Lago Titicaca:Island Hopping @ Copacabana and Puno

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Down at the Copa....Copacobana.  We arrived into Copacobana on Thursday evening and found a private room with bath for a whopping $4.50US - we instantly liked it there!!
Arriving at Lake Titicaca itself was a bit surreal as we had been in the Bolivian deserts - essentially - for the past 3 weeks.  Everywhere we had been was mountainous, barren, dry and pounded by the sun.  All of a sudden there is this large and instant shift in landscape and you are on the shores of the largest lake in South America at 3812m above sea level.  We learned that Lake Titicaca is fed by 5 major rivers as well as rainfall and melt-off from the nearby mountains but only 1 river leaves the Lake accounting for 10% of water lost.  The remaining 90% evaporates due to the intensity of the sun at this altitude.
We set out bright and early the next morning to visit Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) which is an historically and spiritually important island for the Incas.  After a painfully slow 2-hour boatride (plus ½ hour getting the boat to start in the first place), we arrived to the northern tip of the island.  This was followed by a painfully terrible museum and then having to pay a lady for having taken a (really bad) photo of her mules...But, after this we were happily on our way amidst the amazing scenery of beaches, coves, endless blue lake, snow capped Andes, fluffy sheep, and colourful flowers.  We arrived at the most important Inca ruins on this side of the island - they include the rock Titikala (The Sacred Rock) where the Incas beleive the Sun was born, a sacrificial alter and the remains of where the Incas lived which is now known as the labrynth, so called because of the maze you enter as you step through one of their tiny doors and into the many ruins of their homes.  As this island is at about 4000m elevation and the sun is intense, the going was harder than expected despite the easy path crossing from north to south.  So, we took it easy and took in all the scenery around us and about 4 hours later, we arrived to the main town on the island which subsists off tourism and subsistence agriculture and fishing, so yes, I paid (5 Bs) to have my photo taken with a lady and her llama.  Actually we felt slightly obliged to as well as she kept pressuring us to buy this Euro coin off her which is useless to us and she wouldn`t drop it...Anyways the llama was soooooo cute and so soft it was hard to resist!!  Not caring to see the less important ruins on the south side of the island, we hopped a boat back (good thing to as it was the last boat of the day!!) which ended up stopping at the dock near these ruins anyways, so we definitely lucked out
After a delicious meal and meeting our Belgian friends again, we bought out ticket to Puno (the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca) and crashed.  In a stroke of fate, when we showed up for our bus the next morning, it was all sold out (yes, we had purchased tickets ahead of time though...??) so we had to wait till the afternoon bus.  Initially this seemed crappy but we decided to make the best of our time and climb up this huge hill in town called the Calvario that has a cemetary half way up and worship centers at the very top.  But, more important to us than the worship centers were the tiny cars and wads of fake money and tiny houses being sold at little stalls, and as soon as I saw these at the top, it clicked, `This is the stuff they bless for you!!` - I had totally forgotten that Copa has a ritual of blessing cars (both normal sized and small) as well as other random objects for safe travels, health, wealth, etc.  We were stoked.  In light of our recent micro ride on the Highway of Death and for all the roads ahead, we thought the miniture Toyota Hiace micro-van would be the best option.  We bought it, filled out a sort of certificate with our names and the Toyota`s details etc and asked where to bring it.  We then remembered the men, Shamen actually, at the halfway point on the mountain and the girl said they would do it for a donation. 
We raced down to the middle of the mountain where we met our new Shamen friend, Ernesto, who offered to perform the ceremony for us.  We told him we wished for safe travels and then bought some incense to start the ceremony.  The ceremony consisted of the Shamen blessing us in basically every aspect of our lives, and then each of our brothers/sisters and parents as well and he used a hybrid of Catholicism and Indigenous religion blessing us with a cross and saying Catholic prayers but then dousing the microbus in the incense and making offerings to Pachamama.  When the official ceremony was over he ordered us 2L of beer from the ladies nearby.  Nervous about our ability to drink so much at 11am, our fears were quickly doused (ha) as he took the first bottle and shook the crap out of it before spraying it in small bursts all around him in offering to Pachamama, spraying the microbus, our hands that we then had to put into our pockets, and after this was done he interpreted the foam shape inside the bottle for us as well.  The next bottle we shared among us three as well as each of us offering some to Pachamama too and during this, he read our palms and though we can`t say if he is correct about the future, he was pretty much right on with the past and present, even with current decisions etc and my birth month and so on.  It was a reaaaaaaaally cool experience, lasting about 15 minutes total.  He was so genuine and interesting and the ceremony was so elaborate and sincere.  We were so happy we missed that bus, a real stroke of fate that definitely enriched our time in Bolivia. 
The border crossing was stress-free and our driver even found us a cheap and nice hotel here in Puno, Peru.  Puno is much bigger than Copa but also really nice and right on the shore of the Lake.  We decided to take a day to sight-see within Puno before heading to the Islands from here.  With some good advice from a nice tour agency, we set out the next morning to a village called Chucuito which is known for it`s Inca ´Templo del Fertilidad´.  After a rather expensive cab ride there (long story) we found our way to this temple and were offered a tour by a 15 year old girl working there.  Apparently, infertile woman used to enter this temple alone, and along with offerings of coca leaves and an alcohol, they would sit up on the main penis in this temple and think fertile thoughts.  From that view point, they could see all the penis sculptures around them in this garden-like temple including the one they planted on the very top of the church next door...muuuuuhahahah.  As you can imagine, we spent quite a bit of time taking awesome photos inside this penis garden, it was hilaaaaaarious!! The outter courtyard is lined with phalynx souvenirs which were kinda fun to look at but also sort of weird when the 8 year old girl selling it to you is saying, `Look, erotica!` hahah  Nik of course bought some volcanic rock penises which he claims will make good paper weights....We then walked down the road where on the main highway, people have carved two indigenous men`s faces into the rock walls along the road.  They were very cool.  A quick and cheap collectivo brought us back to Puno.
That afternoon, we had a really great tour bring us to Sillustani, essentially a sacred cemetary for the 2 cultures preceding the Inca in this area (including Tiwanako), and finally for the Inca themselves.  Each culture built their tombs in a particular manner - all of which were elaborate - but the Inca`s tombs are clearly the most striking.  They are called Chullpas and are cylindrical burial tombs large enough to accomodate 7 people of importance.  The highest of these tombs stands 12m.  We learned how they built these incredible tombs, saw the temples used to track the sun and worship Pachamama, and took in the beauty of the area.
The best part of the tour was the unexpected part...On the way back to town, we stopped in to visit a local family and learn about how they live.  We were greated by two of the happiest and cutest people I have ever seen standing outside their simple home by two of the cutest alpacas I have ever seen.  Just adorable - after snapping some shots of the cute animals, we entered their home where they first offered us some of their baked potatoes (a very important crop here) - but they eat them differently than us.  They take some hard clay from the ground and add water to make a type of sauce and while that sounds weird, when you dip the potato into it and have it, it is delicious and also a great source of nutrition.  The father then dove right in to showing us how he crushes the quinua grain (also very important here - `Rice of the Andes`), then he ran over to show us how he tilled the land.  This part was cool cause the land is so hard that they essentially use a pogo stick and launch themselves into the air and land on the ground forcing their tool into the earth, then they repeat.  It looks hard but fun!! Then they have to further smash and break apart the clumps of hard land before they can till a ditch to plant their potatoes 1 foot apart.  After this he ran - smiling all the way - into their bedroom.  The family of 4 shares one bed which has an adobe base, a reed mat and then a few alpaca blankets.  Our dad hops into bed, shows us the cubby-hole for his shoes, puts on his tuque and says `See you tomorrow!` - adorable.  Next he hops out of bed and starts weaving an alpaca floor mat!! This guy did everything! We also saw a small hole in the courtyard - apparently they put their babies in this hole while they work and just line up all the baby toys around this hole to keep them happy.  Very good idea I thought!!  We bought a tuque in appreciation for their hospitality and left so happy to have met a family that was just so genuinely kind and happy, very fun.

So, the next day we headed off for our Island Adventure of the surrounding area.  We got picked up at our hotel and then headed for the dock where we got on our boat and met our guide. 

The first island we headed to was called Uros, which also has natives of the same name.  The islands here are completely made of tortura reeds (your basic reeds in a lake).  The base of the islands are made from the floating roots that are anchored by rope and pegs and then the reeds are layered in a criss-cross pattern until a substantial floor is created.  The Uros people had been living there before the Inca inhabited the area, so from before 1400 AD.  The islands were pretty cool, we were greeted by natives singing some sort of song when we arrived and then also when we left.  The island were obviously really basic - they just installed toilet systems in the past few years due to health issues - and the islands were also really hard to walk on as you sunk into the reeds with every step.  The cool thing is that they are totally portable, when the want to change locations, they pull up anchor and paddle their island to the next spot.  Also, they pay no taxes as they don`t actually own any land.  To cross to the next island we took a Tortura reed boat ride.  These boats are created by the men and take approximately 5 weeks to make a complete reed boat.  When we got to the adjacent island there wasn´t much different there, some artisan crafts and then there were some restaurants and what not.  So off to the next island.  
We got on the boat and then had a pretty chill 2.5 hrs ride to the next island.  During the ride the whole group of us (10 people) sat on top of the boat and relaxed until we got to our destination.  The following island was called Isla Amantani and it was rock, stone and very fertile land - not a lot of reeds available.  When we got to the island we immediately gathered at point on the island and then were introduced to our host family.  
At this point in the trip we were supposed to stay with a host family who would make us lunch, dinner and then breakfast the next morning.  Our host mother (Elizabet) was probably the same age as us and had lived on the island all her life, though her brothers and sisters had since moved to the mainland to find work and provide better opportunities for their children.  Walking along the paths to her house was interesting scenery, lots of animals (sheep, donkeys and turkeys) and generally a really clean island with little or no litter on the ground.  We got back to her house and watched her making our lunch - it was interesting as they have no electricity, running water, or means of refrigeration, and they are all vegetarians.  She had to keep all the cooking water in one pail, cleaning water in another, and took her dry cheese out of a container and wet it/washed it before serving it.  The toilets are flushed by using a pail of water as well, but everything was really clean and all the meals delicious.  After lunch, we bought some touques from Elizabet as, apparently, the entire island is sustained by selling touques and what-nots :-)   We then headed back to the tour group to climb one of the hills on the island.  
When we gathered with our group our guide gave us a bunch of different plants and herbs that they use on the island.  One that we had in our tea for lunch was called muña or something like that, it was real nice though.  Interesting part of our lunch was that all the other people, even though they stayed at different houses had the exact same meals as every one else (Quinua Soup, Potato Salad w Cheese and then the tea with muña). After this fascinating revelation we decided to head up the hill to a lookout and then watch the sunset.  After walking about 15 minutes the group spaced out (we were climbing a hill) and then we met some kids with drums and pan flutes along the path.  The kids immediately began to flute and drum as the entire group walked up the hill.  This part was pretty amazing, because the kids not only climbed the hill effortlessly, but they were using so much energy to pipe music to us for inspiration.  Most of us were amazed that the kids were not out of breath as most of us were.  When we made it to the top there was other tourists from other boats that had come to the island as well.  We kicked around the top for about 1hr as the sun set over the lake and then headed back down for dinner and also for a dance. 

That night we ate a dinner that Elizabet had made us and then got dressed in traditional garb for a dance.  Sarah got this really frilly dress that puffed out huge, with a white embroidered blouse and then a shall on top of it.  She also put on this bitchin´ knitted touque that we had bought on the top of the hill where we watched the sunset.  I got a pretty basic blue poncho (and the touque I bought on the hill), pretty sweet since I really didn´t have to do too much.  We went with Elizabet by light of the stars to the town hall and met everyone else on our tour group (also dressed up) and the other tourists that came to the island as well.  When we got to the hall there was a band (all 12-14 year old) complete with a big drum, 2 pan flutes, a mini-guitar and then a drink table.  The band started playing and immediately all the host families grabbed the tourist staying with them and started dancing.  It was really fun with everyone dancing and really just swaying their arms and ruffling their dresses or ponchos, pretty simple dance.  This continued probably for an hour or so and then everyone headed back to their respected houses, nice and toasty warm after a night of dancing.

The next morning we gathered up our stuff, ate breakfast and then headed for the dock and the boat.  On the way to the boat we were passed by a sprinting herd of sheep and a lady pulling on her mule to get him to move (he wouldn`t) - we passed this same mule again as it got it`s leash all tangled on a rock fence and pulled a bit of it down.  These animals are hilarious! We said farewell to our families, hopped our boat and cruised to our final island of Taquile which is known for it`s weaving. 

On Taquile, as in most other indigenous cultures, the men do virtually all the weavings.  This island is interesting too because the weavings they wear reveal their social status.  For example, men with a white and red hat are single and either looking for a lady or not depending on which side of their head the tail flops too.  Men in red hats are married and therefore are the only ones able to reach high ranks in their culture.  Men who reached high ranks wear brimmed hats, and once they retire, they wear a very colourful hat (like a toque) beneath a brimmed hat.  Single ladies wear flashy and colourful skirts while married ladies wear solid colours (red or black) to attract less attention.  After climbing 150m up to the main square, we saw a group of men (3 married, 1 single) weaving their typical hats.  To determine if a man is fit to marry, the woman will take the hat the man has woven for himself and fill it with water.  If there is little water lost, the man is considered fit to marry, but if it drips too much water, he`ll likely stay single.  The woman of this island also weave a bit, but they typically just weave a strong belt for their husbands, made from their own long hair, and their husbands use this as a back brace for their hard work in the fields.  We had a chance to see all these interesting weavings before heading for a delicious lunch and finally departing to make our way back to Puno. 

On the slow boat back to Puno we had a mix of interesting conversations (since there were 2 Americans, 2 lesbian Danish girls, a Danish couple, a german girl and a girl from Holland), one such conversation involved the girl from Holland asking the Danish couple if they had a ´bed pudding´ or something like that.  Apparently they do have a rice type dish that is cooked in a bed, but, they were really upset when we mentioned that it was a desert.  This dish is made by cooking the rice with a tiny bit of water, then adding a lot of milk, the batch is brought to a boil and then the whole she-bang, pot and all, are placed on a bed and wrapped with the bedding.  Then I asked if they ever had any ´bed pudding´accidents...they didn´t think it was very funny.  Another conversation in the ride was the girl from Holland asking the Danish couple if they had a food that was ¨a flat dough type food with a hole in the middle and then the middle is filled with jam or sweet custard´.......oh you mean a Danish, (of course its a Danish you idiot) is what I asked the girl from Holland.  But, apparently it is another flat bread type thing with a hole for jam or custard.....hmmmmm interesting.     
After one more day of chilling in the area, Nik and I caught the night bus from Puno to Cuzco.  We were excited that this bus had heating (as it gets very cold at nights here) until the temperature on the bus hit 26C and we couldn`t stop sweating.  Ah well, careful what you wish for I guess!

Some random trivia...
The native resident of Puno is of the ethnos Aymara (12.9% population of Peru); their language is the Aymara. For the subsistence in height average of 4,000 meters above sea level (13,122 feet) and with a cold climate, they have achieved an excellent adaptation. The color of its skin is dark, high lung capacity and development of the thorax; they have two more litters of blood then the average, with high content of red globules, what grant them great physical resistance. 

Hugs and Kisses, Niko y Sarita. xoxo
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