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Published: August 24th 2008
This is what we got a ride in. They look like the viking boats
The last (real) day of the trip began like the others, with runny eggs (I skipped this time) and really strong, viscous coffee. I feel like our hotel stays were like a pyramid -- began low with the Amazon, peaked with the 5-star hotel in Lima, then slid back down the ramp to this little inn in the crappy city of Puno, and ending with practically camping on the island (unless you count sleeping on the plane as the end, which was really the perfect ending). Waking up in the 12,000 ft atmosphere, my mucous membranes were so dry that my throat hurt, and everytime I blew my nose it bled. Now I know why they call it the nosebleed section.
We hopped in the little tour van and took off for the pier. There, we got on our own private boat. Pretty impressive! We passed other groups of about 20 stuffed onto similar boats, but for the next 2 days we had our own boat and our own tourguide. Marisa was our tour guide for the end of our trip in Puno. The weather was beautiful -- bright, clear, sunny, and warmish in the sun. I say warmish because
I don't know if you can really appreciate this in the pic, but one of the construction workers was a lady in traditional dress, skirt and all, with a hat on. Too funny!
at that altitude, I think there's probably always a bit of a chill on the air. The sun, however, was big and bright. Our first stop on the private boat was the Uros islands. These are a unique set of islands, also known as the floating islands, which are manmade and got back many centuries. Originally, the native people built these little islands of reed to escape the aggressive race of of people du jour (Incas, Spanish, etc). They lived out on the water and, until recently, were isolated and pure. Now, they are a big tourist attraction and have intermarried enough that they are just like the other Peruvians in the area. Despite being a big tourist attraction, they still try to maintain the traditional ways. The islands are pretty impressive to see. They are built by starting with a big brick of mud/roots for the base, then layering a carpet of reeds on top in criss-crossed fashion. It's anchored to the lake floor and to each other with big lines and spikes. The reeds are constantly replenished as they get water-logged and rot. It feels like walking on a waterbed. Very springy and bouncy -- you kind of
The boat ride
On the way to Taquile
sink in as you're walking on it. But no traces of water above the reeds. The reeds (tortora in Spanish) sustain them in many ways. You can break off the bottom of the healthy ones, peel it like a banana, and eat the white part (it's only a few inches that you can eat). It tastes like a cross between celery and a carrot. Like living in a gingerbread house, it's funny to think that whenever you want a snack you just break off a piece of your house. On top of the islands they build houses, have fish farms (for the non-native trout and kingfish which would destroy the lake environment if they got out), and some even have a store. Everything is made out of reeds -- even the bathroom. Most of the islands are only the size of a small house, laid out flat. You can imagine that the people living on them don't get much exercise -- and they look like it. They also build reed boats, and for 10 soles you too can ride in a reed boat (a relaxing ride if I do say!). A recent gift from the last president of Peru, Fujimora
One of the bigger Uros islands
(now exiled in Chile) was solar panels to each family. So on this floating island of reeds, in the little 1-room houses of reeds, there's a TV in the corner. Pretty funny.
After our tour of the Uros islands, we headed off for the 2-hour ride to the island of Taquile. We actually could have gotten there a lot faster, except that the boats are painfully slow. It was a nice boatride, though, in the beautiful sunlight, with a big boat all to ourselves. The only downside is that the wind outside as we were going was soooooo frigid that, despite the big strong sun, you could only sit out there for short periods of time. We arrived around noon with appetites to match. At the pier where we were docking there were a couple of kayaks beached on the shore. I should preface this by saying that the one thing I was really looking forward to doing was kayaking at sunrise on Lake Titicaca. On arrival to the area, I was informed that this wasn't possible -- first with some story about there not being any kayaks, then with another story about no one doing it anymore because
The word means gray cat and if you turn the picture upside down, it actually does look like a cat, playing with a rabbit. That's Marisa, our guide, giving us the lesson.
it's not safe. Frustrated, I had given up -- until we saw the kayaks on the shore. It wasn't sunrise on the lake, but at least I got to go kayaking. They had just finished being rented by another group and were leaving shortly for the town they had been brought from (right where the guidebook said they were, and where the local guides had no idea about). Before they left, I had just enough time to squeeze in an impromptu kayak on the lake for about a half hour. It was the first time I had been kayaking, and I loved it! The lake was so clear and cool, with warm sun, it was perfect! Edwin wasn't interested, so they stuck some random guy in the front of my 2-person kayak. The lake water felt so good I was tempted to drink it (sounds gross, but it's actually all water from melted glaciers nearby, so should be pretty clean, though I didn't personally try it).
After a peaceful ride across the beautiful lake water, we hiked up to the family we would be staying with that night. The recommended experience to truly get the full effect of the
How to build an island
Our guide with one of the local women showing us how you make a floating island -- starting with the bricks of root.
area and learn about the culture, is to spend the night with one of the local families. However, the island Taquile has become such a popular destination for this that it has turned into another tourist attraction. Not as much as some other touristy stops on our trip so far, but we were not the only ones out there. They say that sometimes the little island (which is small enough that you can walk around it in 2hrs) can have over 500 tourists. Thankfully, there were only a few on our night. To get a more authentic experience, one of the other islands is recommended, but we didn't know that when the travel agency was making our plans, and it takes longer to get out to them and we had limited time. Regardless, it was still a nice, peaceful, refreshing sojourn with nature. This was probably the first place we've been in the country that no one was trying to sell us stuff. You could also argue that tourism is preserving their culture instead of destroying it, since on the other non-touristy islands, the locals no longer wear the traditional garb and have changed their customs a bit. However you
Typical houses on an Uros Island
look at it, someone was making money off the deal because the girl in our family had a cell phone.
Since the Lake is so high, not much grows up there. They can farm beans, potatoes, and grains. No fruit or vegetables. And they eat very little meat -- mostly just sheep out there, and not enough to have meat all the time. They do, however, eat a lot of fish. Our lunch was so fresh and delicious, I think they must have just caught it right before they served it to us. It was trout, but not like any trout I've ever had. Fantastic. After we arrived to our family's place, we dropped our stuff in the guest house (they actually had another building with a bunch of double rooms, all occupied. 3 guides, an older Australian couple, a young Austrian guy, and a room each for Edwin and I. It was still nice, and actually wasn't diminished by having other non-natives there. After we dropped off our stuff in our Spartan rooms (2 single beds with lots of wool blankets, a little stand with 2 candles, and one little table in the corner), we hiked up to
On the Uros Island
the top of the mountain to watch the sunset over the lake. I thought our walk up to the house was far, we must've hiked for about an hour at a decent clip, mostly uphill. I don't know how these people do it. Most of the walk was through isolated houses built into the hills, with some terraced land nearby (for farming and to prevent erosion) and sheep. We did, however, walk through a little town. It was almost like a city, with little streets and shops and houses built right next to each other. They even had a health clinic. Then we were back out in the stix and hiking uphill again to the top of the mountain. When we got up there, the view was incredible. You could see Bolivia, Chile, and the other islands on Lake Titicaca from there. Lake Titicaca is actually shared with Bolivia, and at one time was all Peruvian, until Simon Bolivar came and made his own country. The lake is famous for being the highest navigable lake in the world -- whatever that means.
At the top of the mountain, we had to wait a bit for the sun to set,
Reed boat ride
A pretty nice ride! Like a gondola...
but it was beautiful when it did. And if I thought it was cold before the sunset, boy was I mistaken. The windchill all of a sudden became like ice. The exact second it was below the horizon and the photops were over, we were practically running to make it back to the house before it got dark (an hour up, but considerable shorter down). We made it back just in time, about 10minutes after I would have started using a flashlight. Good thing I had a flashlight, too, because those candles would never hold up to being outside. In the time between the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon (several hours) there was complete and utter darkness. Just the stars, which seemed so bright we tried to take pictures, then were reminded of our folly when we saw the black shot on our camera. It was different, too, since I know none of the constellations in the southern hemisphere (not that I know many in the northern, either, except maybe the big and little dippers). A couple of minutes of standing outside and admiring the stars was about all I could take, and that was
The bottom of the island
The root bricks are underwater with layers of reeds piled on top
after a few beers. We all gathered in the little dining room for dinner, which consisted of quinoa soup (one of the few grains they grow out there, and a part of almost every meal) and spaghetti, with fresh cheese (has a taste similar to fresh mozarella). We topped off the night with enough beer to satisfy a small army, all at the cost of about $18, which is actually really expensive for the country. All in all it was a decent day. We were lucky to have the room on the bottom, too, that had an indoor bathroom with a toilet that actually flushed and a sink with running (albeit FREEZING) water and soap. It's easy to see, though, how without electricity, the day really ends at sundown and everyone goes to bed. The former president Fujimora gave these people solar power, too, but I don't know where it went, because we were lighting our nights by candle. It was kind of nice. I laid down in my firm but comfortable matress under no less than 4 wool blankets, and froze my little butt off. I had to wrap myself in my fleece clothes under the blankets before I
That\'s how they cook everything on the Uros Islands. You can even see some little dried fish
could get warm enough to fall asleep. It was one of the best night's sleep I've had in Peru (aside from the down bed).
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