The title of this blog entry means "chicken soup for the soul" in Spanish, a phrase I have shamelessly borrowed from my travel guide in its description of where I have spent the last four days. Lake Titicaca is one of those places you grow up aware of - it's not just the silly name, either. As the world's highest navigable lake (and yes, I know, a pond is theoretically navigable if you've got a small enough boat) and home to famous floating island communities, Titicaca had a lot to love up to.
Straddling the Peru-Bolivia border, Lake Titicaca is most easily accessed on its Peruvian side from the city of Puno, a sprawling city sitting at a breathless 3,820 metres above sea level - making it one of the highest large cities in the world - and about six hours by bus from Cusco. As often seems to be the case in Peru, Puno is not, at first glance, very promising. Can this really be Peru's number two drawcard after Cusco, Inca capital and Navel of the World, no less?
While Puno has a nice selection of tasty restaurants - the speciality: lake trout ceviche - it really
Lunch by the lakeside
Al fresco lunch after arriving in Llachon, Capachica Peninsula.
isn't anything to look at. Dusty and hot during the day, utterly freezing at night, and no beauty queen. Visitors to the lake usually pass through Puno as quickly as possible and head towards one or more of Titicaca's many islands. Several of these, such as Amantaní and Taquile, are densely-populated "proper" islands which have become well-known for their local tourism cooperatives, which allows visitors to stay in homestay accommodation during their visit. Perhaps even better known are the Uros Islands, the famous floating islands constructed of Titicaca's distinctive totora
reeds. Located only a quarter of an hour by boat from Puno's lakeside port, the Uros islands have - as one might, sadly, expect - become Disneyland-on-Titicaca. With boatloads of visitors rocking up daily, the islands' extraordinary and unique culture (the islands were initially built as a way for Uros islanders to escape what they saw as the nefarious influence of other communities) has, it seems, lost a significant portion of its essence.
The Capachica Peninsula, jutting out eastwards into the lake an hour or so north of Puno, offers the opportunity to see Lake Titicaca's stunning landscapes in a more relaxed and quiet setting. Still overwhelmingly rural, the
Totora reeds by the lakeside
Lake Titicaca is famous for the totora reeds, which is used to make anything from boats to houses to whole islands!
peninsula is home to several tiny farming communities - in each of these a few families offer baisc lodging and simple but delicious food, usually based around lake trout, quinua and potatoes. Getting to these villages is slightly more complicated than simply hopping on a boat to Amantaní or Taquile, but even this is enough to keep the place blissfully off the radar. I cannot possibly think of a better expression than "chicken soup for the soul" to describe the beautiful surroundings of Llachón, the tiny village on Capachica's south coast I spent a couple of days in. There is nothing to do in Llachón expect go for rambles in the hills behind it, soaking up stupendous views of the glittering lake, its reeds and its islands, watching elderly local ladies dressed head to toe in richly embroidered clothing (and smiling benignly at them when they attempt to ask you questions in Quechua, and watching them look at you just as incomprehendingly when you answer in Spanish, which they barely understand) herding their sheep. Llachón has no roads to speak of - one minivan heading to Puno might trundle through every few hours - no noise (except the occasional braying
of donkeys which I still can't listen to without laughing out loud - such a profoundly ridiculous sound) and no shops. Everybody
greets you as walk past, even the youngest children. Men tills fields right on the lake edge. Women of all ages, wherever they are and whatever else they're doing (walking, gossiping, whacking dawdling sheep on the rear with a stick...) are always spinning wool on distinctive drop spindles. It couldn't be more relaxing and further removed from the "Gringo Trail" which Lake Titicaca is supposedly on.
A short ride from Llachón on a tiny motorboat are the twin totora
islands of Uros Titino, home to about a dozen families and built right on the edge of a huge expanse of reeds. Tucked away well beyond the beaten path, Titino is a fascinating place to visit. The islands are tiny, perhaps only seven or eight metres in radius, and built entirely of reeds: as one of the island's inhabitants eagerly shows us, the foundations are in fact large, dense blocks of totora
roots on which many layers of reeds are placed. The island is constantly being rebuilt as the reeds at the bottom rot away under water. The
island is absolutely mobile but anchored to the lake floor (the lake is shallow at this point) with half a dozen eucalyptus poles. The dwellings, one for each family, and about the side of an English garden shed, are also made of totora. A small electricity supply - enough to power a dim lightbulb, perhaps - is provided by a small solar panel: an amazing sight fixed to the totora roof! Titino's residents hunt waterfowl, fish for trout and kingfish and harvest the edible totora reeds. Everything else has to come from the mainland, traditionally bartered for with the few things they obtain themselves, such as eggs for instance. Visitors to these two tiny islets are few and far between - the five soles (just over a pound) the community earns for giving you a glimpse of their vanishing way of life isn't exactly a rich and reliable source of hard cash...I always feel uneasy about wandering around places like Uros Titino, metaphorically peering through other people's curtains - am I somehow contributing to this unique culture's decline, or helping to keep it alive? The answer, as always it seems, isn't simple: Titino sees only a handful of visitors a
week - as long as it stays that way, the amazing way of life of these floating islanders might stand a chance.
A short and bumpy combi
ride to the other side of the Capachica Peninsula gets me to Chifrón, a tiny speck of a village from where the odd ferry leaves for the island of Amantaní. A boat is bobbing away from the dock as I arrive, but the "captain" (bit of a big word in the context) kindly steers it back to the rocky pontoon for me to clamber aboard with my things. Phew! The journey is slightly less straightforward than I hoped it would be, the boat's engine refusing to start, then going for all of two minutes before cutting out. It's a frighteningly clapped-out hunk of metal, the fuel being fed to it from an old cut-in-half jerrycan with a handpump. After a few minutes floating around - the boat's dozen or so passengers looking remarkably unfussed, as Peruvians always do - the captain manages to get his emergency motor (the fact that the boat had
an emergency motor at all should have been a hint!) going, and we get to Amantaní in a short
Again, not a whole lotta do on Amantaní...the island is, however, home to two sets of pre-Inca ruins nicknamed Pachamama and Pachatata (Mother Earth and Father Earth) which, perched at the top of two hills, give spectacular views over the lake, and particularly to the snowcapped Cordillera Real over the border in Bolivia. With the full moon rising over them (another stroke of luck), the mountains give the lake an other-worldly aspect. Quite, quite beautiful - and well worth the steep uphill hike to get to. Is anywhere
in Peru flat? After a simple but delicious dinner with my hosts Nicolás and Bernardina - there are no hostels on Amantaní, you can only stay in locals' homes - it's early to bed. The following morning it's back to Puno via Chifrón by bus and boat (with properly functioning motor, this time), ready for my ride along the lake's southern shores to my next destination: Bolivia.
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