Lake Titicaca homestay experience is one to remember

ALANA DIXON
Last updated 13:09 21/01/2013

One of my biggest fears about doing a tour in South America was that we would miss out on the little things.

Tourist attractions like Macchu Picchu and staying in an Amazonian lodge - both of which are experiences I have just completed, and enjoyed immensely - are popular with swarms of tourists, and they deserve to be. But my favourite part of going somewhere exotic is just people watching in a square somewhere, or chatting to the stranger next to me in a cafe. I was nervous that in Peru our tour group's homestay on Lake Titicaca, the world's highest at 3800 metres, would just be a watered-down, mass-market-tourist faux experience. I'm glad it didn't feel like that.

We started the day with a tuk-tuk ride from the middle of Puno to the edge of the lake, where we bought gifts like gasoline, rice and tinned coffee to take to our respective families. Then we hopped on board what turned out to be the world's slowest-moving catamaran for the trip around the islands. Our first stop, the floating reed island of Uros, was definitely geared towards tourists. The head honcho of the island met us, along with some typically brightly-clad local women, and explained how the island was formed by constantly layering the reeds on what looked like a base of peat slabs, which were tied together with rope. Then the women took our hands and led us to their homes, one-room buildings also made out of reeds. We sat on their mattresses, made out of - you guessed it - reeds and tried to politely decline as they tried to sell us overpriced handicrafts like tapestries and knitted alpaca hats.

A quick circuit of the island on a reed boat and a rousing rendition of Row, row, row your boat by the island women, then we were back on our boat to head to the island of Amatani where our host families awaited.

Our mama-to-be, Yuliaca, was a slightly stooped woman I guessed to be in her early 70s, with smooth, nut-brown skin and friendly eyes. She led Mark and I, and our fellow home stayers, up the path to the house, past green fields and shady trees overhanging the concrete. In the distance the lake sparkled a beautiful blue.

She waited for us at the top of the hill, as one by one we arrived, huffing and puffing. (That altitude really gets to you.) Soon we were firmly ensconced in the family, eating quinoa soup and charred beans from the shells with Yuliaca and her husband, their daughter and son-in-law, and then playing with the marbles we brought with their two grandchildren.

In the afternoon, I joined in the festivities celebrating the new year in the island's main square. They were endless hours of constant colour and noise, as people dancing and drinking and playing the trumpet swirled all around. Darren from Brisbane introduced us to a woman from Arequipa called Marcela - he'd gone into the bar to get a few cervezas and was served by her, only to find out she didn't actually work there. She'd just seen how busy it was in there and probably thought the more she helped, the quicker her beer would arrive too.

Outside, she pulled fistfuls of coca leaves from her pockets and told us to close our eyes as we blew on them three times, praying for happiness and health and wealth and whatever else, to the spirit of Pachamama, the spirit of the Earth.

That night we found Marcela leading everybody in the folk dances at a party in a hall.

Our host families had dressed us all in traditional Peruvian costume for the occasion and our ponchos and full skirts billowed wildly, as we bounced around the room in time to the band's cavalcade of sounds.

I can't say it was my trendiest look - my grey alpaca wool socks made sure of that - but when I look back at the photos, I'll be thinking of the memories, not my questionable sartorial choices.

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