I was a little surprised when we boarded a boat in Puno with about 30 other people. My daughter and I and another American couple were headed to Amantani island on Lake Titicaca where we would spend the night with a local family. Surely all these people weren’t doing homestays, too, were they? How many hosts were there on this island?
I’d done my homework and learned as much as I could about the experience beforehand. We would have dormitory accommodations at the home of a native islander family. The families on Amantani shared in the responsibility and prosperity of opening their homes to tourists by rotating which homes would host each week. We were encouraged to bring fruits or rice for the families since the nearest place to get them was in Puno — a 4-hour ferry ride away. So we packed up our gifts and headed out on the boat with a multitude of people that seemed equal to the number of families that lived on the remote lake island! (We later learned that this is a popular vacation spot for South Americans.)
Once we arrived, we were greeted at the dock by a local official who quickly sorted us all into smaller groups that he handed off to the waiting women clad in dark red skirts, white blouses, and black head coverings — our “Mamas.”
“Follow your Mama!” he told us, as a young woman named Yudi smiled and slowly began meandering up the steep mountain. Like the Incans and everyone else in Peru, it seems they all chose to make their homes at the top of the mountain.
Mama Yudi could not have been more than 14-years-old. We tried to make conversation with her, but she only spoke a little Spanish. On Amantani, they speak Quechuan. There is little tourism on the island other than people coming for the homestays. As we trudged up the hill behind Yudi, I knew this was going to be an interesting experience.
I wasn’t sure what to expect her home to be like. We walked into the gate and I realized that it was much bigger than I’d imagined. And yet, it wasn’t. My daughter and I had a room right off the courtyard area. The other American couple had a guest room up the stairs, but apart from the main house. We would share a Bano (bathroom), but didn’t realize that there was no running water in there. To flush the toilet, we had to go back out of the bathroom and get a bucket of water to rinse the waste down. That’s just how they do things there.
Since we’d been on the boat all morning, it was time for lunch. Mama Yudi shepherded us into the dining room and brought the four of us bowls of quinoa soup along with a plate of rice and vegetables. It was bland, but it was filling. We didn’t care much about the food. We were just excited to be staying in someone’s home.
After I peeked into the kitchen, it seemed like creating any meal would be a marvel here. And, I began to wonder whether we had electricity in our bedroom since I saw no evidence of electric here and hadn’t checked before. (We did.)
After lunch, we headed to the community center for instructions. Since most people didn’t speak English, and only knew limited Spanish, they’d organized this very well. The leader explained that we’d hike up the rest of the mountain to see the temples and a beautiful sunset from there. Then, we’d climb down and make our way back with our Mamas to our respective houses for dinner. Then we’d all meet again in the community center for a dance. If we’d like, our Mamas would provide us with traditional clothing to wear.
Of course we wanted to wear the clothing! When in Amantani…
So Mama Yudi brought in a heap of heavy cloth and dressed my daughter and I in brightly-colored skirts, white blouses and black shawl head coverings just like hers. We hadn’t noticed her ornate belt before, but we certainly noticed it when she wrapped it around us. She pulled it as tight as a corset, and it was much stiffer than it had seemed at first glance. Their traditional costume was heavy and restrictive. The corset belt combined with the altitude made it even harder than usual to breathe. And now we were to dance!
Luckily, the dance hall was packed with people and the dancing was limited to holding hands and making a snaking line in and out of the crowd. We stepped along with Mama Yudi and all the other villagers until we were too hot and tired to continue. Then we followed Mama Yudi back to the house and bid her goodnight.
That’s when we were thrilled to find that we did have lights in the room. But we didn’t have heat. My daughter and I decided to sleep together to share body warmth beneath the five stiff, carpet-like blankets we piled on top of us. They were heavy. We basically couldn’t move once we got in bed. But the blankets kept us warm in the 48-degree room!
We awoke and had a pancake in Mama Yudi’s kitchen. And then, before we knew it, we were headed down the mountain again for the 4-hour boat ride back to Puno.
It was such a unique experience; staying a night in a Amantaneños’ home, eating their food, wearing their clothes and dancing in the village center. Experiences like these are what I love about travel. Whenever I can, I book a homestay. I can’t help myself; I want to see how other people live.
Have you stayed with locals when you’ve traveled?