From Costa Rica and beyond

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lake Titicaca

After a delectable one pound burger, a badly needed load of laundry, and a night´s rest in Cuzco, it was time to move on to Lake Titicaca. Mark, Nick and Ivanka and I met at the Plaza de Armas and headed out of town. This ride spared us the constant zigzags and ups and downs. Our road was well paved and mostly straight as we followed a river upstream to a mountain pass and then followed another river downstream. The green valleys are dotted by small homes and farms. Cattle were munching freely in rice paddies and around the many blue flowered potato fields.

The ride to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca was just a bit more than we wished to drive in a single day. All four of us were keen to go camping and by four o´clock, Mark had picked a small dirt drive that led to a gently sloping field just out of sight of the highway. Perfect! We set up camp, Mark and Nick replaced brake pads on Nick´s bike, and then we started thinking about food. Nick and Ivanka had quinoa and a curry paste to offer. Mark and I drove into a nearby town, picked up some veggies and beer and soon a masterpiece was in the making. By this time, the sky was darkening and cold was creeping through our layers of clothes. It would be so nice to have a fire! But how when not a single tree was in sight? While I was dicing potatoes, I noticed dung scattered around our piece of the prairie. I had one armload in just minutes and collected several more in no time. Nick provided a bit of kerosene and soon we had a lovely little campfire. The smell was no worse than a wood fire. My first dung fueled campfire was followed by another first for me. The cloudy sky had given way to a clear, black, moonless sky filled by the arc of the Milky Way. Mark pointed out the famed Southern Cross, its long axis pointing due south. It was an amazing night, despite the rain that seems to be a nightly occurrence this time of year.

The next morning, we needed about two hours to travel through light rain, through a rather wet and messy Juliaca and on to Puno. Mark, Nick and Ivanka decided to push on to Copacabana, Bolivia. My path heads to Chile from here. Again, our ways part...we shall see when they meet again.

My hope in Puno was to visit the famous Uros communities on their artificial islands. I was worried about how much it would cost though. I was also quite unsure where I would stay in this rather cramped hillside and lakeside city. My Lonely Planet guide had a couple suggestions, so I set out to find the first. In no time it was clear I had taken a couple wrong turns. While sitting on my bike at a corner and contemplating the map, a light blue VW beetle stopped. Its driver asked if I was looking for Hostal El Duque. I told him I was not. He slowly continued up the steep street and then disappeared around a corner. At a bit of a loss, I drove up the same hill, saw his parked car and decided to check out his hostel. This chance encounter led me to a great hostel with a great price and with information for very affordable overnight stays on an island in Lake Titicaca. It is so nice when things just fall into place.

At 7:45 the next morning, a bus picked me up and took its human cargo to the dock where a boat awaited us. At a very slow speed (the only speed this boat could offer - indeed, I don´t think the motor could even run in neutral), our group of about 20 chugged to the Islas Flotantes. I had read that these islands are so commercialized that the visits can actually be quite unpleasant. Fortunately, that was not the case for us. We had a great time walking around on these constructions of peet and reeds where the Uros have lived for hundreds of years after other tribes threatened their coastal settlements. The first prominent Westerners to visit these islands were Jacques Cousteau and Thor Heyerdahl. The latter used their know-how to construct his famous Kontiki reed boat. Now the Uros have schools and health clinics on their islands. They make a lot of money from tourism, but they cling to their lifestyles, subsisting on trout (that they also farm and sell) and even pelicans. Some of their homes have solar panels, but most are without electricity. These floating islands are anchored by stakes and rocks, but if the residents wish to move or if residents on the same island can´t get along with each other, the islands can be moved or even quite easily sawed in half!

After a friendly visit with the Uros, our group boated out of Puno Bay and into Lake Titicaca proper. This body of water (elevation just over 3800 meters) would rightly deserve the title Great Lake in the US. It is smaller than lake Ontario, but much larger than Lake Champlain. Its deepest point is over 900 feet and the temperature hovers around 48 degrees fahrenheit. The shore has rolling hills and some small mountains and is speckled with homes and small farming communities. There are a number of real islands that are home to indigenous peoples speaking Quechua and Aymari. Our tour took us to two of them.

Amantani has a population of about 5000. It rises about 400 meters out of Titicaca´s (meaning stone puma)clean blue waters. The hillsides are terraced and divided by stone fences that, while not better built than those found in New England, are certainly more numerous. The small fields grow potatoes and quinoa when they aren´t fallow. Awaiting our boat were about a dozen villagers, mostly elder, wearing their traditional outfits. A few of the men and women were spinning colorful yarn as they waited. Our guide divided us up according to language and assigned us to families. It was 1:30 and we were starving. Benedicto escorted Antony and Rose (an English couple) and me uphill, past a couple potato fields to his home where his wife Simona was ready with lunch. We enjoyed a delicious quinoa soup and a very tasty main course of cheese, rice, and salad. We drank a tea of cocoa leaves and muña, a local herb that someone said is called ´wild thyme´ in English. While there is some electricity on Amantani, this home was without. Cooking was done in a woodfired stove that had no chimney. Our rooms were simple, but clean and of course, without the hum of any electronic appliances, very quiet and peaceful.

The views, the clean waters, the pastoral lifestyle...I was enchanted. People in the US would pay a mint to build their dream second homes in such a setting, but such "development" is not allowed on this island. A group hike to the island´s summit, complete with many stops so we could catch our breath in the thin air, simply added to Amantani´s appeal. Ruins of past dwellings and temples (the latter are still used for pre-Christian rituals) crown the island. Peru and Bolivia, vast stretches of blue water, lowlands, rivers and snow-covered mountains can all be seen from the breezy, cool summit.

The people also made the stay on this island wonderful. Antony and Rose were great company as was Klara, a tall and lovely Hungarian. Benedicto and Simona were very kind and gracious hosts. After a delicious dinner, it was time to go to a little show. Antony and Rose and I were ready to go, but our hosts asked us to join them in a different room. Upon entering, we found traditional clothing awaiting us. Antony and I donned our woolen ponchos and colorful caps. Simona helped rose put on her embroidered blouse, black cape and bright red skirt. NOW we could walk down to the hall where everyone else was in similar garb and where a ban played traditional tunes and the locals pulled us (willingly!) out to dance. After a very full day of activity and fresh air, we huffed and puffed our ways home to quiet candlelit rooms and beds laden with heavy woolen blankets.

After an early breakfast (including pancakes!), our group assembled at the dock for our 7am departure. For over an hour we floated over waves as big as 6 feet to Taquile Island. This island is very similar to Amantani. We were there to enjoy a nice walk around the island and to learn a bit more about the inhabitants. We learned how they adjust their clothing to communicate mood or whether one is single or taken. Marriages are preceded by a three year trial period. Young people are likely to approach their future mates at a party held in February at the Plaze de Armas. Another festival is held in June for the lucky new couples. Women make clothes for the men and men make clothes for the women. Knitting prowess is definitely a factor in mate selection (and yes, we saw young men knitting as they walked around the island). Almost all the business on the island is organized communally in order to benefit all, not just the few.

Gusty cool air greeted us on Taquile, but the wind died and the temperature climbed. While some of our group enjoyed a pricy lunch of trout, Antony, Rose, Klara and I found a cozy spot to sit and enjoy the amazing views. Our boat ride back to Puno was over much smoother waters. Some of us sat on the roof for more sun and scenery. It was raining at the dock in Puno, making this overnight escape seem all the more magical.

1 comment:

  1. I love the photos Glenn! And your camping spot on Lake Titicaca is glorious. So glad your adventure isn't slowing down. Stay safe and thanks for the updates. Molly