The boat to Isla Amantani was as slow as a Peruvian taxi is fast. We putted across Paucarcolla Bay then out into the open waters of Lake Titicaca. To the south was the Cordillera Real mountain range in Bolivia. Somewhere at the base of the crisp white peaks was tucked La Paz, probably still wracked by protests. It was cool and silent on the top of our little craft as we headed out into the middle of the world’s highest navigable lake.
From the middle of the water we had a view of hills around Puno, hills that would be considered mountains anywhere else given their altitudes. All were covered in thousands of layers of terraces, the vast majority unused, the vast majority worn smooth be erosion and neglect.
I looked around for someone to give a lecture to about my new favorite subject, the tragic miscalculation of the pre-columbian population of the Americas, but Magda was already sick of hearing about it and the few other people on the deck looked too peaceful to disturb. Instead I wondered to myself how many people the terraces could have fed, and how long it took to build them all. The area surrounding Lake Titicaca is relatively sparse today, but at some point in history it must have been teeming with people.
When we arrived to Amantani Island it too was terraced from the shore to its peak. The Incans and other pre-Incan civilizations had lived here for centuries, slowly transforming its steep hillsides into productive farmland. Today the island is a quiet refuge for a population of Quechua speaking people. There are no cars on the island or dogs allowed. There is very little machinery and no electricity. At a certain point in the recent past, like Christina on Uros, the island decided collectively to promote tourism and families take turn hosting visitors like ourselves.
Waiting at the dock were a handful of wizened looking people in traditional clothes. Like the different regions in Bolivia, the people of the island again wore a variation on the Andean theme. Instead of tall, felt gentleman’s hats, the women wore long black cloaks over their heads, although the fringes were still decorated with a cheerful rainbow inspired palate. The boat captain assigned the tourists on board to different families. A large group of Germans were given to the youngest looking man on the dock, and we were introduced to Señora Paula.
The Señora was hidden beneath her long black cloak, little feet sticking out from a voluminous long red skirt. She wore an intricately embroidered vest and the traditional Andean thick colorful belt. We introduced ourselves and she quietly said it was a pleasure, but her deeply lined face was a mask and it was hard to tell if it truly was. She indicated we follow and turned on her heel to begin walking uphill from the dock. Grinning at each other as we’d felt we nabbed the most traditional looking host, we followed. Both of us were in our synthetic grey, black and beige traveling clothes, backpacks high on our shoulders, following a diminutive cloaked figure up a winding stone path. She didn’t speak or turn around to see if we were following, she only took out a spool of yarn from somewhere, wrapped a length around the back of her head, and started spinning wool as she walked. It was obviously second nature to her. She twirled the spindle absentmindedly like a youth with a yo-yo, letting it skip across the flagstones occasionally as it spun.
We climbed and climbed. Señora Paula, who must have been in her late 60’s, walked quickly, even while spinning her yarn. Magda and I both stopped frequently to catch our breath in the thin air. We passed underneath a replica of an Inca gateway, the stones fashioned on top to represent the sun. On the posts were relief carvings of the sacred animals: the condor, the puma, the snake and… the penguin? I asked Magda what she thought penguins were doing carved in the stone, but we were falling behind and rushed to catch up.
The Señora acknowledged us for once as she pointed towards a little house nestled in some flowering bushes on the side of the hill. We followed her across a dirt path, past some grazing sheep and through a tiny wooden gate that had been blocked by a giant stone. She kicked at the stone until it rolled aside and we entered. The two-story house was wrapped around a little courtyard. In one corner, behind a barrier of detritus, was a pen holding hundreds of carrot shaped potatoes. They were purple. On the other side of the courtyard, the kitchen had its own little building that was covered in flowering vines.
Señora Paula showed us to our room up a tight flight of stairs, and we entered. It was basic but comfortable looking and she stood in the door, waiting for us to put down our bags. When we did, she said very simply that she had been alone, her husband and children were on the other side of the island, so she was very happy to have our company. Then for the first time, she smiled, a hundred creases making parenthesis around her face. She reached out and gave Magda a hug and a kiss. I leaned way over and she reached up and hugged me too. Then she said lunch would be ready soon and left.
After a lunch that included some of the potatoes from the corner and a few other types we’d never seen before, we told her that were were going to go explore the rest of the island. Señora Paula nodded, her face a mask again. She was sitting on the porch in a spot of sun, knitting a hat with the wool she’d spun. As we left she reminded us of her name, in case we’d forgotten. We thought it odd, since we’d called her by name several times. She said it was in case we got lost and just to ask for her: Señora Paula. The island didn’t seem very big and I felt like getting lost while surrounded by water, with one tall peak in the middle, would be difficult. It would be like getting lost on a dunce-cap.
There are a few attractions on the island itself beside the Quechua people living pretty much as they have for centuries. On the top of the highest peak are the remnants of a pre-Incan temple to Pachatata, the brother-husband of Pachamama, who also has a temple a little ways away. It’s a steep climb up the many levels of terraced, but otherwise featureless landscape. The sun was low as we puffed and panted our way up flights of ancient stone stairs. The air was getting crisper and thinner the higher we climbed. Once at the top we had a view of Titicaca and the dramatic Andes range. From beyond the peaks a storm was boiling up from the steamy Amazon jungle, sending mushroom-clouds crackling with lighting high into the purpling sky. The temple was a little disappointing, it was just a footprint of a once powerful place. Fortunately the view was incredible.
The sunset was hidden by one of the black clouds but it was lighting up the Andes, the glaciers reflecting a beautiful bright orange light. As their glow faded, slowly turning yellow, and then blue like an old bruise, we started back down. Darkness came quickly. Soon the stone steps were difficult to distinguish. We went slowly, careful not to twist anything. Our way was partially lit by a rising moon and we thought we could tell which way our path led, after all, all we needed to do was go down. We were off of the steepest slope and back on the flagstones when a dark figure approached us on the path. An old man with a floppy llama wool cap heralded us, asking ‘which family?’ We told, him, ‘Señora Paula’, and he thought for a minute, then made a noise of recognition and waved us in the direction we were headed.
Thankful we were at least going the right way, we walked further. Another form came towards us, a teenager. His posture made us nervous, he looked like he was looking for something. ‘Which Family?’ he asked. We laughed, ‘Señora Paula!’ He seemed serious and waved us on. Soon it was completely dark. The moon was behind a cloud and any detail of the island was in black silhoette.
Another figure approached, a black ghost in the darkness. As it came nearer we opened our mouths in anticipation of the question,
“Señora Paula!” Magda said.
And it was Señora Paula. She was grinning up at us from beneath her black hood. After darkness fell, Señora Paula had put down her knitting, donned her cloak, and came to find her gringos.
“I thought you’d gotten lost!” she said, turning around to lead us home.
I don’t know if we were lost, but it was nice to be found, and we appreciated our hostess that much more for it. It seems lots of tourists get lost coming back from Pachatata, hence the volunteer guides that come out after dark to help people back to their families. Occasionally people have had to rough it on the terraces until sunrise, leaving their hosts to wonder what has happened to their guests.
A little after sunrise I stuck my head into the kitchen and wished Señora Paula a good morning. She replied in Quechua, and soon Magda and I were trying on different Quechua greetings and phrases. Señora Paula giggled as we mangled her language and gently corrected us. We ate breakfast together and chatted over muña tea, made from the bushes of muña herbs that grow abundantly on the island. Soon it was time to leave for the ferry. As we helped clean, we asked Paula if guests ever stayed for more than one night. She shook her head, sadly, no. Once a Canadian family had stayed for a week, and by the end they were calling her ‘Mama Paula’, and still call her occasionally to say hello.
Soon we were marching back down to the docks in single file, Paula leading, spinning her wool as she walked. We passed beneath the stone gateway and I stopped her. I pointed out the penguins and asked her why they were there. Señor Paula laughed, threw her spindle again, and led us down to the ferry headed for Isla Taquile.
We commented on the Señora’s collection of skipping rocks. She told us they were used as currency on the island. “In the old days”, Magda affirmed. No, said Paula, today.
Señora Paula leads us to the ferry
We missed a Quechua festival on Isla Taquile, but the celebrations from the day before were still on, a band roamed the island accompanied by a case of beer.
Isla Taquile, one of the best preserved islands of Quechua culture.