Llachon, Peru Home Visit
My hostess served delicious meals prepared with traditional recipes and local produce, allowed me to assist with post-meal cleanup, prepared the night’s accommodations, personally dressed me in local finery then escorted me to an evening soiree. Out of necessity, we communicated during our time together but I couldn’t understand a word she said nor could she understand my words.
The setting was a home stay in the village of Llachon, Peru on the border of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Candelera, my hostess, only spoke a dialect of Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire spoken by the people in Llachon. I met her, along with other town residents who had agreed to host our group of eight tourists and two guides, at the boat landing where we were dropped off.
From the dock, our intrepid group followed our respective hosts across the sandy beach and up the steep path to our accommodations for the night. At 3,800 meters, about 14,000 feet, above sea level, I had to stop several times along the way to catch my breath.
My husband and I finally arrived at Candelera’s home, a five room straw covered adobe complex shaded on the downhill lake side by a tall euculyptus tree. A dry clay sunken courtyard on the other side was decorated potted geraniums. A stone laid set of steps led away from the complex and up the hill to the village.
I presented Candelera with our gift of supplies (sugar, cooking oil, toilet paper, fresh fruit) purchased at the Puno market before boarding the boat. She showed us to our room then finished preparing the lunch she had started before meeting our boat. Lunch was set on a table covered with a colorful Peruvian tapestry and consisted of barley soup, a local staple, followed by a fried egg dish, boiled white potatoes, and boiled red and yellow yams all served in beautiful red clay dishes.
After lunch, I did what women everywhere do. I helped clear the table and wash the dishes. Candelera scrubbed the dishes in one bucket and I rinsed them in another. She stacked them on a low corner shelf then carefully covered them with a cloth.
As I helped with the dishes, I looked around the tiny space she used to prepare meals. In one corner was the smallest open clay oven and stove I’ve ever seen topped with a stone kettle for heating water. Along two walls were low benches. Various utensils, dishes and supplies took up most of the remaining space. The ceiling and walls were blackened from smoke of many meals prepared in this space. A tiny window was the only source of light. The small room seemed crowded with just the two of us.
As my husband and I sat outside waiting for Candelera to finish up in the kitchen, two young children bounded down the steps from the trail that led further uphill from Candelera’s house. We concluded that they were returning from school since they both carried workbooks in their arms. We discovered that they knew some Spanish and were learning English in school. The children were Bisalda, the 10 year old girl and her brother, Angel, who was nine years old. Through fractured English and Spanish, we were able to learn that Candelera and her husband are the caretakers of these two of their seven grandchildren while their mother works in Puno. I gave each of them gifts of colored pencils that I had brought from home. They seemed delighted to received them and immediately began showing us pictures of animals, clothing, food and other items they used to learn English.
As part of her caretaker role, Candelera decided it was time to wash Angel’s hair. She stripped him naked to the waist and proceeded to bath him in one of the many plastic tubs and buckets kept around the house for carrying water, bathing, washing clothes and other domestic duties.
Even though the outside temperature was only about 50 degrees, it didn’t deter the scrubbing that grandma was determined to give her grandson. He resisted with all his might and even cried but grandma continued to wash his hair and scrub his neck and ears with her red cloth saying “ya, ya, ya” in an almost whispered tone, the same quiet tone she used even when she was admonishing the children.
During Angel’s ordeal, Candelera’s husband arrived from his day’s work on the lake. He watched as she used a clean white towel to dry Angel’s hair and body. He re-dressed in the same clothes he wore before the bath then hurriedly ran off to play. He didn’t get far before grandpa, using gestures recognized in any culture or language, told him to be respectful and say goodbye to the guests.
Everyone in my tour group knew that our authentic home stay experience included some communal labor. Washing dishes was my contribution. My husband’s contribution was to help Candelera dip buckets of water from the lake and carry them up the hill for household use including bathing, washing and flushing the toilet. He also helped spread dried reeds that served as nourishment for the cows.
As soon as my husband was finished, one of the guides stopped by and asked us to join the others in our group for a tour and a climb to the highest point in the village to see the sun set over Lake Titicaca. This climb was a part of our continued conditioning for the Inca Trail hike that would begin in a couple of days. Considering how I was huffing and puffing as I walked up the path from the boat landing, I needed all the conditioning I could get.
We followed the same path that Angel had taken and met with a few others in our group who had just finished helping their host family plant potatoes. As a group we walked further uphill to an open paved area for a quick soccer match with some local children, watched other children herd sheep from one pasture to another then walked a short distance to the town square where we saw an area for a small market, the municipal building, church and a few other buildings. From the square, we headed toward a path where we began our ascent to the town’s highest point.
I huffed and puffed my way up the path, stopping every few steps to catch my breath. Unfortunately, before we reached the top, dark clouds blew in and we could see lightening in the distance. We made a beeline back to our accommodations just before the downpour and just in time for dinner.
Since it was raining outside, we all crammed into the little room that served as the kitchen. Even though I thought it was crowded earlier in the day when only Candelera and I were inside, I clearly underestimated what crowded conditions felt like. As my husband and I squeezed together on a bench along one wall, Candelera’s husband and grandson sat on the other bench while we ate soup, our first course. Since there was no room for Bisalida, she took her food to another room. Candelera, kneeling in front of the tiny oven while preparing the next course, continued to lay dried reeds on the open fire to keep it going. The only source of light was the blaze from the oven.
After dinner, my husband and I returned to our room just as the thunderstorm roared overhead. The room had a wooden plank floor, a reed ceiling with a single light bulb suspended from a cord. The bulb dimmed as the wind blew and the thunder roared. A table made of eucalyptus wood was set between two twin beds with reed head and sideboards. Each bed was set on a wooden platform and had three heavy, I mean real heavy, woolen blankets with one more fanfolded at the foot of the bed. Under the bed was a yellow plastic pot for middle of the night nature calls. We took off our jackets and shoes and climbed into bed. Through the cracks around the door, we could see bright lightening bolts in the dark skies outside. In a few short minutes, we were both fast asleep.
I thought I was dreaming when I heard a light tapping on the door. It was Candelera with her arms loaded with traditional Andean party clothing for the evening party at the town community center. She dressed me in a petticoat, a white, high necked embroidered long sleeve blouse, a heavy red wool skirt, thick black belt, a colorful short jacket and matching heavy black cape which she draped over my head and across my shoulders. These layers were in addition to the layers that I already wore. On top of the cape, she sat a colorful hat with knitted strings that she tied under my chin. My husband wisely chose to skip the night’s festivities.
The storm had passed but it was still cloudy and quite dark outside. I didn’t have a flashlight so Candelera shared her light with me as we carefully made our way up the uneven steps on the path to the community center.
A few of the men and women from the town had also dressed and engaged the tourists in fast paced dancing to music performed by a trio of young men. Dancing at the high altitude in the layers of heavy clothing sapped my energy in a hurry. So I struggled with fatigue as well as balancing the hat on my head and keeping the cape in place. I was relieved when our guide suggested we tip the musicians and call it an evening. I followed Candelera back down the hill, took off and gave her the party dress then immediately fell into bed.
We awoke early the next morning, had a light breakfast then walked down the hill to meet our boat. As we gathered on the landing, I looked back at some of the houses in Llachon, then out across Lake Titicaca's clear water and distant mountains. My final thoughts before heading toward the waiting boat was that even though the people of Llachon appeared to be poor by western standards, they are blessed with a spectacular natural lake, mountain scenery and the traditional ways that have sustained them for centuries. I was delighted to have shared it with them if only for a moment in time.
Before boarding the boat, we shook hands with each of the hosts and did our best to remember how to say "sullpayki" which is thank you in Quechuan, only phrase I memorized from the Quechua language cheat sheet given to us by our guide. We then boarded the boat for our ride to the next stop on Lake Titicaca.
If you go
Most tour companies that provide services in Puno and Lake Titicaca include an overnight stay in one of the small villages bordering the lake. Also, independent travelers can make arrangements with tour companies in Puno for overnight stays in Llachon. These tours usually include a stopover in the Uros Islands. There are no hotels or restaurants in Llachon. Visitors stay with families usually in a small outer building or a separate room built for guests. It is traditional to bring a small gift of supplies that are not readily available in the village.
The tour fee usually includes meals which are prepared by the hosts. While most of the accommodations have minimal electricity and indoor plumbing, these conveniences are not available in some quarters. Llachon is about an hour's boat ride from Puno or you can get there in about 2 1/2 hours via car down a dusty dirt road.