Puno & Lake Titicaca

I don’t do a lot of planning.

cornholio.JPGSometimes I’ll get to a place and double my expected stay. I’m also not afraid to leave a place early.

I left Cusco with a bit of a heavy heart, feeling pulled away by my schedule and yet anxious to be in Chile. I found myself between both places when I arrived in Puno at 4 a.m. 

My reasons for dropping by Puno, the launch pad for seeing Lake Titcaca, were justified. Titicaca is a major attraction in Peru – at 3,800 meters of elevation (12,500 ft.) and 3,200 square miles of area, it’s the largest high altitude lake in the world. The mythical Cornholio (of Bevis and Butthead fame) also hails from Lake Titicaca (though he falsely claims it is in Nicaragua). Finally, my friend Tony (from Baños) highly recommended a particular homestay on the lake that sounded really special.

As has become common on the Gringo Trail, I ran into a familiar face at the bus station.  Repeat offender Sarah had been on the same bus from Cusco and had an hour or two to kill before catching a connection to Bolivia. I felt no need to leave the junky station until the sun came up and we were able to watch each others’ bags for bathroom usage and sip terrible powder-based coffee from a street vendor. 

When it was light out, I went to find a taxi. 

Instead I found a fellow who will cart you around on his bicycle for next to nothing. It was a slow, squeaky ride to the main plaza, but I was no rush.

Tony’s primitive directions instructed me to go to the plaza, find the yellow building adjacent to the cathedral, and go upstairs to find the travel agency. There I was supposed to ask for Jose, who would come get me and take me to his island home on the lake for the night. Still around 6 a.m., I had some waiting on the steps of the church. Although I had the sun on my back, Puno is chilly in the morning. I read my travel guide for a while to start planning out Chile, also reading my book. 

When the big church clock tower hit 7:30 I was getting tired of waiting, and saw a cafe across the plaza open. I went in, ordered a cheap breakfast with better coffee, and used their internet. I found that the travel agency was closed on Sundays. 

This was frustrating. The guides explicitly tell how most attractions on the lake are often disappointing and exploitative of the island communities. My book recommends a couple agencies (this one included I later found) that are ethical in their operations. I walked to the two others listed to find they were also closed. I gave up on spending a night on the lake, with no intentions of sleeping in Puno.

Getting sick of this stinky town already, it was time to make a decision. 

Was I going to rush back to the station to catch the last bus out until that evening? Or was I going to find something to do for the day and bus to Chile overnight? Not wanting to make my trip to Puno worthless, and in no mood to get right back on a bus, I chose the latter.

From a decent looking travel agency that was open, I asked what my options were for day trips. The choice that made the most sense was two half-day activities: a morning adventure to the floating islands of Uros and an afternoon field trip to the ruins of Sillustani. Both were unexpectedly cheap and a popular combo.

Uros was quite the interesting experience

Since before the Spanish arrived in South America, the small community of the Uros have been living on floating islands they fashion themselves from Titicaca’s dense-growing reeds. About 2,600 people now live on 80 man-made islands, but the Uru nearly went extinct before Mormon missionaries came in the ’70s. While they continue their traditional lifestyle, the people if Uros don’t reject modern technology, and make most of their money from the tours they welcome to their homes.

As your boat pulls into the area, the passengers are greeted by a small congregation Uru people, smiling and waving like they are seeing a long-lost friend. A small boat taxis ours to the particular island we are to visit – they do this to make sure each island gets the same number of visitors. 

You are greeted my the president of the island (each has its own) and asked to sit down for a presentation. Walking on the thick layers of reed is a very squishy experience. With the help of our tour guide, the president shows us how the islands are constructed and maintained, how the Uru society works, and how the Uru live when they are not coddling tourists. Solar panels and cell phones are popular technology for the Uru, but they still live in tiny straw huts and stick to most traditions on dress and diet. 

The average island has a handful of families living on it, and if disputes between neighbors can’t be solved they literally cut the island in half. I found that funny.

We were then led to huts in small huts where we were invited in and encouraged to dress up in their clothes. No one seemed to take them up on that. Before being set free to wander the island and take pictures, were heavily guilted to buy some of the crafts they make, even being told by our guide how it is practically expected. I purchased something cheap that I liked.

At the end we were asked to take a short ride to the capitol island on their “Mercedes-Benz” boat, designed especially for tourists. It cost 10 solles and you are treated with a corny goodbye song from the island residents. Not wanting to run out of money before I got to Chile, I was one of the only people to pass, but didn’t feel like I was missing out. 

I have a strange time mediating my feelings about Uros. In many ways I felt uncomfortable by the extent these people’s lives had been sold out – the way they brought us inside their huts to take pictures of the beds and pressure you to buy trinkets you don’t actually want. On the other hand, if what they said about the near-death of their community in the ’70s is true, this is arguably the only means to keep them alive, if not thriving. 

Like I said, it was interesting.

I had a lunch break between tours. 

I found a quaint local restaurant, not easy to do on a Sunday on the gaudy tourist strip. I got a giant plate of fried rice and a deliciously saucy ceviche made with fish from the lake. I have gotten pretty good at the art of knowing where to go and what to order for cheap local food. 

As is especially popular on Sundays in South America, Puno was having an irreverent parade. This one was larger than the other dozen or so I’ve seen, apparently celebrating the city’s white collar work force, marching around in suits. 

The Sillustani tour started at 2 p.m. 

I had no expectations but as compared to spending more time inside Puno, I looked forward to anything historical and picture worthy. I had thought that we would be getting to the ruins by boat, but it turned out they were on a different lake about 45 minutes away. 

The tour was a nice hike around what the Inca long used as a burial grounds for their important dead. The hilly lakeside peninsula is scattered with chullpas (no, not Chalupas), which are tower-like stone structures where people would place their dead as well as offering. The older towers date as hundreds of years before the later, more impressive chullpas, so this site must have had some serious importance.

Given my activities over the last couple days, by the end of the hike I had hit my limit on Incan ruins for the near future, but it was a pleasant way to fill the day. Annoyingly, the drive back was not complete until we stopped at a family’s home looked at their traditional life, etc. – similar but less interesting than the one I saw outside of Cusco. I did get to pet a fuzzy 2-week-old alpaca, so it was okay.

Driving back to Puno, I saw my last sunset in Peru over the undoubtably pretty lake. 

Before picking up my backpack from the tourist agency and heading to the station, I had dinner at a cheap veggie restaurant I found. I ordered what was basically an apple-sized poblano pepper, filled with more peppers and veggies, and topped with local cheese and egg. It was beautiful looking and without a doubt the spiciest dish I have ever tasted. 

Those who know me know that I will add hot sauce to even the spiciest of foods but this plate pushed me to the limit. My eyes were bloodshot and pouring tears, my mouth on fire – all from a little piece of fruit. I finished it like a man, but don’t think many others could have. I don’t envy the sensitive stomach that accidentally orders that one next.

After less than 24 hours in Puno, I was checking out. 

I’m glad I stayed for the day and regret my planned guest-stay didn’t work out, but sometimes that’s as much as you need to spend in a place before you come to actually resent it. With so many fond memories over the last two weeks, I was sorry to say goodbye to Peru, but even more anxious to be heading someplace new. Chile, see you in the morning. 



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