Lake Titicaca - Peruvian side

Trip Start Nov 15, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sad to leave Bolivia, the boys and I crossed the border from Bolivia to Peru to check out the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Puno is a breathtaking 3870m above sea level and I've never felt as breathless anywhere else as I did here - I couldn't sleep at night because I couldn't breathe!  One of the girls sharing my dorm actually missed a tour because she felt so ill from the altitude.  In the daytime the sun burns and in contrast the evenings are icy cold.
I found the town of Puno to be bigger and more bustling than Copacabana but also dirtier and therefore less pleasant.  Nevertheless, I spent a good few days there, while the boys left for Cusco after one day for their Machu Picchu tour.
Before leaving me, we went to a nice restaurant where they put on a folklore show of different dances with different costumes - it was quite remarkable.  For dinner I tried Alpaca steak (like a small llama) - very tasty!
From thereon in, I was going solo again and so I booked myself onto a 2 day & 1 night tour to the islands - Uros Islands (aka floating islands), Amantani & Taquile.

Uros Islands:
Wow, I've never seen anything like it in my life before - basically huge rafts (man-made islands) built out of totora reeds and home to the Uros culture.  The language they speak here is Aymara and our guide taught us how to greet the people - they will say to us "Kamisaraki" and our response should be "Waliki".  The Uros islands are based within 36,000 hectors of reeds, which are used to build houses & boats, for handicrafts and for food.
The reeds, which are 4-6m high are divided into 4 parts:
1) Roots - used as foundations for the islands
2) White part of reed right at the bottom - used as food - we were given the opportunity to taste it and I would say it tastes like cucumber but with a fluffier consistency.
3) Middle part of the reed - used to feed animals (yes there are pigs, cows and all sorts on the islands - how they don't fall into the water I don't know!)
4) Flower of the reed - used in medicines 7 teas for things like stomach aches.

We were then shown how they build the islands.  They take 4 blocks of roots (1.5m high) and using sticks bought on the mainland, they join the blocks with rope attached to the sticks.  This is then left for 1 month out of the water so the blocks join naturally.  Once the blocks become one, reed are added - 1.5m high and then the houses placed on top.  The islands are then anchored in the shallow part of the lake - 1-2m deep.
The boats made of reeds, which we were also given the opportunity to ride in, last around 8-10 months and need constant topping up with new reeds.  The children sang in all different languages for us (for money of course), which was kind of cute.  They also maintain their houses in the same way as their boats - by adding new reeds every 15 days.  They use solar panels for electricity, TV and radio (no internet as of yet!).

Activities on the islands include:
1) Fishing for Karachi fish, Ispi fish and small catfish called Mauri.
2) Bird hunting - for food, medicine and as pets.
3) Collecting duck eggs.
The people from the islands then trade food with the mainland i.e. fish for barley etc.
4) Tapestry and handicrafts - to sell onto tourists.

Amantani Island:
We then had a 3 hour boat ride on lake Titicaca to the fixed island of Amantani, where we were split into small groups and handed over to a family for the rest of the day and the overnight stay.  the houses on Amantani are primitive.  Water is carried up the island to the homes from the lake - bloody hard work carrying litres and litres of water on your back!  The houses are small (but so are the people), particularly the doorways, and are built using mud and stone.  The toilet is in a separate building outside, with a bucket of water to flush and as for a shower or bathroom - non existent.  A barrel of water acts as a container for a wash!  The people are dressed very colourfully - ladies in big, puffy, often fluorescent skirts and beautifully embroidered blouses, plus a black shawl when going out; men wear impressive ponchos and alpaca hats with bobbles on top (so cute, I couldn't resist buying one myself - it'll come in handy on the Machu Picchu tour).
We ate lunch with the mother and grandmother in the small kitchen come dinning room.  For lunch we were made quinoa soup, followed by boiled potatoes, fried cheese, tomatoes and cucumber and Oca (a root vegetable like a sweetish potato).  To finish we had Mate de Muña (a lovely herbal tea using the actual twigs and leaves to infuse the tea).
As with most South American tours, you never get an itinerary of the tour, just the basics like for example on this one that you would visit 3 islands, but what you will do and see on each is a mystery.  Anyway, we had an hour or so free time, then headed to the Plaza de Armas to meet the rest of the tour group for a 45 minute punishing hike up to the top of the island for sunset.  The drop in temperature in a matter of minutes was just incredible and of course none of us were prepared, so the hike down was substantially quicker as we were all freezing!  Since the sun had gone down, our only means of light was in fact the moon.  When we got closer to the "residential" area, navigating by moonlight became a little trickier as we had to pass through rubble, corn fields, up hills etc.
Dinner was prepared by the family and as we ate (soup, followed by rice & beans), more family members joined us in the tiny little kitchen come dinning hut.  After dinner, we walked to the main plaza again to meet the rest of the tour group for a fiesta.  Due to the lack of organisation / coordination, no one turned up, so on our way back to the family home, we stumbled across the fiesta and went in to check it out.  There were some locals playing local instruments and everyone was dancing in traditional costumes.  Basically the family you were with were supposed to have dressed you in traditional attire for the fiesta but ours didn't so we kind of stuck out like sore thumbs but nevertheless it was fun to watch.

Taquile Island:
A fairly choppy 1 hour boat ride from the island of Amantani to the island of Taquile.  Again a hike to the main plaza, not as punishing or as long as on Amantani but nevertheless a breathless walk.  In the plaza we visited a handicrafts market with lots of hats, gloves, sashes, bags etc.  In contrast to Amantani, the people here were dressed smartly in black and white.  The ladies wear black skirts, white blouses and black shawls, with just a touch of colour on their blouses and the underneath of their skirts.  Men wear black trousers, a white shirt, a black waistcoat, a colourful sash and a colourful beanie / hat flopped over at the back.
I opted in for lunch with a few o the others and for 15 soles (£4), we started off with quinoa & vegetable soup, then grilled trout (the speciality of lake Titicaca) with rice and chips (always 2 lots of carbohydrate on your plate in South America).  It was delicious and set us up for our descent to the boat.  You'd think climbing down was easier than hiking up, but steep, uneven steps take their toll on your knees!
A sunny and hot 3 hour boat ride on lake Titicaca back to Puno.  Sunbathing on deck was nice for a bit until all the mosquitoes came in full force!
One of my friends who'd done the first part of the trip to the Uros Islands had told me to take my passport with me as they would stamp it for you, but our guide wasn't very forthcoming with these things and I'd remembered too late so missed out of that.  Not the end of the world but still disappointing though considering I'm mounting up quite a collection on this trip.

All in all, I think I prefer the Bolivian side of lake Titicaca (Copacabana) as its cleaner and a smaller town than Puno on the Peruvian side.  Other than that, I don't think it would be fair to compare the 2 sides of lake Titicaca because the Bolivian side I explored without a tour and stayed in a hostel, and the Peruvian side I explored with a tour and stayed with a family - both very different experiences.  I think I probably got the best of both worlds!
For me, the Uros Islands were the highlight of the 3 islands I visited on the Peruvian side and if I did it again, perhaps I'd only visit that first part. But no regrets, it was all an eye opener for sure!

Next stop - Cusco, to say goodbye to my boys. 
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