Last stop in Peru: Lago Titicaca

After three days spent dragging ourselves down, through, and then up the Colca Canyon, Andrea and I finally left Arequipa for our final Peruvian destination: Puno, right on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We’d initially planned to spend a day or two seeing the world’s highest navigable lake, but we ended up staying in the area for over a week! We did some fun island tours, explored the biggest cities on both sides of the lake (Puno, Peru on one side, and Copacabana, Bolivia on the other), and took a couple of must-needed rest days.

We had taken a night bus from Arequipa and arrived at the terrapuerto (landport, what an inventive word!) around 5:00 AM. Although the bus was only 6 hours, I slept surprisingly well and was feeling pretty ready to tackle the day, much to Andrea’s chagrin. We took a few minutes to gather our things, check out the city online, and look up potential hostels.

We snagged a taxi for just under $2.00 USD and directed the driver to a hostel Andrea found online. We didn’t end up staying there, but at a small hospedaje (family-run inn) just a block away for a much better price. We dropped off our stuff, grabbed a couple hours of sleep, and then headed to the Plaza de Armas (the main square in any city in Peru) to meet up with our German hiking companions from the Colca Canyon. We had a nice, slow breakfast together and then subjected ourselves to a hike that passers-by assured us was not worth it: seeing the Condor viewpoint over the city and Lake Titicaca. We were a bit intimidated when an old lady we asked directions from simply laughed at us and said that it was much too far to walk, but after quickly consulting Google Maps, we realized it was only a 10-15 minute walk to the top.

Well, at over 3,800 meters (12,000+ feet), a 15 minute hike can actually leave you pretty breathless, as we learned in Huaraz. We worked our way through the busier parts of the city and then saw what we were really in for: stair master 1.0 – Puno edition.

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Pain.

Someone made a smart comment about a race to the top and I foolhardily accepted the challenge. After the Colca Canyon, how bad could it be? I started up the stairs 2 at a time and focused on taking long, deep breaths. For those of you who have never been at a high altitude, let me tell you here and now that the air is thin. You can take big breaths that would normally power you for days at a more agreeable altitude and still run out of breath like an over-excited kid running towards the far end of the playground to get the best kickball at recess.

I made it about 3/4 of the way up before I had to slow down. My lungs were burning and my heart was pumping. Consider me humbled, yet again. I did make it to the top before anyone else (no one had decided to join me in my death march/race, so hardly a success, but I’ll take what I can get) and caught my breath. When I looked up, I was greeted by this view:

We all went up to the top of the Condor statue and had some fun taking pictures and marveling at the sheer size of the lake before leisurely walking back down into the center of the city. We spent the rest of the day seeing the cathedral, the local Coca Museum, and getting dinner with a Dutch couple we had also met during the Colca Canyon trek.

After one day of exploring the city of Puno proper, we decided to take a tour of some of the islands on the Peruvian side of the lake: Uros floating islands, Amantani, and Taquile. As with most South American gringo tours, we were picked up at our hostel very early, picked up another couple, and then rode around the city for about 45 minutes, winding our way through back streets, making loops, and otherwise burning gasoline seemingly without reason. We eventually made it to the docks, boarded our boat with a hodge-podge of Europeans and a few Latin Americans, and set off! Within an hour or so, we arrived at our first stop.

Uros Floating Islands

The Uros Floating Islands are entirely man-made and home to over 1,200 people. We visited two of the islands, but they say there are over 100 throughout the lake. The Uros people speak Aymara and build their island homes out of totora reeds. According to the president of the first island we visited, the people use blocks of dirt, totora reeds, and lots of rope to build their islands, which can last up to 60 years! The islands vary in size, but typically accommodate one extended family each. While the people traditionally subsisted on fish and water plants, nowadays they depend almost entirely on tourism and do buy lots of their daily supplies in Puno.

After a half hour or so of a culture lesson, the tour guide cajoled everyone onto an “Uros Mercedes,” aka a pretty boat made out of reeds you could ride to the next destination for an extra fee. We opted to stay on the regular boat and found ourselves alone in our thriftiness until we were joined by an Australian/British couple also backpacking through Latin America. While all the other tourists hung out on the reed boat, we four got to know each other.

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Uros Mercedes through the window.

It’s funny how easy it is to strike up a conversation with other backpackers. How long have you been traveling? What’s your next destination? Do you have a ticket back home yet? How did you like XYZ location? There’s something about being strangers in a strange place, driven by wanderlust and yet restrained by your budget and the desire to make it last. It’s different from being a vacationer just out of their normal routine for a week or two, ready to spend what it takes to get the “full experience” and make your time off worth it. You can spot it in someone’s eye and the connection can be instant. Andrea and I love trading travel stories, swapping tips on places to go, and sharing the “why” behind the trip. We generally get along best with slightly older travelers that spent at least few years in the work force before realizing it was now or never. The travel bug is a serious one and we’re all getting it out of our systems one way or another.

Homestay on Amantani Island

Once the Uros Mercedes made it to our next destination (20 minutes for a 5 minute ride), we all piled back in the boat and headed to Amantani, where we would be spending the evening. The tour guide told us the basics about the people of the island shortly before we arrived: their ancestors arrived around 1200 C.E (check(., they speak Quechua, farm most of their food, have very little livestock, have limited electricity due to a solar installation made a few years back, and all know each other.

Upon arrival, as the guide began to mish and mash different travel groups together with host families, we both caught our new favorite traveling couple’s eyes and scooched over their way for what felt like the Sorting Ceremony at Hogwarts. The four of us were partnered with the same host family and we started up the hill after him towards our new home. We met our new host mother and siblings, who didn’t speak very good Spanish, but were very happy to teach us a few words of Quechua. After presenting ourselves and stumbling through everyone’s names, we dumped our stuff in the rooms and set off with our host dad to the tallest mountain on the island (over 4,000 meters above sea level). As we waited for all the other tourist and host family groups, I started asking our host dad about life on the island.

  • Do you have cell service?
    • Yes, but only one company works.
  • Does your family live close by?
    • Yes, just down the way, but they don’t talk too often because they’re so busy farming.
  • Does anyone ever leave?
    • Yes, my son lives in Lima and sells artisanal products.
  • Have you been to Puno?
    • Yes, we go once or twice a year to buy staples like rice, sugar, coffee, etc.
  • Where do you farm?
    • I work with my neighbors on shared land. It’s tough work!
  • How often do you receive tourists?
    • We rotate between different villages on the island. Tourists visit us once every couple of months.
  • How many tourists have you hosted? What are they usually like?
    • You’re actually the first I’ve hosted!
  • Do you have schools and hospitals on the island?
    • Yes, we have a primary and secondary school and a clinic, but we have to go to Puno for other things.

We sat in the local soccer stadium, built to fit a few hundred, but quite empty with only us four tourists, our host dad, and two other locals chatting in Quechua and pointing at numbers on a piece of paper. As I made a slow circle, I saw jagged rock walls delineating different farms, zig-zagging their way up the mountains, around the woods. I saw little houses made of stone and concrete seem to pop out of the rough terrain like boulders. In the distance, I could see more tall, European tourists in their brightly-colored rain jackets and hiking pants walking up to the meeting place, contrasting so sharply with the short locals surefootedly leading the way in their local dress of earthy browns and greens. What a strange place.

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My host dad told me the other two locals were talking about income from tourism. One, an experienced host and political leader of the community, was explaining how it all works to a new host. These people live mostly off the grid, hidden away from the world, farming the land their ancestors plowed way back when, and yet they depend on this tourism economically nowadays. Growing potatoes on the island can only get you so far and I guessed that their portion of the $180 soles (roughly $55 USD) we’d each paid for the tour must be the lion’s share of their income. Even if they get half that money four all four of us tourists, it’s still only around $110 USD/month. Even with the roughly $7 USD we paid for a gorgeous knitted hat for Andrea and the things the other couple bought, it’s not much for them to live on. It seemed like a hard life to me, but I also realized that they are further away from the cycle of consumerism that defines so many of our lives. They’re always with family and spend time with each other instead of looking at screens. Maybe it just seems hard to me. When that’s all you know, why would you want anything else? I wondered how many of them consider leaving vs. staying, joining the modern world, or maintaining their traditional lifestyle. I thought of my host father’s son that lived in cosmopolitan Lima, full of cars, people, and advertisements. What would that transition be like?

I was shaken out of my reverie when everyone arrived and the reflections quickly dissipated as we huffed and puffed our way up the mountain just in time for sunset.

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With headlamps in hand, we walked back down the mountain to our host family’s house for dinner. The house didn’t seem to be connected to the solar system by the docks and the one room kitchen/dining room was lit by a flashlight hooked up to a battery. Our bedrooms were lit by candle. We thanked our host mom for what proved to be a true high-altitude Incan dinner: quinoa soup, potatoes, rice, and a root vegetable we didn’t’ recognize. They say that at high altitude, you’re supposed to eat more starches than you normally would. Indeed, we’ve found that the food has been very carb-heavy since we left Colombia. Surprisingly, I’ve come to enjoy it and relish the energy it gives me. I’m no expert, but I do feel like I burn through carbs a bit quicker than I do at a lower altitude. That day, we had a reason to eat up: a party!

Our host parents raided a closet somewhere and decked all four of us visitors out in local garb for the “Incan party” they were throwing that evening. After a little hemming and hawing over the color choices and lots of unspoken questions about just what this “party” would involve, we donned our headlamps and set off through the dark! Turns out host dad is quite the musician and joined the rest of the band once we arrived leaving us in mama’s care. We saw all the other foreigners from our tour also dressed in local clothes and buying one of the few items for sale on the island: beer! Andrea and I didn’t have any, but jumped right into the dancing, roping our new couple friends in as well. Mama had quite a bit of stamina, but us foreigners had to rest every 2 or 3 minutes to catch our breath. Again, altitude is no joke! All told, we hung out at the party dancing, chatting, and enjoying the merriment for a few hours. After waking up early for the tour, hiking a mountain at altitude, and dancing all night, we were ready for bed! Amantani Island is one of the most peaceful places we’ve visited. I don’t know if it’s the utter lack of motorized vehicles, the wind in the trees, or just being miles away from any other human community, but we slept great.

We woke up the next day to another great carb-heavy Incan meal with our host families, complete with coffee and coca tea, before walking back down to the docks to board the boat to our next destination: Taquile Island. Taquile is firmly set in the modern world with electricity and cell signal, but also maintains the feel of being far away. We hiked through the island and had a wonderful fish lunch with the tour group before heading back across the lake to Puno.

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Hiking on Taquile.

Last Few Days in Peru

We spent another day in Puno catching up on life: blog, finances, checking in with family, and planning the next piece of the journey, Bolivia! After spending all of July and two weeks of September in Peru (with a quick trip in Mexico in between), the end of our time there came a bit more suddenly than we realized. After racing through Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, we really enjoyed being able to take our time in Peru. Since first landing in Lima and exploring Paracas through hiking in Huaraz to spending 10 days at a meditation retreat, we settled into the country, comfortably able to convert from soles to dollars and pesos in our heads. We grew a bit more familiar with the geography and some of the bigger social issues in the area. Given that we were already about halfway through September and still wanted to see Bolivia and Brazil, it was definitely time to go, but we enjoyed taking one more day to say goodbye to the country we’d come to love. We ate our last chicken and fries meal with our British/Australian couple friends, walked past the last bottles of Inka Cola, and spent our last soles thankful for those opportunities. But, we’re traveling, not putting down roots for the moment, so we organized my Bolivian visa, planned our next few days, and got ready to set off!

(I’d highly recommend other Americans planning to visit Bolivia organize visas in Puno. Apparently getting the visa on the border can be somewhat time-consuming, whereas my experience was almost painless.)

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