Lake Titicaca and Puno

Sorry for the long delay in posts – I’ve been busy with the family here and hiking the Inka Trail! I will be cranking out a few posts ASAP in the next few days to get you all up to date – and then I go home on Sunday! AAH!

Puno, although cold and rainy, was pretty darn cool. Lake Titicaca was absolutely worth the trip, and highly recommended to anyone coming anywhere NEAR the area!

I left Arequipa and my wonderful home stay with Maria at Llama Education on Friday morning, and took a five hour bus ride to Puno. After having semi-ugly bus rides in the western half of Peru, the ride from Arequipa to Puno was a step up – some greenery and lots of llamas and related animals! The ride from Puno to Cusco was amazing, but that’ll be in the next post. I arrived in Puno around two in the afternoon and, after trying Inka Rest hostel and discovering it to be totally full, found a nice room with a queen sized bed at Hostel San Carlos – just a few blocks from the center of town. The room was freezing, but the shower was hot, the blankets were warm, and the price was right for a private room! I got settled in before exploring the town – which didn’t consist of much besides walking around the streets, seeing the cathedral, and going to the coca leaf museum.

Coca is very common down here – used frequently to make tea, and chewed by the more indigenous population. While it might sound controversial, since cocaine is indeed derived from the leaf, the cocaine aspect of the leaf is minor (think poppy seed muffin to opium) and is not the reason for chewing. While many people claim it has great benefits (from weight loss to digestive help to helping with altitude issues), I think it tastes like grass and really isn’t worth drinking (tea, I mean).

The next morning I got up early to go on a tour of both the floating reed islands, Islas Uros, and the larger Taquile Island. I think that, up to this point, these island are the coolest things I’ve seen on this trip. We took a boat out to the floating islands first, which are made from the reeds which grow in the lake. I think there are around 40 islands in the group we visited – all of which are visited by tourists on a rotating basis. Apparently there are more floating islands further out in the lake which aren’t really visited, which is good because it was sad to see these islands because they felt like Disneyland. My guide insisted that the culture hasn’t been lost, but it sure felt like it has been. They now live on tourism alone – mostly from selling their crafts to tourists visiting the islands.

The island were very cool though, especially when a little wave would come and make the ground lift up and down! They showed us how they use the reeds to construct the islands, and replenish them every few weeks. Their houses are also built from the reeds (and each have a television in them now), and they also eat the reeds like bananas! I tried one, and it didn’t taste particularly wonderful, more like a grassy sponge. The families living on the islands were very friendly, beautiful people, but clearly put on the show for the tourists. I really wonder what their culture was like before the tourism, and I would love to see it preserved, but I suppose that is the paradox of tourism – you want to see and experience culture, but by doing so you are often changing the culture! Yikes.

After the floating islands we headed 2.5 hours out into the lake to Isla Taquile – a real (big) island. After a 20 minute hike up from the dock (complete with heavy breathing, I tell you what! Lake Tititcaca isn’t the highest navigable lake for nothing!) we arrived at the main square of the island. This island is SO charming – I wish I had more time and I would have definitely spent the night with a family out there. The island was green with terraced plots of crops, charming little houses, traditionally dressed people, and wonderful views of the lake and Bolivia! We didn’t spent much time on the island – just enough to shop around the artisan market and have a lovely lunch of quinoa soup and trout. I wish we could have stayed a bit longer!

The traditions on Taquile are very interesting – particularly in relation to marriage. The men on the island wear hats which easily signify if they are single or married (all red = married, red and white = single). In order to get married, they have to knit their all red hat and present it to the father of their wife-to-be. The father pours water into it and, depending on how fast it leaks out, judges the quality of his knitting. If the knitting isn’t good enough, the man is sent away and told to return in six months with a new hat! Knitting is important because all of the knit goods (mainly hats) sold from the island are made by the men – and they are really beautiful! The women, who don’t cut their hair from birth, have to cut their hair when married and weave it into a belt for their husbands. The men wear these hair belts underneath other colorful belts, also woven by the women.

I was glad to visit the islands, and to see Puno. Puno is a bit hectic feeling, but really kind of charming in its own little dusty way. I wish I had spent a bit longer in the area, but I got up at 3 am to head to Cusco to meet my family who flew in last Sunday! I was supposed to be on a bus that left at 4 am, and would arrive in Cusco around 10 am. Unfortunately, I picked the worst bus in creation and it didn’t leave until 4:45, and then didn’t arrive until 12:30 – I was not pleased. I will write about Cusco, the Sacred Valley, the Inka Trail, and Machu Picchu soon!

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