It’s official, our time in Peru has come to an end *cries uncontrollably*. We just knew we had to go out with a bang and find that beautiful red bow to tie around the two months and twelve days spent here.
And find it we did, in the form of a reed ribbon, so to speak.
We arrived at Puno city, usually the final destination for those crossing into Bolivia, and a base to explore the world-famous Lake Titicaca. Excited but with a bitter-sweet taste in our mouths, we had arrived, and the Lake looked as quaint as every picture we’d seen, including the ones in our old Geography books.
Ever since hearing about the Uros Islands, where indigenous families hide from the world and float out their days; trampling on reeds that double as their very own island, we were astonished! And even though we did want to explore a number of nearby islands such as Taquile and Amantani; the “reed people” were top of our list.
When speaking with a friend of ours, who explored every corner of South America, she shared the heartbreaking news that the Uros Islands are, in fact, not real. Instead what lay on the large floating islands near the port of Puno, was a big show and dance, a game of dress up, a facade, and all for the tourists. Every day locals, who live in Puno, travel to the Uros Islands for show and tell; working closely with tour agents and touts to ensure the spend-friendly tourist arrives.
In disbelief, we set out to not only find out if this was true but to also find an alternative. We really didn’t want to buy into a show. After a few hours of online research, and annoying the locals, we soon discovered ‘Uros Titinos’, a number of small floating reed islands, that housed three to eight families each, max.
But how the hell do we visit them, I thought anxiously, in need to tickle the itch. After a quick visit to the local tourist board, we discovered our options were limited.
“You will need to visit the Capachica Peninsula and visit a small rural village called Llachon. There, you will need to find a local with a boat to bring you to Uros Titinos.” And that was that.
So off we set, leaving our big ass backpacks in our hostel in Puno, we took a collectivo to the tiny but mentally busy village of Capachica and swapped for another collectivo to Llachon. Honestly, we had no idea what to expect, with only a few scribbles of rough prices and information given to us by the tourist office.
Table of Contents
Llachon was a ghost town. Well, to some extent. The one small shop found on the corner of the smallest plaza we’ve ever been in, where the shopkeeper and three drunk men, wearing bright orange overalls, finished their day’s work paving the roads. Unhelpful and intoxicated, we walked the streets and lapped the lakesides, hoping to find someone who could help us with our mission. It wasn’t all but 30 minutes when a gentleman waved us down, smiling his silver-filled mouth and introducing himself as Dysenio.
Dysenio welcomed us with open arms, literally. He held tight onto our hands, shaking them vigorously as he welcomed us to the area, delighted to see us tourists. We shared our hopes to see Uros Titinos, and as always, we got lucky.
Our newfound gent offered to take us to the islands for 40 sol (€10.50) each. Only 10 sol more than the tours leaving from Puno to the “fake” Uros Islands. See? Lucky! For that price he would take us out, act as our private tour guide, and take us back to Llachon, oh and we would have as much time as we wanted on Uros Titinos.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t bring us out at that time due to an oncoming storm, but promised us a bright and early boat ride the following morning, at whatever time suited us. We agreed on 8.30 am but this meant we had to spend the night in Llachon. Something he couldn’t help us out with as he had family visiting.
Lads, I swear to God you cannot write this stuff, ironically, but at that very moment, Dysenio flagged the attention of a passerby and introduced us to Bernardo Mirardo. Yes, it’s a feckin’ awesome name.
Little did we know that Mirardo, as he is most commonly known, is the president of the local tourism board. His aim, along with the community, is to promote and encourage tourism. To put Llachon on the map and to steal some of the limelight from Puno. We were dazzled.
Bernard was more than delighted to offer us shelter; a basic private twin room on his farm for 30 sol (€8) in total. Cheaper than most hostels! We followed his tracks and in an instant, we were introduced to his entire family; mama, papa, sister, wife, sons and even their furry family.
He took us on a little tour of his farm, where we relished the dotted mud-made houses, topped with tin roofs. We baa’d at sheep and snorted at donkeys, before setting off to explore Llachon. Something Mirardo encouraged us to do, while he and his family prepared the evening’s dinner.
We gently strolled through the tiny village, stopping to speak to all who lived there. Yet again, we felt like royalty. Unfamiliar faces, even the dogs approached us with wagging tails. At one point, we had a furry posse follow us from the green rich hills down to the smokey blue lake, stopping every time we inspected the mud-made houses. Too many times we had to step to the side, allowing bundles of sheep and llamas to stumble pass, and we spent far too long gawking at a donkey in a graveyard. Hey, it’s not every day…
Dusk settled, and darkness struck. All thanks to that oncoming storm Dysenio mentioned. An electrical storm flashed across Lake Titicaca, slightly frightening as the wind became rough and the droplets of rain turned hurtful.
We ran home, and dinner was served. Two bowls of vegetable and noodle soup (yes, two!), a plate of veggie omelette with rice, and an unholy amount of tea. We sat in silence, all clearly very hungry, much to Mam’s delight. Even Mirardo’s four-year-old son Daniel wolfed the same portions as us while staring at Luke’s long hair and giggling at my funny faces.
We all sucked the boiling tea, even Daniel, who kept pretending his name was Michael, much to our entertainment. We huddled close as we swapped stories and delved into the life of Llachon. Mirardo told us all about himself, his work, and his goal for Llachon and he then shared the local culture and societal traits.
Not a word left my mouth as Luke sat translating everything Mirardo spoke of, knowing well I needed to hear it all.
We learned that Llachon is a community-driven town, where everyone works on a system of mutual support called ‘Ain’. Locals help each other with absolutely everything; building houses, making mud bricks, farming, you name it. And they do it for no money, no pay. It’s a favour-based system, where you put the word out that you need a helping hand and neighbours just show up, with sleeves rolled.
The idea is to do favours for each other so they can call each other for favours, now there is the definition of community spirit.
Even elderly women, no less than 80 years of age, continue to work every day. This, we saw. Hunched over, with leather-like skin and no teeth, these women overtook us as they passed by, carrying large bundles on their backs and stomping over loose gravel and slippery pathways. Putting us to shame. Man, we will never complain about our backpacks again!
Mirardo explained that no matter how much the “jovens” (younger people) protest, these women refuse to stop working. So while the husbands take to the high mountains, where they all grow crops and the sons hit the lake to fish, the women stay on the local farm and see to the daily tasks. Tasks include herding the sheep, tilling the soil, as well as cooking and anything else they can fit into their productive days.
He finished his Llachon lesson with a quick insight as to how they build their houses. Small structures, held together by mud water and straw; we learned that 10 men can make nearly 250 adobes (bricks) in one day. The process is simple but weather-dependent. A perfect mixture of mud from their land and water from the lake, they include a small amount of straw or hay, an important ingredient that prevents the mud from cracking. To create the perfect consistency, locals place the mixture in a basin and, like a good wine, use their bare feet to mix. Then mould the bricks before laying them out to dry. Once dry, they are stacked on top of a layer of cement bricks. The cement bricks, only found on the ground, acting as the main foundation, are hugely important in protecting against rain and preventing a collapse. Some homes are then plastered, but most around these parts are left as is. An interesting site when the house itself blends in with the land surrounding it.
Catching yawns around the table, we made a run for bed. It was only 9 pm, but the darkness, the cutting wind and the clatter of rain made it feel like 2 am.
As I lay in our tiny twin bedroom, absorbing as much as Luke’s heat while squashed in one single bed, I drifted to the sounds around me. Distracted by the clattering rain I nodded, hoping to wake to a dry morning, ready for our boat ride to Uros Titinos.
The clash of our alarms made us jump out of bed quite disorientated. After breakfast of pancakes and jam with an unlimited supply of coffee, we gradually woke up at the table. Slightly sulking due to the heavy morning rain, our boat ride was postponed for an hour and we worried if it would ever stop.
Mirardo’s sister caught our eye as she laid out a number of beautiful and brightly coloured outfits across the bottom of the table. She motioned for Luke to come to her, as Bernardo entered the room. He told us they were going to dress us up in local attire. Even at this age, I love to dress up and immediately all the worry and tiredness left my body.
Before I could blink Luke was hidden under a long-length grey poncho, a woolly chullo and a bowler hat.
I stepped into the large, poofed, bright red skirt which was tied with a wide woven multicoloured belt. A small black jacket, with beautiful rainbow-like stitching, was placed over my Repeal the 8th jumper, all topped with the heaviest hat I’ve ever worn. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.
Mirardo randomly asked if we were married, and explained that the outfit I was wearing was a status. It told others I was either married or engaged. We admitted we weren’t in wedlock yet which provided many laughs as Mirardo quickly fetched the “single” outfit.
Same skirt, but this time with a white linen blouse, complete with stitching, tucked in. A long knitted hat was placed on my hat and drooped around my shoulders. I was officially single.
Mirardo then shared with us that if we see a local woman dressed in all black, she is of the highest authority in the town, and a man who wears a whip on his belt, is a local “guardian”. It’s his job to protect the town. Anyone who inflicts crime onto the town is captured, brought to the Plaza at dusk and whipped in front of all.
This is a town with a zero crime rate.
Playtime over, I was reluctant to give back my single ladies outfit, feeling snug and warm. It is no wonder that these women can work for hours outdoors and not feel a breeze. Altogether, the clothes seemed heavier than my backpack!
The rain worsened, and we admitted our concerns to Mirardo who promised that the rain only seemed heavy but that it was safe to take a boat onto the lake. Worst case, we would get wet and feel a slight chill. He handed the poncho back to Luke and placed a spare over my head. These would keep us warm and dry, and we were sent off on our merry way.
Shaking with fear at the thought of riding a small motorboat across the lake in the rain, my stomach twisted with every step toward the small private port.
We met Dysenio’s son Milton, who would be our captain for the day. He was accompanied by his wife, both young enough to not look a day over 20. She was coming too and gave me a warm smile as I explained how I felt.
“Todo bien! No es peligroso (everything is fine! It’s not dangerous)” they promised, and in I stepped, rocking what felt like a small, blue, wooden plank. Ready to vomit as the others stepped in, my head swayed and my eyes tightly shut, I heard the motor, followed by a few splashes. We were on the way.
It felt like an age, but Mirardo was right in saying the rain was less bashing on the lake. Milton’s wife sat at the top, facing us, her job was to keep the boat as balanced as possible. This gave me great comfort and her conversation diverted my attention. I actually started to enjoy the thrill.
After 40 minutes of bouncing our way across Lake Titicaca, it appeared. What looked like a bunch of reeds growing from the lake bed, we couldn’t believe we were looking at just one of the Uros Titinos islands. A tiny, 15sqm floating home made solely from reeds, and held down with anchors made from eucalyptus branches.
A woman dressed similarly to the ones on the mainland, came to greet us. Only known as “Mama” we threw out our best “Kamisaraki”, which means ‘hello’ in Aymara, the local language spoken here. Thanks to Milton and his misses for a quick crash language course!
I stepped into Mama’s world, my feet sinking into the reeds, and tears immediately filled my eyes. I’m still not quite sure why I became so emotional but as I looked around viewing their entire world in less than 2 minutes, tears were all I had.
Everything, and I mean everything is made from reeds. A small umbrella that grows from the floor, doubles as shelter. The rolled seats distributed across the island, the houses, three in total and only the size of a single box room, the boats tied onto the back end of the island… Everything our eyes met was made from the stiff perennial grass-like plants.
We were invited to sit down, as Mama rolled out a dry seat. It was then that we noticed how damp the island was. Of course, it had been raining the entire night and morning, guilt struck as I remembered complaining about wet life on the mainland. I mean, how do these people survive this?!
Our bums were pleased to feel the soft squish of reeds as we sat down. It was time for a lesson in life on Uros Titinos. Here’s what we learned:
Altogether, the national park of Uros Titinos consists of over 100 islands with around 3-8 families living on each island.
Before island life, the Uros people were nomadic water tribes, living their entire lives on reed boats. Eventually, due to a number of factors, they decided to use their building ability to form a bigger and more livable platform.
The island we were currently sitting on was Wiñay Balsera, one of the smallest islands in Uros Titino and home to only three families. Bearing in mind that a family, with over three generations in each, lives together in one tiny room.
It can take up to one year to make a small island and is formed when the roots of the “totora” reed come away from the bottom of the lake and float to the surface during the rainy season. The islanders, using their reed-made boats, travel the lake to find and cut the reeds from the root. They tie the root parts together and lay the reeds in a thatch pattern on top. The island is then attached to 10 eucalyptus tree anchors. The strength of the eucalyptus stops their home from floating away.
To maintain the island, the thatching process needs to be ‘topped up’ with new layers every 3 months. Once this tedious task is done regularly, the island should last at least 10 years.
The totora is used for everything, construction of houses, building boats that they call ‘Mercedes’, they burn it for fuel, and even making hats and artesanía from it.
It takes them 6 months to make a Mercedes (reed boat) and they only last for 18 months.
Their diet consists of mostly fish and birds, with cooking done in clay ovens. These ovens have to be placed on special stones, as one family member constantly pours water around the area to stop the island from catching alight.
We noticed there was a small solar panel nestled behind one of the family huts. Mama explained that the ex-president of Peru distributed solar panels to the islanders, with the hope of preventing the rising incidents of fires.
There are nearby trout farms on the lake. When introduced from Canada, these predators started to kill every other living thing in the lake, so they’re now confined to farms.
With fishing as their main resource, the people of Uros Titinos also dedicate themselves to hunting birds and catching eggs using old-fashioned, man-made musket guns.
Their houses, called ‘ootha’ in Aymara, have to be built on a slightly higher level to avoid the damp ground. This is important considering they all suffer from extreme cases of arthritis, due to living a damp life.
Amazed and in awe at the overload of information, we wanted to get even more personal and find out about Mama, her family and the other two families who shared their artificial land.
We were shocked to find out that the primary language spoken was Aymara, a language that dates back to the pre-Incan era. However, the Uros people can also speak Quechua, with some even speaking Spanish, but only a minority.
Here I am struggling to learn Spanish, with all the resources in the world, and these people learn while living a secluded life with not a pen or paper to their name.
Our open mouths grew larger as Mama shared that at least five generations of her family were born, raised and died on the island, with the majority never EVER leaving the 15sqm oval.
Those who do leave the island do not visit the mainland per se but venture to the nearby Capachica peninsula. Here they trade fish, birds and eggs for supplies; usually potatoes and vegetables. It was astonishing but fairly obvious when we realised they don’t buy or sell, only trade.
Even in extreme emergencies, such as sickness, they don’t leave. With no doctors available to them, they use what is at hand for medicines and even do all the mid-wifing themselves.
With one more question left, one that had been bugging us since our arrival in Puno. We asked Mama how she felt about the facade, the big show, the fake tourist trap – The Uros Islands.
Her shoulders tightened. Her face then loosened as she let go of the tight shrug. “It is what it is” was all she could comment on. Fully aware of the tourism show, her indifference towards them proves how independent these Aymara people are. Tourism is not their bread and butter, and although they are fully aware of just how much prosperity tours would bring and always welcome the visiting gringo; they don’t want nor need it.
We couldn’t help but feel happiness. One 360° turn and you can see all there is on the reed island, this piece of perfection. It’s a beautiful little secret. And even though we share our discovery with you, we hope the tours steer clear and the eager tourist puts in the extra effort to enjoy something so unique.
Do it. Go visit and if the above hasn’t convinced you, hopefully, our promise will. Our promise is that you will experience something extraordinary, you will meet truly unique people and your view of the world will tilt slightly. In a good way. Always in a good way.
Cusco to Puno:
Buses to Puno leave from Cusco’s Terminal Terrestre, with a number of companies running afternoon and overnight buses.
The likes of Libertad and San Martin have buses leaving between 2.00-2.30 pm for around 20-25 sol (€5.50-€7). We went for the 2 pm Libertad bus paying 20 sol each, and arrived in Puno just after 10 pm. Great scenery and a relaxing drive but if we were to do it again, we’d take an overnight. Forget wasting the day on the bus and get some sleep instead.
Pop over to Romaliza or San Luis who have overnight buses starting from 10 pm and 10.30 pm for 25-30 sol (€7-€8.30). Oh, and the promised 8-hour journey won’t be just that, always expect delays. You know how it is!
Accommodation in Puno:
Finding it a little more difficult to locate a hostel with a kitchen in Puno, we got lucky with Aymarak Hostel, a cute little apartment-style hostel hidden not but 15 minutes away from the Plaza de Armas.
We pre-booked via Booking.com and secured a private double room with a shared bathroom for €11 per night.
Found on the quiet side of town, the roomy apartment offers a well-facilitated kitchen, hot water (always!) in both private and dorm rooms, as well as dodgy Wi-Fi. But hey, we can’t have it all, eh?
The best part about our stay here was that Luz stored our bags for free while we went off to visit Uros Titinos. We had no clue if we’d be back that night or not, and Luz kindly understood telling us not to worry either way.
You can contact the lovely Luz, a very welcoming and informative host, who is always willing to help whether it’s tours, local information, answering questions or giving advice. Ask her to teach you some Aymara, the native language, and go show off in the market. The locals will love it.
Best to catch Luz on WhatsApp at +51 988336633 or of course just pop down and knock in: #135, Avenida Circunvalacion Sur (from the bus terminal it is a 40-minute walk or a 4sol taxi).
‘Bus it’ to Llachon:
With the hassle of backpacks off our minds, at 11 a.m., we headed towards the corner of Jr. Ferrocamil and Lampa, next to the entrance of the basketball court to catch the first of two collectivos to Llachon.
Note: In the early mornings, there are some collectivos that drive direct to Llachon but we couldn’t get a straight answer regarding what time. If you do catch it, we do know that it costs 7sol (€2).
#1 Puno to Capachica:
Either way, the easy ride from Puno to Llachon starts with the first collectivo to Capachica, a busy little rainbow village full of life and colour, thanks to the fresh vibrant produce and the local attire.
From outside the basketball court, jump the collectivo to Capachica for 4sol, a slightly bumpy but beautiful 1hr ride.
#2 Chapachica to Llachon:
From where the collectivo drops you in Capachica, directly across the road are collectivos to Llachon. You will hear the driver calling out. It is a 30-minute drive costing 3sol (€0.85).
Accommodation in Llachon:
Unless you arrive before 9 a.m., it’s unlikely you will catch a ride directly to Uros Titinos and trust us when we say that is lucky for you.
A sleepover here is high on our suggestions list. The local families are such excellent hosts; entertaining, friendly, informative, and all at a very small price. A price that means little to us but so much to them.
Our first recommendation is Bernardo Mirardo, the head of the local tourist board and founder of the local “homestay committee”. If Bernardo cannot help you, the only reason being all rooms are full, he is certainly the first man to tick off the ‘door-knocking’ list.
Mirardo offered us a basic private twin room on his farm for 30 sol (€8.30) not including meals. However there is an all inclusive rate available, just ask!
Instead we brought our own lunch, opted in for dinner that night and breakfast the following morning.
Dinner, at 13 sol (€3.60) included a vegetable and pasta soup, doubles if you ask, followed by a vegetable omelette with rice.
Breakfast was a yummy dose of pancakes and jam with coffee or tea (free refills!) for only 8 sol (€2.25).
To find Bernard’s casa, head to the local plaza. Where the collectivo drops you, facing the large town map, with the shop on your left hand side, take the first right.
Now, standing towards the church, on the top left hand corner, follow the dirt track heading downwards.
Stay on this road until you reach number 191, the numbers are all painted on the houses.
At #191, follow the steps all the way down, through two gardens and a large lot of land, until you reach the very last house.
Alternatively, ask any local for Bernardo Mirardo. He’s well known!
If you prefer to call ahead, pop Mirardo an email: email@example.com
Other Homestay Options:
For an abundance of homestays, all with visible signs outside their welcoming homes, see and save the image below. Use the map and simply knock on doors, and always expect a smiling face!
Below you will find a local map, houses and names means those families are open to a homestay. Go get your local on!
The good news is that any and all of the homestay hosts offer transfers to islands.
We were told by a local in Puno that prices can start at 80 sol pp (€22). Our budget shrieked, but as always, we took things with a pinch of salt and decided to ask directly in Llachan. A good call!
Turns out the boat ride itself is 80 sol, costing 40sol pp (€11). This includes the 40-minute motorboat to the island, a somewhat private tour guide who can help with translations and any questions, and return back to Llachon. Score!!
Bernardo Mirardo most definitely offers transfers, as does his neighbour Dysenio, so you’re guaranteed to find your captain.
A wonderful experience, a golden find and a memorable adventure. We hope you too gain as much love and respect for the locals as we did.
It really was the ideal bow to wrap around our perfect Peru, and a nice memory to end our 3 months.
Any questions? Get in touch! We’re always happy to help.