I spent the past week in and around the city of Puno, which is home to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world with boat service. And a high lake it is…sitting at 13,000 feet above sea level and spanning about 105 miles long and 35 miles wide. On the lake are several islands which are very popular for tourists. I had heard it is very touristy, so I had almost no expectations of the area. I was pleasantly surprised.
After a full day of sightseeing in Cusco, I took a 7 hour overnight bus to Puno. Straight away, I went right to the harbor to try to catch an early boat to the islands. Fortunately, I figured it out and was able to buy the transportation only (without a tour) leaving that morning. First up was the Uros islands, which are by far the most famous. The islands are man-made islands with a type of dirt and straw. I believe there are over 60 islands in total here, and even have a school on one island. Most islands had about 4 or 5 little huts. Originally, these islands were created by a tribe who were trying to get away from the Incans who were attacking on the mainland. These islands were by far the most touristy, and the people pretty much put on a show for the tourists. When you arrive, they’re waving to welcome you to the island. Then the president of the island talks with the tour guide for about 30 minutes about the island. Finally, they lead you to where all the women are sitting to sell their textiles and hand-made crafts (some of which were exactly the same as the ones a girl tried to sell me a day earlier in Cusco, which of course were also “hand-made”). The president asked me what my name was as if he was being sincere, then he proceeded to shove crafts into my hands until I walked away. From what I heard, most of the people do not live on the islands any more, but commute from Puno to there every day for the tourism business. It was honestly cool to see the islands, but it was a bit much with the corny tourism techniques.
We then hopped on the boat for a beautiful 3 hour ride to the next island, called Armantani island. On the way, as what happens in every trip I take in Peru, I got sick. Apparently, I have a goal of getting sick in every possible way while in Peru. From food, from bus, and now by boat. Luckily, it didn’t hit me until about 30 minutes left in the journey, so I didn’t suffer too much.
We arrived to this beautiful island which is home to about 4,000 people. The islands give a unique opportunity to tourists by offering homestays with local families. This is a great way to spread the wealth of the tourism industry to families living there. And it’s a great deal for tourists. For 30 soles ($11) per day, you get a place to stay and 3 home cooked meals. In my homestay, there was a British couple for 1 night (whom I met on the boat) and a Czech guy who is doing a research project there for a month. There was no electricity or running water in the house. So to flush the toilet, you pour in a bucket of water. And candles and flashlights were all we had after the sun went down. Bathing was just pouring water on yourself, but I didn’t try that one. Every morning, the 16 year old daughter walked down to the neighborhood well and would bring back 30 gallons of water. The women here are definitely strong.
For breakfast, the host mother had made fresh bread one day and pancakes the next day. Lunch usually consisted of some form of potatoes and rice, but one day she even cooked chicharron (a type of pork). Every meal was followed by the question of “Quieres maté de muña or coca?” Do you want muña herbal tea or coca herbal tea? Whichever one you chose, someone would then walk outside and pick the leaves from the tree and then bring them back to put in the boiled water.
The house I stayed at was a little bit more up on the hill, so the views were great. Outside my bedroom window, I could see a good amount of the lake with the mountains in the background. Since the air is very clean and because of the height of the lake, the moon and stars are very bright and the sunrises/sunsets are amazing. The view of the lake with the light from the moon lighting up the water was like no other. It was hard to believe that I was paying $11 a night with 3 meals a day. It was such a good deal that I stayed a second night.
The second day, I hung out with the Czech guy most of the day, just exploring the island and taking a lot of pictures. The traditional dresses of the women are interesting since they usually wear a black blanket type cloth over their heads and draped down past their shoulders, almost like a nun. I imagine this is to protect them from the sun, which is very strong here. When the sun is out, it feels like it’s 80 degrees, but nights drop down to 40 degrees in this time of year. However, I heard that in June and July it can be 80 degrees and drop down to 10 degrees at night. Quite the weather change.
Later in the day, I walked to the top of one of the two biggest hills on the island (which are side by side). These give excellent views of the lake and are perfect to watch the sunsets. Definitely some of the better sunsets I’ve ever seen were here.
The next day, I jumped on a boat to go to the next island, Taquille island. Like many other times traveling in Peru, this was more complicated than it should’ve been. Since I stayed an extra night in this island, the boat schedule was screwed up. My host mother had it all figured out and talked to her nephew, the captain of one of the boats. From what I understood, she was paid for the reimbursement of the other boat and then she paid her nephew on this boat. Everything seemed normal after I put my stuff on his boat, until the host mother walked away. Then the captain comes over to me and tells me that this boat is with a private group and he tried to convince me to take one of the other leaving boats straight to Puno. To me, it seemed like he was trying to take advantage of me in some way. This is one way that I have grown since my time in Peru. I’ve realized that if you don’t ask or push back, you will just be pushed around. As I talked about before, all too much people try to take advantage of tourists (and too often get their way). So I told him that I am taking his boat and that I paid for the trip to go to the other island. He then said he would ask to see if it was ok. I then got on the boat without saying anything, and nothing was asked of me about it again. Before, chances are that I would’ve gone along with what he said. But knowing that pushing back won’t hurt anything, I went ahead and got my way.
So I was on this boat full of hippies who were on some month long spiritual tour. Chewing lots of coca leaves, having ceremonies of different sorts, sharing experiences, crying because of their discoveries of themselves, and more. An interesting group of people they were. I think Peru is popular with this sort of thing because of the access to non-traditional medicines in the country (like coca leaves and ayawaska). Some are a bit over the top for my liking.
We arrived on the island of Taquille, which on this sunny day, had even better views of the lake than the last island. On the island, I started talking to the two guides and found out that they live in Ollantaytambo as well, and we knew some of the same people. Small world. This island, like I said, was absolutely beautiful, but a bit more touristy than the last. I got to the main square and people watched for quite a long time. Many locals were sitting around the square, and since it was Sunday, eventually the locals started filtering into the church for mass. This was interesting, since they would walk in lines through the square and straight into the church. All males would be together, and all females (many times with the children) would be together. After they had been in the church, they would leave the church and come out and sit around the square. Since the church was small, there several different rounds of this (5 or so). By the end, the square was outlined with the locals who had just been to mass. Was very interesting to see all of this.
Of course, there were many tourists acting in ugly ways. I don’t understand why some tourists think that they are at the zoo when visiting places in Peru. The locals are real people, not animals. How would they like it if people photographed them everywhere they went? What if there was a line of tourists taking pictures of them while they walked into church? Or when they’re just walking to the market? Pretty sure they wouldn’t like it, so I understand why they act this way when visiting other places. Obviously, I also like the take pictures and especially pictures of people (much more interesting than just boring buildings). However, there is a difference between taking a picture of someone from 3 feet away compared to 90 feet. One makes the person uncomfortable, the other doesn’t.
At one point, I was sitting on around the square and just watching this go on. One older man was sitting close to me around the square, and many people would come over within a few feet and take pictures of him. One guy came over, took a picture, immediately pulled out his wallet to give the guy a tip, but then he realized he didn’t have any coins small enough that he wanted to give. Awkwardly, he looked around for his wife who had already walked away. To avoid any more awkwardness, he gave the older man the smallest coin he had. After the tourist walked away, the older man turned around and just laughed along with the other locals who saw all of it happen. However funny this was, I think we should all avoid this!
After this, I walked down to the harbor to catch the next boat back to Puno. All of the people from the spiritual trip were jumping into the lake since it was quite hot outside, so I decided to do the same. The coldness of the lake was shocking, literally. Everyone was saying the same, but I had to try it myself. I had never felt like that before in the water, but it was almost difficult to breath after the initial entrance. I was in only long enough to jump in and swim to the shore, and it was truly refreshing.
After taking the 3 hour boat ride back to Puno (which consisted of another nice sunset), I found a cheap hospedaje and then explored Puno. Overall, Puno is nothing special. It has a nice lookout with a statue of the first Incan god, where you are overlooking the city with the lake in the background. There are a few nice plazas with old churches, and I also found what could be the best bakery in Peru. In 2 days, I found myself entering the bakery 4 times to buy churros, coffee, bread, and other pastries. If this place were in Ollantaytambo, I never would’ve lost any weight. I also enjoyed the street food and cheap restaurants here. One night I felt extremely hungry, so I bought 2 hamburgers, then a churro, then a plate consisting of noodles, chicken, and French fries. Afterwards, needless to say, my stomach felt like it had taken a beating and couldn’t take any more junk food for the night.
I ended up staying in the Puno area 2 more days after getting back from the islands. One day, I took a bus to a small town on the south part of the lake called Chicuito. There wasn’t much to the town, but I got some good trout from the lake and then had a nice walk around the town to the lookout and some old churches. Overall, it was a nice and relaxing day.
The next day (my final day in the area), I caught a bus and then a taxi to a small town called Sillustani. In Sillustani, there is the Lake Umayo and the popular sites to see, the extremely old burial grounds of a pre-Incan tribe. On top of this plateau overlooking another beautiful lake, there were large structures made of rocks and stones. Inside these structures, the pre-Incan tribe would bury their royalty after passing away. Some of the structures reached up to 35 feet high. Inside, the people would place the body and then food, water, and other items for the deceased to take to the next world. On this plateau were about 20 or more of these structures. The bodies aren’t there anymore, but they are very interesting to see.
On the way to Sillustani, I was in a taxi which was like a stationwagon. I was sitting in the middle seat, and then we picked up a woman, her small child, and her alpaca. If seeing an alpaca enter the back of a stationwagon doesn’t make me laugh enough, even more was the fact that it staring right at the back of my head. Every time I would turn around, it was about a foot away staring at me. Sometimes, it would make a honking noise which would cause the giggle of a small school-girl come out of me. Then the small child started to take interest in me by playing with my hat and then putting his arms around my neck. Only in Peru will you see a sight like this.
But one more rant about the tourism culture in Peru. After the taxi ride, I was talking with the owner of the alpaca. We were joking around because she asked me if I was searching for a Peruvian girl and then said her niece is single. It was fun talking to her, and then I left to go up to see the funeral grounds. After coming back, she was a completely different person. I told her I was leaving and then she started to hard-sell me her crafts. Here buy this, it will make a great gift. It’s cold so you should buy this sweater. And so on. I turned into a tourist to her and that means to sell sell sell. Peru is by no means a customer focused country. They will force anything down your throat to try to get you to buy it. If I make the excuse that I don’t have room in my bag, they’ll find the smallest thing they have to shove it down my throat. It gets very annoying and it makes me dread walking to many places. I think it’s the same for many people, but the hard-sell just repels the customer. Any of this makes kind of selling makes me 10x more pessimistic about their service or product.
So this was the end of my week long trip. I then took the overnight bus from Puno to Cusco. I arrived in Cusco at 4:30am and then took the next bus back to Ollantaytambo. Just for the record, I added up my total money spent on the trip and found that I spent just $147. It’s always good to keep track of this, and I am always happy for the value I get for each $ spent here!
I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the fall weather!