August 26, 2015

Steff’s Incan Adventure – Part 3: Amantani Island Homestay, Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands

Did you know that going on an adventure is a lot more fun than writing about it? Well, it’s true. It is taking me a long time to shrink all my photographs down to blog-posting size and writing about all the things we saw and did while I was in South America, but I’m getting there slowly! If you want to read the other pieces I’ve written about my recent trip, then check out Part 1: La Chascona, Santiago, and Part 2: Witches Market, La Paz.

From Bolivia, we took a bus, and a boat, and then a bus again to Puno, a Peruvian city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In order to get to Puno, we had to cross the lake at its narrowest point, which meant getting off our double-decker bus, hopping on a tiny boat, and motoring across while our bus went over on a barge that looked as if it was last maintained during the height of the Incan empire.

barge bus

barge titcaca

Most of the day was taken up with the bus journey. In the evening we wandered around the city of Puno, having a look at the exterior of the beautiful cathedral, and eating some delicious food while watching a traditional band. Puno is a colonial town with a lot of Spanish architecture, and much of its economy relies on agriculture (llamas and alpacas), and the black market of goods smuggled cheaply in from Bolivia. The poorer neighbourhoods are located on the mountains to the rear of the city, and the roads and streets are steep and narrow and many can’t be accessed by car.

puno cathedral

puno church

I love the shape of these Spanish-style churches – short and square as compared to English and French styles with tall spires.

cathedral steff

stuffed avo

My first course was an avocado stuffed with vegetables, and it was as amazing as it looked. The band was pretty damn awesome, too.

band 1

The next day we were greeted at the hotel with tuk tuks, which took us down to the wharf. It was a blast weaving through all the crazy traffic on the front of this little cart! Our poor driver was red-faced and soaked with sweat by the time we arrived.

tuk tuks

tuk tuk fun

ginny mike tuk tuk

At the market we met Elvis (his real name), our guide for the next two days. Elvis helped us choose some groceries at the market to bring to our host families. Out on the islands there are no stores, so any food we bring is greatly appreciated. We each filled some bags with rice and flour and chocolate bars and apples. Maik and I also had a bottle of whisky each stashed in our backpacks. (You can buy whisky at the supermarket for $5-7NZ – this is my kind of country!)

steff on boat

titcaca 2

lake titcaca

Finally, we were out on the water, and it was a glorious day. I raced up to the roof of the boat to get a good look at Lake Titcaca. The lake is the highest in the world (at 3,812 m surface elevation) that can be navigated by commercial craft. I am taking my altitude pills and my hands and feet are tingling like crazy from being so high up.

reed island


But before we got to Amantani Island, our home for the night, we had a three hour boat ride, and an excursion to the reed islands or the Uros first. The Uros are a pre-Incan people who used to trade with the Aymara on the mainland, and eventually adopted the Aymara language and lost their own. They moved to the reed islands originally as a defensive mechanism – if they were threatened, they could simply float their homes away. Nowadays, a few hundred families live on 42 floating reed islands, and they have kept some of their old customs (although also adopted modern conveniences, such as solar power).


Look, there’s even a cat!


We stopped off at one of the larger islands, and had a short lecture about how the reed islands are built and the daily lives of the inhabitants. The islands are actually anchored in place, and the inhabitants must lay down fresh totara reeds every few months as the ones on the bottom rot away and the islands sink. Their home and structures are also made from the reeds, and they can also be eaten. What was particularly fun about this lecture was the friend that happened to join us. (This guy is actually a pet on the island).

friendly bird

bird friend

Walking on the islands is a real crazy experience. Every step you take has you sinking an inch or two into the reeds. Some spots you even sink a little deeper. It feels oddly disorienting to know that all that lies between you and that deep, cold water is reeds and reeds and reeds.

look reeds

After the lecture, mum and I went off with Mama Rita, who took us to her hut, dressed us up in traditional outfits (Mama Rita made these clothes herself, including spinning all the cloth and making all the embroidery). Different coloured pom-poms mean different things, whether you’re married or unmarried, etc. We took pictures and then went shopping.

steff rita

2 mamas


Tourism is one of the only ways families on the islands make money, so they sell handicrafts to people like me, and use that money for buying things they can’t grow or produce themselves, or for sending their children to universities on the mainland. Their work is absolutely stunning – I bought three cushion covers depicting various gods and constellations from the Incan culture, and the Incan astrological calendar. It is interesting to see how much work women do on these islands, and how valuable and valued they are within their society.


After our shopping expedition, and the Mamas sang us a farewell song, we were invited to have a boat ride on one of the traditional boats. I am never one to turn down an opportunity to get out on the water, and I was fascinated with how the reed boats were operated, so we paid our little fee and hopped on board.

steff row

mum row

Unfortunately, just as our Mamas hopped in behind the oars and started rowing, the wind picked up. As hard as they rowed, they couldn’t push the heavy boat in the direction we needed to go. After floundering around for a very pleasant 40 minutes, Mama Rita had had enough. She whipped out her cellphone and called for reinforcements.


And we were back on track.

Safely back on our motorboat once more, we continued our trip out to Amantani island. The weather was absolutely stunning, so we sat out the back of the boat in the sunshine and chatted until the crest of the island came into view.

mike ginny


Amantani island is home to around 3,500 people spread in 10 communities scattered around the perimeter of the island. The people of the island speak Quechua, and live a very off-grid, traditional life. Each community takes turns to host overnight guests – one community per month. And each household within the community will host ten guests in a row, and then their turn will be over and another house will host ten guests. Like the reed islands, tourism is one of the only ways people on Amantani island can make money, so it’s a vital part of their economy.

mama fanny2


Looking down on the kitchen and courtyard from our bedrooms. The building in the background is the school, where we had the evening dance.


Maik, Ginny, Mother Metal and I were billeted with Mama Fanny and Papa Reuban. Their adobe house was amazing – Papa Reuban explained that the whole village helped them build it. When someone needs a home, everyone gathers together to mould the adobe bricks and build the walls and roof. With everyone working together a house can be put up in a few days. Reuben hasn’t quite finished some details, such as the railings, because he has to wait his turn for the limited amount of wood that’s supplied to the village.


What Fanny and Reuban do have is a stunning, million-dollar ocean view. Note the lack of railing at the end of this second storey landing. WorkSafe would have something to say about that.


The house was arranged around a central courtyard. The kitchen and utility rooms were on the bottom storey, along with Rueban and Fanny’s family bedrooms. On the top storey were five bedrooms (two unfinished) for hostng guests. Rueban was in the middle of finishing the final two bedrooms – these had “grande” doors, for us tall gringos!


Fanny cooked us a lunch of quinoa soup, fried cheese and papas from their gardens. The diet on Amantani island is mostly vegetarian – they do eat fish occasionally. They farm their own crops, and also raise sheep for wool. Fanny showed us some of her beautifully-crafted hats and socks. We talked to our host family about their lives – we were very lucky that Ginny speaks excellent Spanish, so through her we were able to have a real conversation. Poor Ginny had to find the words to translate all our questions!

coca tea

I washed down my lunch with a cup of coca tea – coca leaves (yes, those coca leaves) steeped in water. I got a bit addicted to this stuff.


After lunch we went to some lectures about how the people on the island grind flour and do other crafts. Then, we walked up the twin temples that top the two peaks that form the island. The walk is a bit over an hour, and the ritual sites are over 4000 metres above sea level. This is our first taste of what it’s like exerting yourself while at altitude. I was pretty pumped for the challenge and raced ahead of Mum and the rest of the group.


This is the first archaeological site I have visited on the trip so far, so I am pretty excited. The ruins are a mixture of the Tiwanaku and Incan cultures.

Unfortunately, I raced so far ahead that I missed the turnoff the Pachatata’s temple, and ended up at Pachamama’s temple with about 20 other intrepid hikers who’d gone the wrong way. So while I’m waiting for my fellow travellers to arrive, they are on the other peak waiting for me!


You can see the Pachatata temple on top of this hill. That is where I was meant to be!


steff ruins

sunset ruins2

Sunset was breathtaking (and felt well-earned after the short hike!)

Back down in the village, Fanny cooked up a delicious dinner, and then dressed us in some of her clothing. Maik and I broke out our whisky and we had a few drins with Fanny and Rueban before heading out to the discotecque. Maik and I shared around our whisky and I danced with Papa Reuban and we all had an amazing time. Back at the house, I grabbed my binoculars and had a look at the sky (it’s so weird seeing a different angle of the Milky Way.) Then I went to bed, banging my head on the lintel of my door.

party band

The next day, we woke up to a breakfast of pancakes and jam, said a tearful goodbye to our family, and then went back down to the docks to catch our boat. We were meant to be visiting another island for the day, but the wind had picked up on the lake so badly that most of the boats had been cancelled. We had to get back to Puno before we were stuck out on Lake Titicaca for another night (a concept that we were actually pretty keen on, to be honest).



Lesson 1: Hangovers at altitude are brutal, especially hangovers at altitude while on a boat-ride across a choppy lake. I made it back in one piece, though!

Although I got to do and see some amazing things on this trip, spending the night out on Amantani Island was one of the highlights. Fanny and Rueban welcomed us into their home, and shared with us details about their lives. Even though when comparing their lives to ours it seems they have very little, they are full, active and happy. It was a reminder to me that what’s important in life isn’t how nice your house or car is, or what you do, or even what you achieve, it’s the people you share it with. And it was beautiful to be able to share this adventure with my mum, and my new friends.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, on Amazon now!

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