Puno, Sillustani and Lake Titicaca

We left Arequipa at 8.30am on 21st April for what should have been a six and a half hour journey to Puno. The bus broke down approximately half way there by which time we were in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver’s toolkit consisted of one screwdriver and one spanner. For a bus losing all of its water this was not enough! After about ten minutes of head scratching by the two drivers [all long distance buses in Central America have two drivers on board] we couldn’t believe it when the “stewardess” came round asking people if they had any water to replace what was now making rivers down the road. To cut a long story short, the drivers stopped a truck and gave the occupant a telephone number – to phone once he got to somewhere with a signal – to let the bus company know we had broken down. About four hours later a mechanic came, fixed the problem and followed us for a few miles until it was deemed all was OK. Fortunately it was and we arrived safely – if a bit travel weary – at around 7.30pm.

The following morning we spent getting to know the town starting with a walk up to a mirador to get our first view of Lake Titicaca.

P1030490aWe then wandered down through the town passing the cathedral with a nicely sculpted facade….

P1030492At one side of the main entrance was this cross….

P1030491aThis type of cross, with craftsmen’s tools and other objects around the main crosspieces, is a feature of a number of churches we have seen and, for those of you who didn’t know [like me], the letters above the face of Christ are INRI and are the abbreviation of Iesus Nazerenus Rex Iudaeorum[Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews] which Pontius Pilot had written on the cross for the crucifixion.

We then headed down to the lake where we were reminded of our childhood.

P1030493aOK, it was swan boats I recalled being taken around a lake in but the sentiment is the same and as about three or four of these were being used as we watched [mainly by adults] they are obviously still popular in Peru.

Just around the corner we came across a small museum where we saw some lovely models of the various types of Reed boats found on and around the lake.

P1030494You can walk all along the shoreline [which is a lot nicer than walking through that part of town!] and see the lake at its tranquil best.

P1030498aBack in the centre of the pedestrian only part of town is the small plaza….

P1030543a…..where feeding the birds seems to be a favourite pastime for the local children.

P1030545aObviously we wanted to take a trip to see Lake Titicaca and its famous islands and, having researched beforehand the possible tours available, we found the “Edgar Tours” office on the main pedestrian street. I had picked this small company because they appeared to go to less visited islands and have a more eco-friendly philosophy. Whilst booking our lake tour for the following day we were told about a trip going, that afternoon, to the Sillustani ruins……

P1030578….so, we paid  £10 [$15] each and off we went.

Sillustani stands on the shores of Lake Umayo which, like the Titicaca area, was populated by the “Pukara” people [800BC – 400AD] and later the “Collas” [1100AD – 1450AD] who buried their nobility in “chullpas”.

P1030571aWe were given two different explanations of a chullpa – the first being that it was the just the wrappings of cloth around the mummified body and the second that it was the actual burial tower. Here at Sillustani the second theory seems to be propounded.

Our excellent guide gave us the history of the site illustrated by this drawing he created during his explanation…

P1030564-….though he did appear to come up with slightly different time periods [but what does 200 years matter when we are talking about nearly 3,000 years ago!]

The Pukara Chullpas were squat towers…

P1030565a…constructed of roughly hewn stones…

P1030562The Collas refined this with much more uniform blocks which surrounded the actual burial mound contained within.

P1030575You can see that although the blocks are flat on the outside, holes have been carved inside them. This was to reduce the overall weight of each stone and also to allow a kind of conglomerate cement to be inserted to bind the blocks together.

Ramps were constructed to assist with getting the top levels of stones in place….

P1030590a…and all the chullpas were built with their small entrance/exit holes facing east.

P1030589aThese holes were used to place the bodies and their artefacts inside and sealed immediately after the burial. All of the chullpas have been either excavated or desecrated but their exteriors are quite well preserved, even the decoration on some of the stones – the most famous being the lizard.

P1030563At 3,897 metres Lake Umayo provides a stunning backdrop to Sillustani….

P1030582…and apparently the tabletop island in the centre provides Vicuñas [you remember – these are the smallest of the Camelids] with a safe haven.

P1030583Leaving the site we saw our first reed boat – one of the smaller canoe type ….

P1030558a….and then passed several typical homesteads….

P1030548a…. one of which we stopped at to watch the preparation of edible clay [“arcilla”].

P1030619bClay is “ground” and then added to water to make a kind of paste which is served as a “sauce” for potatoes. It looked rather too much like pottery “slip” to me! We were also shown the traditional farming implements which are still used…

P1030627a….and encouraged to purchase woven mats [made from alpaca wool].

P1030623aYes, I did – in case anyone is wondering. They look really lovely when finished and brushed – but I still haven’t found anywhere on the boat I can put it!

The following day didn’t dawn quite so brightly – in fact it was drizzling so Lake Titicaca took on a rather more sombre tone as we reached the first island of our tour – Isla Taquile.

P1030643aThe 7 sq km island has a population of around 2,000 people and was the place where Edgar [tour company owner] was born. We were lucky enough to have Edgar as our guide for the day and he introduced us to one of the community elders….

P1030646aThe islanders speak Quechua and have maintained a very strong sense of community and identity. They rarely marry a non – Taquile person and there is no such thing as divorce. However, couples are expected to live together prior to marriage, during which time they may have children. Whilst unusual for a person to have more than one “trial” marriage it was not considered a problem if a couple did separate during the trial. Marriage usually took place after 2-3 years, by which time the couple – with the help of other members of their community – would have built their house.

P1030702As well as the breeze block you can see locally cut stones lying around the site for use in building the house. These are also used to construct walls between fields and along the edges of the pathways [no roads on the island] and to create quite attractive archways.

P1030696aHammers, chisels and pick axes are used to quarry huge blocks of stone….

P1030697a….which are then finely shaped using only hand tools.

P1030698aIn an earlier blog post I described the hats worn by the men on the island which weren’t being worn “for show” because we were there.














You can also see the tassled bags, containing coca, which both men and women carry and the fairly elaborately woven belts.


P1030673a…. and weaving….

P1030661….. are traditional crafts and this island is well known for the quality of its goods. As usual, the goods are available for sale to tour groups but we were impressed that in this community there is no haggling or vendors vying for your attention. The price is set by the elders and attached to the product – as is the name of the person who made it. So, the people who came to sell to us brought their stuff and that of others. Once sold, the price/name tag was removed and given, with the days takings, to one of the elders who ensured that payment went to the right people.

We were also given a demonstration of wool washing which is done with a “soap” made from a local moss like plant.

P1030682aIt certainly worked….

P1030685A well as for woven goods the wool is also used for knitting – a skill undertaken by the men.

P1030674You may have noticed the crop of quinoa behind the lady who was spinning [a few photos ago] and farming….

P1030690a….and fishing…











….enable the island to be fairly self contained. However, whilst all of the above deeply engrained traditional customs are still a part of everyday life on the island, some modern technologies have crept in!

P1030676aWalking back to our boat we crossed a beach where we saw these rather unusual “star” plants…

P1030705aWe were then taken to the mainland – to a small property near Llachón at the southern end of the Capicha peninsular – a quite spectacular spot for lunch….

P1030718The cooking pit is normally outside but because it had been raining that morning it had been lit in a small barn. Before being uncovered, food is blessed with a sprinkling of herbs, which our host did….

P1030720a…. followed with a liquid [might have been water or some form of grain drink] from this pot….

P1030715……which Mike and then I were asked to pour over the pit area.  He told us who we were supposed to represent and I remember that the name he used for me was either “Mama Qocha” [ who was the female spirit of the great ocean, mother of all waters] or ” Pachamama” [Mother Earth]. I’m afraid the name he used for Mike is lost in the mists of time – well five months has passed since then!

The top layer of soil was then removed…

P1030724a….followed by seaweed, which works just like hay in insulating the pit.

P1030728bThe locally grown “habas” [broad beans] were on the top…

P1030730….then the wrapped meat [chicken and trout]…

P1030735a….and finally the potatoes.

P1030738These were served scattered with herbs which were freshly picked by the two younger members of the family


The weather improved as the day progressed and it was really nice to sit on top of our large lancha to watch our last port of call, the Uros islands, approaching.

P1030781aThere are dozens of these famous floating islands which make up the Uros group. They are uniquely constructed from the buoyant “totora” reeds. These reeds are used to build the islands, the houses, the boats and are also edible.

Having been welcomed to the island….

P1030794….wandered round [2 minutes!] and seen their homes and reed boats….

P1030801a…we were shown how the islands are made, new layers continually added as the bottom layers rot….

P1030807b….with houses and people being added to the finished model!

P1030811aThe islands are anchored at what approximates to the four corners…..

P1030825aSmall water fowl also live in the reeds….

P1030822a….and end up as dinner [not a lot of meat on that].

P1030809Whilst Mike joined some of our group on a trip in the reed boat….

P1030831a….I lingered on the island debating what to buy this time!

P1030829Back to Puno and thus ended another brilliant and informative day with “Edgar Tours” living up to their advertised approach and taking us off the beaten track. There were lots of tour operators leaving Puno at the same time as us that morning and we saw groups of boats moored together in a small harbour on the opposite side of Taquile to the side we visited and alongside some of the larger Uros islands but none of them visited the communities we did.

It was only a short stay [two days/three nights] but we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and didn’t feel rushed even though we saw and learned so much.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.sigasiga.co.uk/2015/09/18/puno-sillustani-and-lake-titicaca/

1 comment

    • ed and tif on October 23, 2015 at 7:57 pm
    • Reply

    fascinating! i was glued to this entire post. i had no idea these communities existed. what a very pragmatic way to approach marriage! nice work, and again, fantastic writing! 🙂

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