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And the big Mississippi, and the town Honolulu and the Lake….

July 29, 2013

I first heard of the Lake Titicaca in my high school chorus room. It was part of the Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue and we had to learn it. I learned a lot of geography from that song. I still sing it (in my head only, not to worry) when I hear the name of the big lake. That’s different from many reactions, which is mostly snickering. Turns out even in Peru, the snicker a the name.

We stayed in the lovely lakeside town of Puno, at the most luxurious of our hotels for the trip. A late start added to both the luxury and the realization that we were nearing the end of our journey. Gathered in the hotel lobby, Juan and Joseph, our local guide led us out to our “transportation”  to the Lake. Tuk tuks. We jumped in pairs, Graham and me together in one, and headed down the long hill to the lake. Our peddler was speedy and the seemingly unregulated traffic and constant speed bumps made it an exhilarating, but terrifying, ride. We stalked up on water and snacks from the vendors lining the shore and headed to our boat.

The marina boats are lined up along the dock pin such a way that you have to walk over one boat to get to the next. Ours was five boats in and the risk of falling into the very cold water was ever-present as we made our way over.

All safely in place we headed into the Lake. Its deceptive. At first it looks like an average large lake. We slowly passed by reeds and into more open waters, when it became clear that this was indeed no ordinary body of water. On some horizons the Andes were visible far in the distance, on others there was nothing but water, as though we were out in the sea.

Our first stop was a visit to the Uros Indian community who live on artificial floating islands made of reeds. In the 1800s, the community lived on shore, but rejecting the Spanish demands for taxes, they moved onto the water constructing islands of soil about 2 feet deep, which floats like a cork, covered with reeds. Every 6 years of so they have to rebuild their islands. Blocks of the soil are roped together to form small communities. THe one we visited had a couple of brothers, their wives and children living on it. Should one decide they no longer want to live there, they just unrope themselves and tie to another community.

The villagers showed us how they built the island with an amusing pantomime, and periodic translation from Joseph. They showed us their meals of fish and duck (with a dead duck as a prop) and then invited us to tour the small island. One of the women approached me immediately saying amiga and gesturing for me to come with her. I grabbed Claire and we followed her into a small hut with a tiny bed made out of straw. She told us (mostly in sign language) how cold it was at night and how she lives with her husband, bambino, and a cat in the tiny room. Then she invited us to buy some of her handicrafts. Tourism is big business for the Uros and while we were in the hut, little displays of wares (tapestries, necklaces, straw sculptures) had popped up outside. The Uros had initially created the islands to escape modern society, we embracing it whole heartedly – each one-roomed thatched hut had a solar panel out front and a laptop inside thanks to the efforts with international tourists.

Asking about the lifestyle, Joseph admitted that most of the Uros teenagers lived on shore where they could go to school and have a broader social life. But, like the Amish on Rumspringa, most ultimately return to the islands to marry and perpetuate the community.

From the small island we boarded a boat made out of reeds and were rowed by the two brothers to a larger island featuring a gift shop, grocery, and bar.  Joseph brought our bigger boat over and after dropping a few solas each, we waved goodbye to our hosts and headed out deeper into the lake..

For two hours we slowly cruised the Lake. I sat in the back of the boat, feeling the spray and enjoying the sun and water (I was heavily sun-screened).

We docked alongside many tourists boats on Tequile Island. The Island has about 2000 inhabitants and specializes in farming, textiles, and tourism. We were greeted by large signs asking us not to give the children of the island candy or to take their photos. The Island is shaped like one of the Hawaiian Islands, and everything happens at the top, so we climbed. About halfway up, we stopped for lunch on a restaurant terrace overlooking the lake and, in the distance, could see Bolivia’s glaciers. We were treated to the trout from the lake, our favorite beer, Cusquenia, and a mint tea, with mint twigs pulled from the ground around us, floating in hot water.

Fortified, we headed the rest of the way up the Island towards music playing in the distance. We arrived in the town square as they were in the middle of a festival. It was an annual event, to celebrate what I don’t know, and we happened to be there on the right day. Hundreds of men, women and children were gathered in brightly colored outfits dancing in the square. One man was offering sips out of his water bottle to the dancers – Joseph told us it was a kind of homemade booze, which I’m guessing tasted like firewater.

We danced along with them for a while, perused the textiles on sale (I come close to spending way too much money on a scarf, but didn’t) and then began the  long walk down to our boat.

On the way home, the entire group gathered to play Graham’s card game, Shithead. It passed the time quickly and many laughs were had – though poor Richard lost more than his share of games.

That night we headed out to a local dinner theater type place. Puno is famous for its dancing and dancers and the stage featured a panpipe band (pretty ubiquitous here) and several groups of folk dancers. It was a bit cringe-worthy alongside being completely fantastic. It is also the moment that we all tried the Peru specialty fried guinea pig. It was a small portion for 7 people, leaving Juan with the head, but we each took a turn. You can fry anything and it becomes edible. In this case, it tasted a bit like roast duck. In fact with a pancake and plum sauce, I would have told you it was roast duck.

The following morning, we rose late, went for lunch at a local empanadas joint (2 empanadas and a coffee for $3), and boarded a bus to the Juliaca airport.

Along the way we stopped at an Incan burial site, on the top of yet another hill – the Incans liked to be high up, they believed it made them closer to god. The number of tourists climbing up crying “bloody hell” might have made them change their minds. The site was another marvel of Incan design. Large conical buildings acted as mausoleums for the dead. One structure was mid-way through construction when the Incans fled the Spanish and the ramp on which they pushed the boulders, as well as a  pile of stones meant to be added, we still in place. Oh, how I wanted to climb that ramp, but, as apparently others wanted to as well, there was a big sign saying something in Spanish loosely translating to Don’t you dare climb this ramp.

At the Juliaca airport we waited for our flight to Lima for our final day and played a bit more Shithead.

We decided two decks of cards would make the game more interesting so we combined my deck of Pope John Paul II cards, purchased at the Vatican, with Claire’s deck of Incans from Cusco. In the case of a show down between the same card we decided that, as in history, the Christian card would trump the Incan.

It was nearly midnight when we got to our hotel in Lima. There was a movement to go out for a final pisco sour, but I headed to my room. THe morning held a final tour of Lima, then flights for all of us, so we were all a bit wistful, and joyous at the same time.

I did love that Lake!


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  1. Sending you a big hug – reading this blog makes me feel like I’m right there on the banks of Lake Titicaca (tee-hee) with you! You are great 🙂

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