the life of rural peasant farmers. He is a native of the Lake Titicaca district and guides tours leaving Puno, Peru, every other day to the floating Uros Islands, Amantani Island, and Taquile Island.

Pepe’s oration about the history of this Inca preservation and the life of its inhabitants today lasts two days. His pre-rehearsed speech is given in Spanish, and then in English, even though his clients primarily speak Spanish, German, or French.

The two days include a boat tour of the 49 Islas Flotantes, (floating islands), constructed with reeds, an overnight stay with an indigenous family on the larger Amantani Island, and a visit to Taquile Island the following day. The total cost of the two day excursion is 10 US dollars.

The inhabitants of Amantani Island, where I spent the night with a family, are Aymara and are cut off from their distant relatives who live on the mainland. The Aymara are classified with Quechua as a separate group within the Andean subfamily of the Andean-Equatorial language family.

A Driving Curiosity

The author's guide Pepe explains how houses and boats are constructed from reeds by the Amayra.
The author’s guide Pepe explains how houses and boats are constructed from reeds

It amazes me how wealthy scientists, doctors, and professors choose to spend their few weeks of vacation in accommodations with outhouses, and no electricity.

I met countless retired professionals from around the world who still had the desire to travel backpacker routes, along the bumpiest roads in search of the most remote places on earth.

Travelers, including myself, have a driving curiosity about this land that remains untouched after centuries of colonization. It is a firsthand historical account of the Americas that can’t be learned from textbooks.

Our group of 20-odd travelers strapped on our bulky backpacks that had enough volume to hold a small child. The women surround us; those with babies have them wrapped up in a colorful blanket tied to their backs. Pepe assigns each of the visitors an Aymara hostess who will be in charge of us for the next 24 hours.

An Aymara woman from Amantani island
An Aymara woman from Amantani island

Dusty Foot Paths

Nancy, our fearless leader, paced three feet ahead of us, meandering between dusty footpaths that ran along adobe dwellings and through wheat covered front yards, of the Amantani indigenous. She knew all the twists and turns of the paths, where you would twist your ankle at night or during the day, an innate familiarity that no map could record.

The air, at an altitude of 12,467 feet (3,800m), leaves you with the sensation of how it feels after holding your breath for as long as you can underwater, and what those first few gasps of air feel like once you’ve surfaced.

The Incas built their city, Macchu Pichu on the top of the Andes Mountains at an altitude of 8000 feet, so it is no wonder they achieved god-like feats.

Cocoa Tea

My friend and I, accustomed to living at sea level, felt asthmatic during most of our traveling — ‘Formala altura-altitude sickness’ — which left with me no appetite and trouble sleeping. The natives prescribed coca tea.

A reed boat built by the Aymara
A reed boat built by the Aymara

The tea is made from the ancient plant native to Peru and Bolivia and used by mine workers and field labor to combat hunger, thirst, and fatigue. For travelers, unaccustomed to the drastic altitude changes, it eases nausea, fever, and headaches.

Nancy was in her early twenties, her roots are Incan, and her maternal ancestor from the 11th century might have had her eyes.

Nancy’s blood is part of a dynasty of warriors whose conquests in South America compare to Alexander the Great in Europe. She is timid and declines to look into the eyes of a foreigner when she speaks.

Nancy’s generation marks a turning point for the future of the Incan civilization; they will learn to speak the Spanish language in primary school. Within the last 25 years, both the Bolivian and Peruvian governments have started to incorporate the Aymara people into modern society.

Tightly Woven Bonds

The growth of ecotourism around the Lake Titicaca region has forced the indigenous population to become bilingual. Still, the familial bond between the old and new generation is so tightly woven that there are no signs of a diffused culture.

An Aymara woman herding sheep on Amantani island
An Aymara woman herding sheep on Amantani island

There is no electricity, cars, roads, police, or dogs on the island. It is a paradise in comparison with the modern cities of South America which are congested with traffic, overpopulation, and pollution.

On our journey to Nancy’s house, we pass mostly women and their children, carrying crops on their heads and backs.

Nancy hurries past her friends who are in identical dress and tending to their daily chores; they call to her in Quechua and start to giggle. Of course my friend and I feel uncomfortable; we look like we just stepped out of a time machine.

Everything I’m wearing was made in a factory with a sewn-in tag that bears the name of the country of export, and materials used like Gore-Tex, polyester, and rayon.

The Amantani women are all outfitted with no immediate apparent distinction between them. Later we were told that a young woman wears a bright-colored skirt and sash to show that she is single and a dark-colored skirt symbolizes she is married.

An Aymara Home

Frying bread on Amantani Island
Frying bread on Amantani Island

We walked about 20 minutes before we arrived at Nancy’s home. It is located at the top of a bluff overlooking the great blue Lake Titicaca, whose body spreads like the open ocean.

Her mother is standing at the gate of the house holding a baby lamb, the newest addition to the family. Nancy shows us our rooms and tells us we will be served lunch immediately.

Mom and Six Siblings

Nancy lives with her mother and six siblings, who range between the ages of 4 and 20-something. Her father, who was barely mentioned during our stay, commutes to find work on the mainland, Puno, about a four-hour boat ride from Amantani.

Her father, like most of the men who inhabit the islands of Lake Titicaca, has adapted to the modern world, working long hours in factories in exchange for soles (Peruvian currency). In the community, there is a belief that being lazy is a sin.

The extra income will be put towards buying a modern education for their children. When the men return home dressed in blue jeans, t-shirts, and baseball caps, their families must assume that is their uniform.

Nancy's Aymara kitchen
Nancy’s kitchen

Once back in their house the men will change into the traditional black pants, white shirt and colorful woven sash.

Familial Subsistence

While Amantani has a history of familial subsistence farming, in recent years the daily chores have been left to the women and children, as the men set out to the 21st-century workforce.

The sheltered women of the island rarely see the land across the lake, and their only image of the developed world is what the tourists bring with them.

Quechua is spoken in the house, and because Nancy is the most fluent Spanish speaker in the family, she is the hostess for us during our stay. Her shyness is a behavior trait that afflicts most of the women on the island.

Unlike the men, whose daily interaction with greater Peru has developed their social skills, the isolated women feel uncomfortable around strangers. Pepe, our tour guide, had decided to visit our family for lunch that afternoon. My friend, Pepe, and I sat on a wooden bench in the cramped dark smoky kitchen.

Gathering reeds for building boats and houses
Gathering reeds for building boats and houses

Nancy’s mother silently knelt on the dusty floor over the open flame. She boiled together her traditional soup of broth, egg, noodles, chicken, and corn. I asked Nancy to ask her mother how many generations her family had lived on the island.

“Forever,” she answered.

After lunch, we walked to the top of a hill to the temple of Mamapacha (the mother earth) to watch the sun set below the lake. Native women sat hunched around their sales display of alpaca woven hats, scarves, and sweaters, while their children ran between the legs of the foreigners showing off their braided string bracelets.

A couple of boys walked alongside us as we ascended the hill, blowing Andean folksongs through their wooden pipes. They played in perfect two-part harmony, while the hikers trudged along gasping for air. We watched the sunset from the temple of Mamapacha, from the same location in the sky where the Inca had watched it a thousand years before as they made sacrifices to the gods.

Aymara women on the dock on Amantani Island
Aymara women on the dock on Amantani Island

Peaceful Dream World

That night I didn’t sleep well. I kept waking to the sound of the wind rapping against our tin door and broken glass window. At around four o’clock in the morning, I got bundled up and walked outside in complete darkness to find the outhouse.

The farm animals generated the only noise on the island at that hour. The waves calmly curled onto the shore, and I felt as though I was floating along in a peaceful dream world.

After we ate our deep-fried bread for breakfast, Nancy knocked on our door and said it was time to go meet our group at the port. She walked us back to where we had met the day before and said goodbye, looking away from our faces. As we boarded the motorboat we watched as Nancy found one of her Aymara friends and began chatting energetically.

Living in Unison

The lifestyle of the Aymara was one which western civilization cast away hundreds of years ago. These men, women, children live naturally, in unison with their family and neighbors, without the superficial competition of modern society.

Amantani Island is a way of life, that I find hard to identify with because I was born and raised in the United States, with central heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer, instant dinners, washing machines, ovens, and toilets. I felt a sense of relief as we pulled away from the dock of Amantani toward a world that I would recognize.

The indigenous people have no desire to move off the island to mix with the greater population. This life is all they know, and it seems to suit them just fine.

Eva Piccozzi is a  Spanish teacher in Amherst, Massachusetts.