Published: September 23rd 2009May 20th 2009
In keeping with the bad habit I fast seemed be developing (and seriously needed to lose!!) it was dark by the time we finally pulled into Puno bus station. OK so we hadn't helped ourselves by having a lazy morning, not leaving Arequipa until lunchtime for what I already knew from experience to be at least a 7hour journey, but on the upside at least this time I had company!!! We pretty much jumped straight in a taxi as soon as we arrived, picking a random hotel from the guidebook and heading straight there - we even managed to haggle the room rate, although perhaps not as well as we should have seeing as we later discovered we were the only guests!
After a night when even I got cold (Puno sits at 3860m and with a week back at lower altitudes I'd quickly forgotten how cold it gets up here at night) I had one of the best breakfasts in ages, tucking into toast slathered with the Marmite that Shirley had bought over! The great thing about friends coming to visit when you're travelling (apart from their company of course!!!) is all the goodies they come armed with and
Shirley had done a fantastic job, bringing not only the Marmite I'd been craving (bright red almost nuclear looking jam really wasn't doing it for me anymore) but extra treats like dried cranberries and mini cheddars!!! I was in heaven.
Despite being situated on the shores of the stunning Lake Titicaca so far I hadn't heard great things about Puno, a city usually described as busy, grey, ugly, polluted etc. Most people hung around only as long as needed to organise a trip out to the islands, but we had a day pottering around town and actually I quite liked it. The main issue for me was that (much like the rest of Peru) it looked like a massive building site with most dwellings only half-finished, a deliberate act by the inhabitants so they pay less tax. Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca definitely wins the 'most attractive' competition but there's still lots to see here, like a bustling local market where the lower floor is full of everything from vegetable and cheese stalls to butchers shops with every conceivable part of the animal for sale. Upstairs tables are crammed close together, noise levels increasing as lunchtime
approaches and stall holders, shoppers and local residents alike all descend for a cheap almerzo (a set lunch, generally vegetarian unfriendly although there were very occasional exceptions!). Meanwhile down at the Plaza des Armas celebrations were underway and traditionally dressed ladies in matching lilac and silver outfits with voluminous skirts and bowler hats were gathering by the entrance of the imposing cathedral.
After a quick trawl of travel agents, all of whom seemed to run exactly the same tours for pretty much the same price, we randomly chose one and booked an afternoon tour out to Sillustanti, later getting on the bus to find we'd managed to book on the same trip as Mor, an Israeli guy we'd first met in Arequipa! Sillustani is a pre-Incan burial ground sitting on the shores of Lake Umayo and the short drive there from Puno took us alongside small, simple homes where children stopped to wave and llamas and alpacas grazed together nearby. Across the site stand tall 'chullpas', stone towers that were originally erected by the Collas, an Aymara-speaking people conquered by the Inca in the 1400s. In some ways I found the stonework here more impressive than that at Inca
sites - where Incas used stones of varying shapes and sizes the Collas cut even rectangular blocks, an amazing feat considering the tools they worked with. Although some towers have been destroyed by tomb robbers others remain partly intact and each represents the connection between life and death. The inside of each tomb is shaped like a woman's uterus and is where mummified corpses were buried in a foetal position, the sole opening to the outside facing east where it was believed the Sun was reborn by Mother Earth each day.
Like everyone else we'd come here to get out to the islands of Lake Titicaca and spent a lot of time deliberating whether to do an organised tour or the DIY equivalent - there's not much difference in price but if you DIY the money obviously goes straight to local families. Unfortunately with Shirley only here for 3 weeks we didn't have the luxury of time and in the end let ourselves be convinced that doing it ourselves was just too difficult. Of course the easy to find ferry offices down at the jetty the next morning suggested otherwise!! And quite randomly the tour we'd eventually booked at
10pm the previous night landed us in the same boat as Mor!!!
Our first stop was the Uros islands, 42 man-made islands constructed from reeds of the totora plant. The islands rot from the bottom so new reeds need to be continuously added to the top, with houses built using the same reeds sitting on the surface. There's a very touristy feel to the place with locals dressed in brightly coloured outfits, perfect for that tourist photo, welcoming you onto the island, souvenirs for sale everywhere you stop and massive reed sculptures, perhaps a fish or a watchtower, rising high above the islands to indicate your imminent arrival. But if you're looking for it there's plenty of 'normal life' going on to - children late for school running for the 'bus'... or in this case a rowing boat, men fixing or laying fishing nets and simple hearths with blackened cooking pots stacked nearby.
From the Uros islands it was a few more hours to the island of Amantani. Fresh off the boat we were immediately asked to get into groups of 2 or 3 then paired off with our hosts, one of a group of short, stout Andean
ladies who stood waiting, each with their hair tied back in long dark braids and dressed in matching voluminous skirts. I headed off with Shirley, Mor and our host, an elderly grandmother who fairly ran up the path in front of us, all the while spinning her bobbin of alpaca wool, as we crawled along in her wake. Home for the night was to be a simple adobe house with drafty windows, an outhouse for a toilet and fantastic rooftop views - out to the still waters of Lake Titicaca with the snow capped mountains of Bolivia in the distance and along the terraced fields of the island. At only @ 9km² much of the hilly landscape of Amantani is covered with terraces, all worked by hand and planted either with the local staple, quinoa, or a range of vegetables... including we would discover a zillion different varieties of potato. And on any land that isn't farmed alpaca's stand grazing.
Having had the afternoon to explore by ourselves (we hadn't moved far!) grandma hustled us out the door @4pm and took us off to meet up with the rest our group, and indeed everyone from the other boats that
had arrived that day. Amantani has two peaks, Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth), with ancient Inca and Tiwanaku ruins at the top of both. We were heading to the top of one of these for sunset but unfortunately Shirley was suffering badly with altitude sickness and turned back soon after we left the village - a wise choice because as good as the sunset was the few hundred meter ascent had us supposedly 'acclimatised' types struggling to breathe! Back at the house having survived the gauntlet of local women selling Alpaca everything along the way (well, I did acquire a few new things) we sat down to dinner. Very vegetarian friendly, in fact we didn't have any meat or fish the entire stay, but even as a vegetarian I can seriously say I've never before been served a main course with 4 different types of potato all of which tasted and looked completely different! And that was after a starter of quinoa and, yup, potato soup!
With tourism an increasingly important source of income here and in a bid to spread its benefits between islanders the local elders work together to ensure boats rotate tourists between families.
Unfortunately certain tour operators undermine this by dealing with only certain villages and families, a behaviour which unsurprising generates jealously and resentment - the much nicer/bigger houses and facilities of the favoured few are easily identifiable as you look across the landscape. We'd randomly managed to pick one of the 'rotating' operators but as our hosts explained even these aren't necessarily fair in their dealings with islanders. The family we stayed with didn't expect to receive payment for a few months but they dare not complain because then they wouldn't receive any more tourists and well, late payment is better than no payment.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep we headed down to the dockside to find the local market already well underway, sellers crouched down behind piles of produce laid out in front of them. Our last stop on the tour was the island of Taquile. Home to about 1,700 people it's much smaller than Amantani but was one of the last places in Peru to capitulate to Spanish domination. We landed at the far end of the island, thereby being spared a hike up the 500 steps from the main jetty (!), but as we walked from
one end to the other along a snaking path with fantastic views of the glittering lake and rocky shoreline below we were struck by how green and fertile it seemed in comparison to Amantani. And wealthier too. But by far the most interesting was the attire of the locals we encountered, bright outfits with colour, hats and pom-poms being all important indicators of marital status and authority. Single men wear a bachelor’s hat with red on the bottom and white on the top, whilst married men wear a solid-red hat with a repeated geometric design of a man and a woman holding hands. The same colour scheme applies to women but it's more for the whole outfit than just the head wear - if it's colourful with large pom poms adorning the end of your shawl then you're definitely single!
Next up, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
There are more photos below