Travels with Mikey, Days 6-7: Puno and Lake Titicaca

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April 1, 2013 by jiejie768

A sign made of totora reeds welcomes us to Lake Titicaca.

A sign made of totora reeds welcomes us to Lake Titicaca.

We’re back! After a day off to break down the Easter festivities in Ayacucho, everyone’s favorite traveling trio is back on the blog. Today’s installment finds Meg, Mikey and I traveling from Arequipa to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca followed by a day out on the lake.

On Saturday, March 16, we again woke early and breakfasted at Los Torres de Ugarte before heading to Arequipa’s bus station for our trip to Puno. The bus ride is deemed one of the more treacherous in all of Peru, and as such is one of the few that is only done during daylight hours. The trip lasted six hours and covered a good chunk of the terrain we’d previously traversed en route to Colca Canyon before turning east toward Lake Titicaca. Honestly, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about, as the trip seemed pretty tame to me, especially when compared to the route from Lima to Ayacucho or the road from Cuzco to Ica. Either way, the scenery was nice and they played “The Hunger Games” in English — no seatback screens on this trip.

We arrived in Puno (12,556-feet above sea level) at about 3 in the afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Kuntur Inn; kuntur is Quechua for condor. The rest of that day was unplanned, and we grabbed a bite to eat, a cup of coffee and explored the town. Our first impressions of Puno were not great, and given what was to transpire there, they didn’t improve much by the time we left. After a few hours of exploring, we returned to the hotel and booked a tour of Lake Titicaca for the following day. We choose to do an all-day tour that would take us to Uros — the floating reed islands just off the shore — and Taquile a much bigger, natural island located about three hours boat ride from Puno.

The next day’s activity booked, we ventured out once more for dinner. We picked a place on the plaza, just three blocks away, but didn’t make it before the skies opened and left us in wet jeans for our evening meal. The food at the restaurant was pretty good, and Mikey was able to try ceviche for the first (and only) time on the trip.

The early morning sky is reflected in the waters of Lake Titicaca. The totora reeds growing here are used for just about everything in the island community of Uros.

The early morning sky is reflected in the waters of Lake Titicaca. The totora reeds growing here are used for just about everything in the island community of Uros.

Located more than 12,500-feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake.

Located more than 12,500-feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake.

Sunday morning, St. Patrick’s Day, we woke early, because that’s how we roll, and ate breakfast at the hotel We were all pretty excited when the tour operator showed up driving a Mercedes van. We piled in and enjoyed the ride while we circled town picking up fellow tourists. Fortunately, this particular van ride was short, as it brought us to the Puno docks where we boarded the boat that would take us out on the lake.

A small waterfowl takes flight in the reed covered shallows of Lake Titicaca on the morning of March 17, 2013.

A small waterfowl takes flight in the reed covered shallows of Lake Titicaca on the morning of March 17, 2013.

Our tour guide for the day had a name, I’m almost sure of it, but I have no idea what that name was. If Ali, our Colca Canyon guide, was perhaps a bit too talkative, this guy was the opposite. He was briefly informative during our visit to the reed islands at Uros, but after that he basically slept at the back of the boat and hurried us through our time on Taquile.

It was a dreary start to the day, but as we got out over the lake, the clouds gave way to blue skies and blue water.

It was a dreary start to the day, but as we got out over the lake, the clouds gave way to blue skies and blue water.

Nevertheless, it was a pretty interesting day. The weather in Puno for most of our stay was gray and dreary, but for whatever reason, the sky was almost always blue over the lake. So it was that our trip started out rainy, but quickly turned to sunshine as we arrived at Uros, about 20 minutes from the shores of Puno.

Uros is a community of more than 60, man-made floating islands. Each island has the square footage of a medium-sized US home, and houses five to six families in individual huts.

Our first stop in Lake Titicaca was at Uros, a community of 60-plus man-made reed islands about 20 minutes off the shore of Puno.

Our first stop on Lake Titicaca was Uros, a community of 60-plus man-made reed islands about 20 minutes off the shore of Puno.

On Uros, the islanders construct literally everything they need for daily life out of the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca.

On Uros, the islanders construct literally everything they need for daily life out of the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca.

Now that commercial fishing and hunting our outlawed, selling reed-inspired crafts to tourists is the main industry on Uros.

Now that commercial fishing and hunting are outlawed, selling reed-inspired crafts to tourists is the main industry on Uros.

Everything on the island from the huts to the boats to the ground is constructed from the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The community formed hundreds of years ago when the natives around what is now Puno needed to escape from the encroaching Inca rule. For centuries, the islanders survived through commercial fishing and hunting the native waterfowl. In the past 20 years, however, the government has classified the area as a natural reserve, and the islanders are only allowed to hunt and fish enough to feed their own families. This being the case, the primary (read, only) industry on the island is tourism.

Our hosts in Uros used this model to demonstrate how the reed islands are made. The foundation is made up of solidified mud topped with several layers of dried reeds. The houses on the islands also are constructed out of reeds.

Our hosts in Uros used this model to demonstrate how the reed islands are made. The foundation is made up of blocks of reed roots and mud topped with several layers of dried reeds. The houses on the islands also are constructed out of reeds.

Thus, in addition to building everything they need to survive out of the reeds, the islanders make a variety of different artisan crafts that they sell to the tourists who come calling.

Our visit to Uros started on one of the small islands where we were treated to a demonstration of the island’s construction, and given a tour of one of the resident family’s home. Afterward, we bought a reed craft (details withheld as it will be a gift for someone back in the States) and boarded the Mercedes of boats.

While visiting one of the residential reed islands on Uros, we were given a tour of a family home. Here, Meg, Mikey and I pose with our hosts Candelaria and David.

While visiting one of the residential reed islands on Uros, we were given a tour of a family home. Here, Meg, Mikey and I pose with our hosts, Candelaria and David. These are seriously the best-insulated houses in Peru.

Our guide jokingly referred to this craft as the Mercedes of boats. It may have been a joke, but it did seat 20 tourists rather comfortably.

Our guide jokingly referred to this craft as the Mercedes of boats. It may have been a joke, but it did seat 20 tourists at least as comfortably as a Mercedes van.

This was an oft-repeated joke that our guide used to refer to the reed boats piloted by the islanders (we co-opted this joke while mocking the Mercedes van in previous posts). The reed boat took us across the man-made harbor to another island that featured more craft booths and a restaurant.

A boat delivers groceries from the mainlands to the islanders living on Uros, a network of manmade reed islands.

A boat delivers groceries from the mainlands to the islanders living on Uros, a network of man-made reed islands.

After about 20 minutes there, Nameless Sleeping Guide Man herded us back onto to our motor-powered craft and we headed toward Taquile.

This was about 10:30 a.m., and we were told we’d be at Taquile around 1 p.m. Nobody on our tour questioned this, as Lake Titicaca is vast, and it seemed logical it would take a while to make it to our next destination. We all begin to question this, however, when we noticed that literally every other boat in the lake was speeding past us and disappearing into the distance. For whatever reason, we were apparently on the slowest boat in the entire lake. We begin to wonder, only half-jokingly, if the man-powered reed boat we’d ridden on back in Uros wouldn’t be a faster means of travel.

Shortly after leaving Uros, we realized we were on the slowest boat in Lake Titicaca. The reed boat powered by rowing islanders was faster.

Shortly after leaving Uros, we realized we were on the slowest boat in Lake Titicaca. The reed boat powered by rowing islanders was faster.

The three of us pose for a photo while riding from Uros to Taquile on Lake Titicaca — at 12,556-feet, the world's highest navigable lake.

The three of us pose for a photo while riding from Uros to Taquile on Lake Titicaca — at 12,556-feet, the world’s highest navigable lake.

Snail’s-pace aside, we did enjoy the ride as in addition to the lower-level, indoor seating, there were benches on top of the boat where we could bask in the sun and take in the impressive lake. I knew that Lake Titicaca was big — the second-biggest lake in South America, it turns out — but I was not prepared for what that actually meant.

Once we got past the peninsulas enclosing the bay, the true vastness of Lake Titicaca was revealed.

Once we got past the peninsulas enclosing the bay, the true vastness of Lake Titicaca was revealed.

After three long hours puttering through the lake, we finally caught sight of Taquile, our destination for lunch and quick hike.

After two-plus long hours puttering through the lake, we finally caught sight of Taquile, our destination for lunch and a quick hike.

That lake is gigantic. Once our boat puttered it’s way out from between the two peninsulas that form the bay that is home to Puno, it was like we were out on the open sea. Other than a few islands, there was no land to be seen in any direction.

Meg got new sunglasses in Arequipa, and I've found it's tough to photograph her without seeing myself in the reflection.

Meg got new sunglasses in Arequipa, and I’ve found it’s tough to photograph her without capturing myself in the reflection.

Eventually, a mountain-range was vaguely visible in the distance and Nameless Sleeping Guide Man stirred long enough to tell us that it was Bolivia we were seeing.

At long last, we arrived in Taquile and prepared for the 20-minute, uphill hike to our lunch. The island thrives on tourism and agriculture and features a variety of stunning views as everywhere you turn there are terraces dropping off into the stunning blue of the lake. The midday meal was included as part of the tour, and was served at a family home. We received mint tea, quinoa soup, and Mikey and I feasted on trout while Meg had a vegetable omelet (those were the only two menu options). After lunch, we continued the uphill hike to the main plaza on Taquile.

Pretty much everywhere you turned on Taquile was a gorgeous view of the countryside and Lake Titicaca. This view looks east over the lake; in the distance there is a faint outline of mountains that, I believe, are the Bolivian shore.

Pretty much everywhere you look on Taquile is a gorgeous view of the countryside and Lake Titicaca. This photo looks east over the lake; in the distance there is a faint outline of mountains that, I believe, are the Bolivian shore.

A stone walkway led us from the shore to lunch, and then from lunch to the main plaza on Taquile.

A stone walkway led us from the shore to lunch, and then from lunch to the main plaza on Taquile.

The center plaza, and “downtown” of the island featured charming colonial architecture and the least ostentatious Catholic Church I’ve ever seen. We snapped a few photos before Nameless Sleeping Guide Man hurried us out of the plaza and toward a set of 500-plus stairs that descended to the island’s other port. It was a beautiful walk, and I found myself wishing we had more time to explore the island, rather than another three hours on the world’s slowest boat ahead of us. It is possible to spend the night on the islands via a homestead with a local family, but our schedule didn’t really allow out, and by about 11 p.m. that night, events would transpire to make us REALLY glad we hadn’t remained on Taquile.

The stairway was impressive, in addition to being long, and, miraculously, our boat had made it around the island in just and hour and a half and was waiting for us when we reached the western shore.

There were more than 500 stairs between the main town on Taquile and the western port where our boat awaited us.

There were more than 500 stairs between the main town on Taquile and the western port where our boat awaited us.

We boarded again, taking up residence on top of the boat, and hunkered in for the long ride back to Puno. While crawling through the water toward the mainland, we made friends with a number of fellow travelers, including a pair of musicians who were on a “musical diplomacy” mission playing concerts in Peru. One of the gentlemen was a piano professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder while the other was a violinist in teaching at the University of South Carolina. The two men were clearly very good friends who had traveled the world together on various diplomatic trips of a similar nature, and we enjoyed trading travel stories with them while passing the time.

Meg and I pose for a photo in the central plaza on Taquile. (Photo by Mikey Ward)

Meg and I pose for a photo in the central plaza on Taquile. (Photo by Mikey Ward)

The path from the shore to the central plaza in Taquile is lined with picturesque stone archways.

The path from the shore to the central plaza in Taquile is lined with picturesque stone archways.

A signpost in the central plaza indicates the directions and distance from Taquile to major cities around the globe.

A signpost in the central plaza indicates the directions and distance from Taquile to major cities around the globe.

After a while, we grew warm and weary in the strong sun (at 12,000-plus feet, your much closer to the sun when it’s out) and we headed inside to rest and recuperate in the shade. A bit later, I climbed back to the top of the bus, and found myself talking to a man who lived on Taquile and had hitched a ride with us back to the mainland for the evening. He was most likely headed to town to buy supplies for his family, but I spent most of the conversation answering his many, and sometimes bizarre questions. Among the things he wanted to know were my age, my parents’ ages, why my parents weren’t married, how much we paid for hostels in the various towns we had visited, and why we hadn’t stayed the night on Taquile.

A red church rests on a hillside on the easternmost part of the southern Peninsula that encloses the bay which Puno calls home.

A red church rests on a hillside on the easternmost part of the southern peninsula that encloses the bay which Puno calls home.

We caught sight of this large ship at the dock in Pun. By the end of our second three-hour boat ride of hte day, we were ready to be back in Puno.

We caught sight of this large ship at the dock in Puno. By the end of our second three-hour boat ride of the day, we were ready to be back on the mainland.

We finally arrived back in Puno, which again was overcast and threatening rain, at about 5 p.m., but not before Nameless Sleeping Guide Man thwarted my last attempt to climb to the top of the boat and take pictures of Puno climbing the hillside as we approached. At the dock, we disembarked and found ourselves, once again, in the Mercedes van. The driver grumbled when he learned which hotel we were staying at, because it was located three blocks uphill from the plaza; “muy arriba!” (“way up!”). Peruvians, in Ayacucho and elsewhere, have a very bizarre aversion to driving anywhere uphill, despite the fact that they live in the middle of the Andes Mountains and, thus, most places are uphill.

As it was St. Patrick’s Day, and the following day was one of our rare chances to sleep in (or so we thought), we got dinner and drinks in a bar featuring an American rock soundtrack, a couple of VERY drunk Irish travelers, and a waiter that refused to believe Mikey didn’t want pineapples on his pizza. The three of us had a pretty good time, but Meg was feeling a bit under the weather, and we decided to call it a night after a disastrous attempt to enjoy a green beer.

In the US, green beer is regular beer with green food coloring, in Puno, apparently, it’s regular beer with creme de menthe. It was disgusting and Mikey treated it to a very quick two-way trip in and out of his stomach. At that point, we headed back to the hotel, a little tipsy and eager to sleep until we were done sleeping as the next day’s visit to nearby ruins wasn’t scheduled until 2:30 p.m.

Sadly, that was not to be the case. In the middle of the night, Meg became very ill, and her and I had to head to the hospital at 7 a.m., but that’s a story for another day.

The best attempt yet in my ongoing (and mostly futile) quest to take an artistic photo of the reflection in Meg's sunglasses.

This is the best attempt yet in my ongoing (and mostly futile) quest to take an artistic photo of the reflection in Meg’s sunglasses.

Catch up on all our travels with Mikey:

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