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Food Feature: Floating to the top

A sunny day on Lake Titicaca

At 12,500 feet above sea level and nestled comfortably in the Andes Mountains, Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America — and the highest lake of its size in the world. Nosebleed high. Our first day in the port town of Puno was spent lying in bed with nauseating migraines in an attempt to recover from our brutal night ride from Arequipa, during which we climbed an air-thinning 4,875 feet in an overheated, rickety train that bounced relentlessly from track to track.

Altitude sickness is real. There's no way to avoid it when traveling the upper Andes Mountains, but you can make its effects less lethal if you don't take the train from Arequipa. Walk if you have to.

On our second day in Puno, my girlfriend and I took a boat tour of the lake. Covering 3,200 square miles and running 120 miles in length between Peru and Bolivia, we were only able to visit a portion, even though our tour lasted a good six hours. The lake is big, like Lake Michigan, and when you're out in the middle of it, it's impossible to see all four shores.

When surveyed from the mountains near Yunguyo, the lake has the appearance of a puma — hence its name. Lake Titicaca means "gray puma" in the language of the Colla Indians, who settled the region hundreds of years ago. Now that you know what it means, you can wipe that smirk off your face.

Despite its name, the lake is not gray. Thin air coaxes inviting hues of navy and turquoise from the deep, seemingly endless water. It is from these unplumbed depths that, according to Incan mythology, Mama Ocllo and Manco Capac — the mother and father of the Inca Empire and direct descendants of the Sun — were said to have emerged to begin the reign of the Inca.

Threat of Inca domination drove the local Uros Indians to the lake for refuge. They did this in a most unique way — by banding reeds of grass together to build buoyant islands big enough to support houses and thoroughfares. Entire villages took to the waters 600 years ago, with the villagers living mostly off the fish they could catch from their back doors.

The islands were the first stop on our visit. Jumping from the boat to the island is a bit like stepping from a sturdy coffee table onto a firm, but springy, mattress. You would expect the island to tip and bob with each step, but it holds steady and is able to miraculously distribute the weight of people poking around on it.

Only a few islands remain and very few Uros Indians live on them full time. On our visit, tourists outnumbered the inhabitants who sat calmly among the knickknacks and sweaters spread out for sale. There was an odd disconnect. The villagers barely made eye contact with the tourists who pointed their cameras at everything. Language is a barrier, as are the eons of time between us and the culture the Indians represent.

Walking on the island was a pleasure unlike anything I'd experienced before or since. Each springy step was a natural foot massage, one you could feel through your shoes. Some visitors spent their hour-long visit lying on the soft cushion, looking idly at the clear blue sky above. I had a look over the edge and saw that the island is thick — it extends about 6 feet into the water. Every six months the villagers weave new grass to the top to replace the grass which rots away on the bottom. One high-tech island has a gas station for filling the tanks of the tiny boats that speed by. Another is powered by a thin solar panel, although as hard as we looked, we couldn't find an electronic device anywhere on the island.

We climbed the observation tower — built entirely from reeds and grass, but re-enforced with a wooden platform — to get an overview of the small island and bald spots on tourist heads, then we took a short ride on one of the canoe-shaped boats, made from the same tightly bundled reeds as the islands. The canoes have gigantic, ferocious, cathead images on the front, with fiery painted eyes. Upon closer inspection, we see the eyes are made from upturned plastic water bottles, proving the resourcefulness that led the Uros to the lake still lives today.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring Isla Taquile — a real island with rocks and stone, but no electricity. We had lunch there after a long hike to the island's peak, and watched the native children play a game very similar to hopscotch.

Riding back to Puno, the entire group struggled to stay awake. The altitude and the lulling sound of the water lapping against our slow-moving boat were a tranquilizing combination. As we pulled into the harbor, our guide thanked us for our visit and said he had enjoyed the jokes and laughter, but he reminded us that Lake Titicaca is a sacred place, and that the energy we took from it will make us richer and fuller for the rest of our lives.

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