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Published: April 13th 2013
Entrance to the Uros floating islands
with a traditional, cylindrical dwelling
Travel Surprises Spongy walks on floating islands, mythical Lake Titicaca, a wild ride to an archaeological site, the infamous Bolivian protest blockade, the kindness of strangers, and a meeting with a Travelblogger--Puno wasn't as boring as I thought it would be. I was in Bolivia and had planned to stay until my visa expired. However, a message from a Travelblog friend changed my plans, and I was to float to Peru. Brendan Vermillion, bvchef, had written that he would be holidaying in Peru, had an actual travel schedule and wondered if we might meet. Realizing we could meet in Puno on Lake Titicaca, a lake shared by the two countries, I cut short my Bolivian sojourn. After all, I've got time and could return to Bolivia later.
A Nefarious Journey I was in La Paz, and couldn't face a too-early 8 am tourist bus that would have whisked me directly to Puno. Thus, at noon, I joined locals on what would be four minibuses, a ferry and an adventure. We crawled out of cinder-blocked El Alto, the working class part of La Paz, then through the rainy season-green countryside with breathtaking views of snow-capped Andes,
and finally to Lake Titicaca. The road along the lake was spectacular--tiny communities of tin-roofed adobe houses, a patchwork of small fields that ran down to the lake and terraced up the hills, grazing sheep tended by shepherds and views across the cobalt lake to mountains on the opposite shore. At the Straits of Tiquina, which link the two parts of Lake Titicaca, we boarded a small ferry for a gorgeous lake crossing to little San Pedro de Tiquina, presumably to catch a couple more minibuses. Here struck crisis--dangerous opportunity, as the Chinese say--the infamous Bolivian protest road blockade. Rarely in my travels would it matter if I were late except now. I started asking around; depending on their self-interest in the situation, people told me I would have to walk anywhere from 1 to 20 kilometers over a flat or perhaps a steep mountain road to the other side of the roadblock. Who to believe? It was getting dark, so I opted to stay in town. Unfortunately, none of the town's cheap hotels had bathrooms, and I wanted to wash my hair before meeting Brendan (vain, I know). Then the opportunity part of the crisis
The Kindness of Strangers The captain of the Bolivian naval base heard my lament and offered me a free stay at the empty base hospital. It was up a thousand stone steps and had a shower, albeit with freezing cold water. I accepted his gracious offer, and he even assigned me a charming young officer, Jaime, for the evening. Jaime was from big city La Paz, wilting from the boring life of the small town, and keen to speak English. Fortunately, he was also able to explain an absurd border incident between the old enemies, Bolivia and Chile, that had long been front-page news. He also related horror stories of border guards on both sides beating and occasionally shooting smugglers of relatively innocent contraband--livestock, American clothes, electronics. Yikes--old grudges kept alive! The following morning, the roadblock had been partially removed, and I boarded a minibus for Copacabana. The roadblock--downed trees and lines of stones across the road every several hundred meters--had indeed been many kilometers long. Again, we wound up, down and around the picturesque shores of Lake Titicaca until we came to Copacabana, snuggled between a couple of mountainous peninsulas.
Reed boat and on Lake Titcaca's Straits of TiquinaCopacabana was charming with an ornate cathedral full of indigenous people laden with armfuls of flowers, flower-bedecked vehicles receiving a ritual blessing outside the cathedral, a bay with lots of little motor and pedal boats, hiking trails, affordable places to stay and eat, and warm sun--it will be great to return.
looking across to the little town where I was stranded
Peru--Sinners and Saints After my nefarious adventures getting to Copa, I went upscale and took a tourist bus to Puno. At the Puno bus terminal, I immediately met two rip-off artists--a lying hotel tout and an overcharging taxi driver--welcome to Peru. At the hotel, I was to meet the kind side of Peruvians. When they told me the tout's offered price was in dollars not Peruvian soles (a 2.5 times difference), I nearly swooned. However, sweet Betty the manager, cut the rate in half to $12. While it was more than I normally pay, I had a private room and bath and was near Brendan's beautiful hotel--time for a splurge!
Travelbloggers Together Brendan and I met at the cathedral just as it started raining, so we retreated to his hotel lobby. There, he presented me with a heavy travel
book he'd graciously lugged here for me, and we talked for hours of our lives and work, love of travel and opera. It was clear we were also different--he works and plays hard while I rather float through life, spending more time being than doing. (Thus his blogs appear in a more timely and chronological fashion.) Perhaps this appreciation of differences is what prompts us to travel and learn of other ways of moving though life--it certainly made for fun times together.
Pitiful Puno The next day, it was raining again, but after all, this was the rainy season. Although it was summer, it was also freezing since Puno is at 3,830 m/12,556 ft. Brendan took an upscale island tour at 6:45, while I stayed in bed reading until the rain stopped. Postponing my visit to the islands for a sunny day, I checked out the town. The cathedral had an intricate, Baroque carved stone facade but was rather boring within. While the city had been founded during the colonial period, the old buildings had simply been torn down for new ones. Not much here for an architecture buff. I walked along the recently
, a lakefront walk, spotting exotic waterbirds and chatting with fellow flaneurs. It was Sunday, and Bolivian families were out at the fish restaurants and crafts stalls and pedaling fanciful boats around the lime-green algae that covered the bay. Later, as I walked the other direction along the lake, I was overcome by a fetid stench--the neon algae pointed to problems with sewage treatment from the town and its islands. I was done with urban exploration. That evening Brendan and I met for tasty pisco sours over dinner, and he regaled me with lovely images from his tour of the islands--surely, the best parts of Puno are out of town. Once again, we had a stimulating and fun evening.
Towering Sillustani Ruins The next day, we set out for the Sillustani ruins in the gorgeous countryside. Since he had a plane to catch, we hired a taxi to take us to the ruins--much easier than being crammed in a minibus and then hitchhiking as I would have done on my own. It was great to have Brendan as a good influence even if our driver was completely manic. We passed exquisite, traditional
homesteads dotting the countryside as we approached the ruins. Stone fences, topped by adorable ceramic bulls, protective charms, and a cross for good measure encircled thatched adobe and stone compounds with llamas and alpacas grazing out front. Enchanted, I had the driver stop at one of these, and a smiling woman came out to meet us. Of course, she wanted to sell us textiles, but she was friendly and gracious and took the time to show us her guinea pig hut fashioned after her own thatch and adobe home. Despite her offer of alfalfa and our friendly clucking, the rodents wisely avoided us predators. At the ruins of Sillustani, we were let off on a wonderfully deserted path leading up to green hills festooned with yellow wildflowers and overlooking Lake Umayo. Above us towered the reddish, 12 m/36 ft high cylindrical funerary towers constructed of massive, perfectly carved and fitted blocks of stone. These chullpas were where the 12c-15c pre-Incan Qolla/Aymara people had buried their noble families. It was a perfect day for sauntering around the towers and wildflowers. As we were leaving, a tour group arrived, and we counted ourselves lucky to have had the site
to ourselves in this lovely low season. After a wild ride back to town, we enjoyed a pasta lunch to celebrate our time together. It was so great to meet a fellow Travelblogger after I'd only known him through his entertaining blogs. He is a true adventurer and a very fun travel partner. Thanks for the wonderful times, Brendan! Then, he was off to Arequipa.
Island Fever I'd always wanted to visit the floating Uros Islands. I was born on an island and have often lived on them, and floating is one of my passions. At home in Santa Barbara, I'd swim out deep, past the waves and kelp beds, and then float. With my feet to our channel islands and head to the shore, I'd let the water wash through my body like a damp dress being shaken out in the wind. Bliss! Not only do the Uros Islands float, they do so on the mythical Lake Titicaca--the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest one in South America. The name Titicaca is often translated from indigenous languages as Rock of the Puma and refers to a sacred rock on the Isla
del Sol, off the coast of Copacabana, Bolivia, which I plan to visit later. As the day was sunny, I headed to the wharf and joined 25 Peruvians on a motor launch to visit a couple of the 40 or so Uros Islands that float about five km from Puno. Once again, I was grateful this was low season because there were dozens of these boats which would overrun the islands in high season. I'd read that if someone falls into the lake, like a fisherman, it is traditional not to rescue them but to let them drown as an offering to the Earth Goddess Pachamama. Hopefully, this didn't apply to tourists since several of us were sitting on top of the boat watching the dancing clouds. After about half an hour, we disembarked on a totora reed island that was spongy and fabulously fun to walk on. We tourists sat in a circle as I'd seen many indigenous groups do as I'd traveled the lake shores. An islander explained the history and traditions of the island.
The Floating Uros Islands Centuries ago, the Uros people left the land, retreating to the
reeds to escape the Aymara natives, then the Inca and the Spanish. The islands, housing 2-10 families, are built upon a 1 m/3 ft bed of reed roots that is anchored with rope to sticks stuck in the lake bed. However, occasionally during storms, the islands become unattached and float away. It's also impossible to say how many islands there are since they can be attached to and detached from other islands as desired. As a long-term traveler, I love this sense of movement whether changing location is by choice or by storm. However, unlike my life, the islands require constant upkeep. The roots that form the base of the islands are covered with a cross hatching of reeds that continually rot from the bottom and need to be replenished every few days with a new layer on the top, especially so after a herd of tourists has tramped about. The few hundred people who still live on the islands use the reeds to build their houses, for crafts to sell, and for food, but use more long-lasting wooden boats to get around; the reed boats are for tourists. After the talk, we were encouraged to buy
trinkets and embroidery and then boarded a reed boat to a larger island that had a fish restaurant, places to stay, the elementary school and a watchtower to climb for views. After a couple of hours, we boarded our motorboat to Puno. That night, I luxuriated in the high life of my own private room, and got ready for a too-early morning departure. Next, I was off to Cusco, where I would volunteer with low-income children, spend Easter week, and visit Machu Picchu--the adventure continues!
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