Puno, Lake Titicaca, Cusco

Trip Start Aug 27, 2008
Trip End Oct 23, 2008

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wow, so much has happened in the last week it is hard to remember it all. We left Arequipa via bus last Sunday, spent a couple of days in Puno, went to a couple of islands in Lake Titicaca spending a night on one of those islands, spent a couple more days in Puno, and yesterday (Friday) we took the bus from Puno to Cusco, where we are now.

We loved Puno. It is in a beautiful setting covering the hillsides above a wide bay on Lake Titicaca but the town is a backwater, gritty place. It is a commercial center for southern Peru where a lot of young people come to attend university. There is a three block walking only street that is touristy, but once a person gets a block or two off of that street the town is a very real town with the locals working hard to make a living. Just the right combination of being real Peru with a touristy section to escape to when the grittiness gets to us. We had some great food while staying in Puno. Wood fired pizza was common, often with the wood fired oven located in the dining room. The great thing is that gourmet meals can be eaten for around five dollars a person and pizza and cerviche are much cheaper.

Puno also had some great shops with Peruvian and Bolivian handicrafts. Having traveled to many places in the past, we have gotten over the need to buy things while traveling, but we did buy a couple of small hand woven tapestries. There are also great bargains on silver pendants and earrings with gemstone inlays. We bought a hat pin for Dean's hat with a silver base and stone inlays that has a condor, a puma, and a magical serpent, three of the sacred symbols for the Incas. If anyone we know wants us to pick up small items like this for them, send us a personal e-mail and we will do what we can.

The highlight of this last week was a trip we took to islands in Lake Titicaca. Rather than taking a tourist boat we went on a local boat, much cheaper and more interesting. The boat was designed for about 20 people and some cargo, was made of wood, and needed to be bailed occasionally. The engine was a modified automobile engine and seemed to have only one speed. While in ports, maneuvering was accomplished via a long pole pushing on the lake bottom.

Starting out, there were about 24 people and several large bags of rice on board. The other people on board were from Peru, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Australia. Our first stop after about an hour was on one of the Uros floating islands. These islands are made of reeds that float on the surface of the lake. The reeds rot at the bottom and end up getting a meter thick with a new layer of loose reeds needing to be added to the top of the island every 15 days. The islanders also make boats out of the reeds. Originally and still, some of the sustenance of the islanders was made by fishing but now it appears that much of their living is made from tourists. Some of the reed houses had small solar panels attached to them.

From Uros floating islands we went on the boat for about three hours to the island of Amantani, where we spent the night. This island was originally inhabitated by pre-Inca and Inca people with a lot of terraces. It is a very remote place with just a few modern conveniences just now appearing on the island. The only electricity is from a few small solar panels providing electricity to some 7 watt florescent lights in two or three rooms in the house. There is no running water. One house in the village we stayed in had a couple of hundred watt solar panels and a satellite dish with a phone for emergencies. The outside toilet for the family we stayed with was the bottom of a normal American style toilet with a big bucket of water outside the toilet and a smaller bucket used to dip water into the toilet to flush it.

The highlight of Amantani Island is the Incan sites of the return of Pachytata (Papa earth) and Pachymama (Mother earth). According to Incan legend, for one week in January (summer here) this is a dimensional port where mother earth and father earth can return to earth during that week. This return is still celebrated to this day. These sites are located on the top of the highest points on the island. It is a rigorous climb from 4000 meters to 4500 meters to these points. Despite ongoing problems with her sciatica, Kris managed this rigorous climb.

We arrived at Pachytata just in time to see a magnificent sunset over Lake Titicaca. Watching the sunset meant that we did not arrive back at our village until it was completely dark. With a new moon and no lights in the village it was a real challenge to find the way to the family's house we were staying in. There are no streets on the island, no vehicles, and most of the paths wound around and through fields and terraces over steep terrain. Eventually we managed to find the few landmarks we knew and feel our way to the correct house.

The next morning we went about an hour by boat to the island of Taquile that is much more developed and more touristy. The path up from the small port was a rigorous climb involving 544 steps and several steep uphill paths, another challenge for Kris's sciatica. After being on Amantani Island the previous day and night, Taquile Island seemed very developed, with small restaurants and hole in the wall stores (none of which our village on Amantani Island had), but very beautiful. After Taquile Island we had a three hour boat ride back to Puno.

One thing that has been interesting for us is the lack of other U.S. Americans on the more adventurous parts of our trip. We see Americans going into fancier restaurant and hotels and can often spot them, mostly by their loud voices, on the streets but have not had any U.S. Americans yet that we have met traveling on boats or buses. We can honestly say that we have not spoken to another American, with the exception of one young woman from Alaska we met at the language school in Arequipa, in five weeks.

Another interesting thing is how much younger the people we have been traveling with have been than we are. We are often the oldest in any group we are in. Among the people on the boat we were the oldest and often felt like we were being treated special because we were older. We sometimes found ourselves feeling somewhat parental to other people on the boats. It makes us feel old but makes us feel good that we can do rigorous travel and enjoy it. Our previous experience traveling makes it easier to accept the ups and downs of travel as just another part of life.

Yesterday we went from Puno to Cusco. As we walked around the plaza last night here in Cusco our impression is that Cusco is much more cosmopolitan and touristy than Arequipa or Puno. It feels more like a European city than what we know of Peruvian cities so far. We will write more in the next few days as we get to know Cusco and head toward Machu Pichu.
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