Peru – Lake Titicaca

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Not knowing if I’d ever make it back to Peru, and realizing getting there is a big part of the expense, I opted for a three-day extension to Lake Titicaca. As most of the Inca Trail fellowship traveled home, our day hikers, Barry, Patti, and Carolyn, continued with Robin and me to Puno and Lake Titicaca. My interest wasn’t well researched … I knew Incan mythological origin stories traced back to this lake, and that there were some very ancient ruins, but the ones I was most interested in were on the Bolivian side. I knew it was the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. I knew using your imagination when seeing the lake from the air, it was shaped like a puma (or jaguar) chasing a rabbit. But, I didn’t know much about the islands of Uros or Takile, which were the ones we would visit.

Our first hurdle was getting to Puno, which is the primary access (at least from the Peruvian side) to the lake. There is no “easy” way to get there. We went by tourist bus, which had both pros and cons. Cons: when you stop along the way at things you may or may not want to see, it takes longer to get there … I think around 10 or 11 hours total. Pros: you get a glimpse at the Peruvian countryside, and have an opportunity to explore some sites along the way.

Having written a few postcards to some mutual friends during the train ride, we asked the hotel staff to mail them. One was to Jenna, patron saint to butterflies and all living things … when Robin saw Juan move a cold butterfly off the trail, we thought he and Jenna might be kindred spirits, and had to tell her. Alas, this thought was lost in the Peruvian mail system, which we were warned was neither fast nor reliable. It lived up to its reputation. My earlier comments about Amazon … the mail system alone ensures it’s not a threat to the local markets in Peru.

After an early transfer to the bus station, and a nice thank you from the tour agency for our visit providing employment and income for several families (we really do take what we have for granted), we were handed our tickets and turned over to a tour bus guide for the day.

The guide started with a description of all the stops and the fees associated with each one, and explained that to avoid problems with making change at these remote sites, we would need to pay him up front for all the stops we planned to do. As he collected money and annotated his sheet, he seemed annoyed that three of our group booked only the first stop, while Robin and I booked them all … an inconvenience for his accounting system which tracked all five of us as Robin.

The first stop wasn’t far outside Cusco, a colonial church called San Pedro de Andahuaylillas. With a drab mud brick exterior, it didn’t look like much. But its inside was very ornate. This was another Inca Temple usurped by the Catholic Church. The floors and altars were Incan stonework, with new walls built up around it, covered in intricate carvings and gold inlay, and artwork from the Cusco School of painting.

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The Cusco School of painting is a unique byproduct of Andean Catholicism. When the Spanish first started converting Peru, they built several churches, and commissioned European artists to produce religious paintings as decoration. Locals learned the style, and evolved it … replacing elements of traditional iconic images with objects more representative of Peru, and blending Andean beliefs in new interpretations of Christian religious figures. Whether a form of passive aggressive resistance, or an attempt to make Christianity more accessible by translating/blending new figures to the closest Peruvian equivalent, it resulted in unique artwork. I’m sure some “purists” have a problem with a guinea pig being served in the Cusco School’s rendition of The Last Supper, and the Virgin Mary displaying symbolism of Pachamama, but maybe it serves the same function as pairing religious holidays to pagan traditions … when you can relate to something you understand as your own, it’s easier to accept.

Our next stop was Raqchi. Those not going into the ruins could wander around a small village and shop. Someone counted heads as we entered the ruins, and the guide paid for the headcount all at once. Overall, a fairly efficient process when everyone understands where the fee area starts, and enters only if they’ve paid. But it’s very aggravating to be accused of not paying when the person who took your money can’t make sense of how he annotated it on his ledger. Robin and I had paid, and the rest of our group hadn’t entered … we resolved this quick, and resumed the tour, but I was too irritated to pay much attention.

The focal point of the site was the remains of a gigantic temple … a tall central wall and a row of several circular columns on either side. This was the Temple of Wiracocha/Viracocha, and may at one time have supported the largest roof in the empire. The bottom layers of the wall and columns consisted of the famous Incan stonework, with adobe bricks completing the remaining layers to bring it to height.

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While the guide gave the same spiel in Spanish, we roamed through a living area, past a large number of qollqas (storage buildings), and looked out at what remained of the agricultural terraces spanning the hillside. Many of the stones had been harvested over time for use in newer buildings in town.

We were back in the bus for a short bit, off again for an uneventful lunch buffet, and back on the road again for what seemed a long haul. With mountains all around us, the road was mostly flat and uncongested. The countryside looked poor and barren; the area had a short growing season and conditions that made it impossible to grow most crops. Instead, alpacas dotted the landscape. We briefly stopped at La Raya, a roadside turnout looking across a large valley at a mountain range and a large glacier. This was the elevation highpoint for the highway between Cusco and Puno. It, of course, had a roadside market.

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I, and probably most of the bus, was half asleep for the next segment. Hearing that our driver crawled into the luggage area and took a nap while we were in Raqchi was a little bit disconcerting, but maybe he was charging up for this leg. Eventually we pulled into a town with a colonial church and a small museum, for a quick guided tour that would introduce the ruins just beyond the town.

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This is where communications came to a head. During the discussion of fees, there had been no mention of a museum, only of the archeological ruins at Pukara. Both the town and the ruins were called Pukara, and the ruins, at least portions of them, sometimes also called Kalasaya. Nobody knew the museum was considered part of the Pukara/Kalasaya fee area. Whether we were interested in its artifacts at this point, it turns out every last one of us was interested in its bathroom. Upon entering it, even if just to use the bathroom, our heads were counted. The guide was charged three extra tickets, paid, and now wanted his money. Believing nobody had entered, I thought it was a continuation of the dispute at Raqchi, and got defensive he was trying to charge us for being difficult. But everyone acknowledged using the bathroom and grudgingly paid the 10 soles site ticket price for their pit stop, which dissipated the situation. I understand these misunderstandings happen, but it soured us a little, to where we felt we had to clarify every detail for the rest of the trip.

The Pukara/Kalasaya site pre-dated the Inca Empire. It had sunken plazas and what was left of an old pyramid, which didn’t look like much beyond foundation layers. Many of the site’s bricks had been robbed to build the beautiful colonial church in town. There were tunnels under part of the site, possibly part of a drainage system. In the museum, we had seen carved monoliths and figures, and a lot of pottery … I think some of it had been recovered from this site.

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We finally arrived in Puno shortly before dark, were met by a friendly rep from our tour company, transferred to our hotel, and given details for the Lake Titicaca trip tomorrow. Alpaca for dinner, followed by a 9-11 conspiracy theory special playing on the only English-speaking channel … an early night, the first of the entire trip we would be the same hotel two nights in a row.

**

The next morning, the bus for the motorized boat tour collected people from several hotels and guided us all to a dock. This was all very chaotic. We climbed off the side and from boat to boat until we got to ours, about the same time a group on it was told they should be on a different boat. All this to the calming sound of Incan flute music … there was no escaping these guys and their tip jars. I may have considered tipping in US coinage to make a small statement about choice, but overall I did usually enjoy the music.

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Whether people were on the right boat still seemed iffy when ours pulled free of the congestion. We briefly stopped at an island resort hotel to pick up two more passengers, which quieted the handheld radio traffic and calmed our guide. Passenger list resolved, we were finally on our way.

This was another Spanish/English tour, more of a lecture, making it difficult to focus my attention. The guide shared the obligatory basics … highest navigable lake, mythological origins of the Inca Empire where Viracocha (the creator deity) arose to create the world, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo sent off from here to found Cusco. As I try to fill in the blanks with Wikipedia, I find there are several variations of the story.

We were free to climb a rickety ladder to the top of the boat, no more than 8 people at a time up top. Looking out on the beautifully placid waters, it felt like the top of the world.

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Our guide was from the Uros Islands, the manmade floating reed structures we would soon visit. Aymara was the traditional regional language, gradually losing ground to Spanish and Qetchua just as the original language of the islands had succumbed to Aymara. As we “docked” he tried to teach us an Aymara greeting.

"Welcome to our island, duty free"

“Welcome to our island, duty free”

As we set foot on this squishy island, it was surprisingly stable … like walking across a thick bed of straw covering a solid foundation. In any case, it didn’t feel like we were going to flip it if we all stood on one side. The women lined up to welcome us as we got off the boat. Our guide choreographed our visit with a couple other tour boats, and while another group occupied reed benches around a demo area, we were steered to the reed boats on the other side.

The reed boat tour was optional, though, at an extra 10 soles per person, very affordable. Over the course of a day, it was probably a large boost to the economy of this small community. Loading between ten and fifteen people per reed boat, the men piloting them pushed off from their island.

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The water was very shallow here; the boats were propelled by pushing with a long pole. We stopped near a patch of what looked like tall grass growing out of the lakebed. Using a sharp hook at the end of a long pole, the islanders cut some off at the root and pulled it up to show. This was the tortora reed, a primary building block for nearly every aspect of a Uros Islander’s life. The white part at the bottom looked like onion and was for eating, which they passed around for samples … it did not have much taste. The rest of the long reeds were used to build the floating islands, the houses, the boats … pretty much everything. They had more use for it than duct tape.

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I find it hard to contemplate living life on an island smaller than a football field, with maybe two or three families, surrounded by neighboring islands with similar communities. Whether these people created the floating islands to escape hostile neighbors or to avoid taxation by the empire, their continued presence evolves with tourism. I’m sure the daily throughput of visitors adds stress and difficulty to maintaining the islands, but it adds income at the same time … which in turn buys solar panels, motor boats, televisions, and opportunities beyond their little plot of “land”. I wonder how many future generations will choose this lifestyle.

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We gathered around a demo area where one of the men demonstrated building a dollhouse-sized island out of tortora reeds and adding miniature houses as our guide explained the process. These islands are in constant sustainment, adding new layers to replenish the top as the bottom layers rot. Food is supplemented by collecting eggs and shooting birds, though at this point the demo got too gimmicky when they threw a freshly plucked waterfowl as if just shot out of the air.

A group of little girls distracted me. A couple from our tour boat gave them candies, and now had to convince the youngest to spit it out and unwrap it first.

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One lady showed us the inside of her hut, which was very humble. I almost carry more stuff when I backpack …

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Outside again, little girls took turns watching and feeding baby chickens or cormorants.

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And … no tourist destination, especially a tiny floating island in the largest lake in South America, can do without a market.

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We loaded back on the boat and started the long slow crawl to Takile/Taquile Island. Our guide stressed pronunciation as “Ta-keel-lay”, apparently thinking we had only blue agave spirits on the mind and needed our thoughts redirected. The island is known for its male knitters, quality handcrafted textile arts, and trout lunches … this probably just scratches the surface, but it’s what you get in a short afternoon stop.

There were two options … get off the boat and hike up to the plaza before looping back toward the lunch stop, or stay with the boat to the closer pier and shortcut to the lunch stop. The big question was whether the shortcut would yield lunch sooner. And we hadn’t yet figured out this particular guide’s answer to every question he didn’t understand was “yes”. Robin took the loop with me; the rest of our little group was more anxious for lunch.

Two things I noticed on the climb up the hill toward the plaza: old stone archways, often decorated with a trio of hatted stone figures, and gates with repurposed shoe soles as hinges. As we climbed, we could see a great expanse of blue … it felt like we were surrounded by a sea.

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We passed a group of little girls selling handmade bracelets for 1 sole apiece. I was finally suckered into buying something out of cuteness. Robin put her hand out for a high five, which was met with a healthy slap. As I passed several more groups and individuals selling more of the same things, I thought the world a little unfair to those stationed later on the trail. But as I read a little more about these people, I understand they split the profits on everything they earn through tourism.

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The plaza had a church, several shops selling hand knitted textiles, a restaurant, and a tall signpost like the one in M*A*S*H with arrows pointing to distant places around the world. A group of men sat in one corner of the plaza, a group of women and children in another. People waved the rainbow flag associated (correctly or incorrectly) with the Incan empire. It all seemed like a hodgepodge of scenes unstuck from different times.

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Our twenty minutes of exploring was cut short looking for a bathroom. When I finally found it, I nearly fell in the large half-empty barrel of water used for flushing as I grasped for the elusive scoop.

I really hope they don’t consider it rude when people take pictures of their lifestyle … they seem proud of hard work and an honest living, but I’m not sure how I’d feel, manually plowing my field with an ox, looking up to a herd of tourists taking pictures of me. I try to be inconspicuous, but it doesn’t always work.

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Rejoined with our group at the lunch stop, I wasn’t surprised they didn’t have food yet … it would all be served at once. Still wary from miscommunications on our bus tour, we verified our lunch was included … a process that took longer now that we understood our guide defaulted to “yes” every time he didn’t understand the question.

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Quinoa soup and a beautiful trout platter, and we were the first to be served. Whether it was the best trout lunch I’d ever eaten may be contested, but it was very good, and with a perfect setting and view.

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This time the communications drama happened to a different group. The guide said their tickets didn’t include lunch, they went round and round until the group lead pulled out a receipt that apparently proved they did. I don’t think anyone was trying to swindle anyone else, but it’s still ugly when it happens … especially on a small island where the inhabitants police themselves by honor code. Tempers cooled, and the cultural demonstration continued.

The basics: men and women display their marital status and eligibility through what they wear … hats of different color signal whether a man is married/unmarried, it’s worn in a different position when of age. The girls do something similar with pompom attachments to their clothes. Wool, spinning, weaving, knitting are the predominate trades, with textiles and tourism the main source of income. With not even a golf cart, all “imports” are loaded on peoples’ backs and carried from the dock. Our boat carried some supplies, which over the course of our lunch stop, an old gentleman carried up the hill in several loads.

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Back in Puno that evening, Robin and I went on a mini-adventure, looking for the proverbial needle in haystack … except in this case the haystack was a local market, and the needle was actually a needle but we didn’t know the Spanish word for it. After years of flirting with the checked bag weight limit, sometimes down to the last pound, a seam of Robin’s duffel bag had finally given up the ghost. We had duct tape, but thought it also needed sutures.

Stateside, it would be short trip to the neighborhood megamart and walking out five minutes later with a sewing kit. Here in Puno, we walked up and down aisles with nothing looking promising, until we reached the last row and found a booth with disorganized stacks of odds and ends. If we would find a needle anywhere, it would be here … how to ask the lady at the booth if she had one? Pantomime. She dug into a pile of God knows what, and to our great surprise, came up with a small box of needles.

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The epicureans of our group found another excellent restaurant. We were seated close to the drink pouring station, and we noticed one of the waitresses using a measuring cup for each wine pour. I’m not sure what Gordon Ramsay would have to say about her technique, but if nothing else, people got precisely what they paid for. We ordered a bottle instead. We briefly considered trying guinea pig, but with only one left that evening, and a somewhat long prep time, nobody was quite in the mood to try it.

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**

Our next morning was an early start … with the hotel hallway lights off, we almost needed a headlamp to get to the elevator. Nobody here was buying the idea it’s cheaper to leave the lights on. We transferred by van to Juliaca, the closest airport, which was roughly an hour long drive through the countryside. Roadside political billboards painted on walls and buildings, stray dogs, and then the industrialized city with its multitudes of unfinished buildings as a strategy to avoid taxes. And, the Coca Cola Kartel (couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the coincident signs). Conclusion: politics, taxes, and Coca Cola are everywhere.

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Two hours early to the airport may have been overkill, but we didn’t want to stress. Waiting to more live music, followed by an uneventful flight over the mountains, it was still early when we landed. Our international flights wouldn’t leave until around midnight. Our tour agency arranged a van to drop us off in Barranca, one of the bohemian areas of the city.

It was a completely different world than the one we just left, much more like our own. Fancy coffee shops with artsy paintings, brew pubs, modern shops, and murals that weren’t political advertisements. Artists still lined walkways to the beach, but they sold niche odd things, more like you’d find in coastal California. Waves were specked with surfers, and a guy loaded a kayak on top of his VW bug. This short side trip was probably a fitting adjustment period back toward our normal lives, but like any big city, didn’t seem the soul of the country. It was still a great excursion to round out our trip before the long flight home.

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