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October 20, 2004

Lake Titicaca

By the time you read this, all of my pictures from Arequipa and Colca Canyon will be up, and probably a few from Lake Titicaca as well.

I took a bus from Arequipa to Puno on Monday morning. The five-hour ride was uneventful, except for us leaving an hour late for no good reason. I also learned that Peruvians can be an impatient lot...after we'd been sitting there for a long time with no one else getting on, they started stomping their feet on the floor (second floor of a double-decker bus with only cargo space, the bathroom, and the driver below) and shouting "Vamos, vamos!" I've also learned that these buses come with unsolicited entertainment. First, a guy telling stories and jokes then trying to sell us chocolate and a book of his jokes (!), and later, while I was trying to sleep, of course, a guy clapping and singing really loud. I haven't given any of these people money because frankly, I haven't enjoyed their services!

I arrived in Puno and found a hostel, then wandered around a bit trying to get information on a town, Llachon, that was briefly mentioned in my not-yet-published Moon Handbook to Peru. The standard thing to do in Puno, the main town right on the edge of Lake Titicaca, is take a two-day tour that includes the famous floating islands, an overnight with a family on another island, then a visit to one last island the next day. I really wanted to do something different, and I was also tired of seeing the same people all the time--I saw several people I'd seen in Colca Canyon again in Puno! So, I was determined to find a way to Llachon. The guy at my hostel who tried to sell me the typical tour did not understand at all that I'd want to do something different, and it was hard to figure out how I was going to get there. I finally went to the local tourist information office. After they told me how complicated it would be to get there on my own via local boats and buses, they told me a local tour operator could drop me off on the way to another island. Turns out the operator is one of the most well-respected and responsible in the area, so I was happy to give them my business. They agreed that after the group visited the floating islands, they would drop me off at Llachon, arrange for me to meet the guy who arranges local accommodations, and I could take the bus back to Puno the next day (Llachon is actually on a peninsula, not an island). See this map--Llachon is at the end of the peninsula that juts out above Puno, just to the left of that big purple fleur de lis thing.

Everything went smoothly the next morning. I was picked up by the agency and taken to the pier, where we started our boat journey. I met a few cool people on board, and we swapped travel stories as we made our way to the floating islands, which we immediately agreed were bizarrely touristy and we felt weird taking pictures, but that's what we were there for, so we snapped away with everyone else. I learned a few amazing things about the islands, which are made completely of reeds. It takes two years to create an island, and they only last 15 years--I guess they just decompose too much to continue to build on top of them. They have to lay new reeds on the top every week as the bottom layers decompose. They're really squishy to walk on, but a good place for kids to grow up--we saw a little boy fall of a ladder, bounce a little, and get up and walk away! They also still build reed boats, and we got to ride in one. Here's one good use of the millions of plastic bottles that have no place to go in Peru: they fill the middle of their reed boats with them, and now the boats last about 8 times longer than they used to (about 20 months). We also visited a school, which was fun but a little hokey. They sang us songs in all the languages of our group, including english, italian, german, and hebrew (but they didn't know any in dutch!). They completely mangled "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but it was cute. They also sang a song in their language, Aymara. Then they all gave us little pictures they'd drawn. Mine was from a boy named Elmer, who then stood next to me and said quietly "money, money..." Our guide had already suggested giving a little bit to the school, so I did that rather than give money directly to the boy.

It was a little daunting to get dropped off on the peninsula all alone, but I did! There was a guy waving to me as I made my way down the pier, so at least I had someone waiting to meet me. Unfortunately, the first stop was a little building where they keep lots of things made by the local artesans' collective. I've just seen so much for sale, it's all blurring together, and also since I just sent a package home, I really didn't want to buy anything. I eventually escaped that, and was taken up to the home where I'd be staying. Valentin, the guy who started hosting people, and organizes all the local tourism (what little of it there is), wasn't home, but a woman, either his wife or the housekeeper, made me lunch and helped me map out a hike around the area. Lunch included fried cheese, which is a big thing here in southern Peru and in Bolivia too. It's rather salty, and not quite as good as it sounds--it's a little firm and squeaks when you chew it--but hell, it's fried cheese!

I wandered around alone for a few hours, heading for the highest peak so I could see the other part of the lake and the island where my temporary tour group had gone. I talked to a few locals en route, which was fun, and getting out on my own without being asked for anything or being sold anything was exactly what I was looking for--a more unique experience. When I got back, I sat on a rock overlooking the lake and read, wrote, and watched the sunset. Valentin arrived in time to have dinner with me, and it was great to talk to him a little bit about the area, and his plans. They've only had electricity for 6 years--I'm always fascinated by this, and wish I could see firsthand the changes that kind of development must bring.

I went to bed early, since Valentin said breakfast would be at 5:30 so I could catch a 6:00 bus. I slept well until 1:30, when I woke up to the hardest rain I quite possibly have ever heard. I was in a little cabin with a thatched roof, which I was pretty sure was covered with plastic, but I was worried it was going to leak, so I got up and put my journal and camera in a plastic bag, then covered all my stuff with my raincoat, then got back into bed and tried to block out the loud, loud, pounding--not to mention the thunder and lightning! Earplugs may have been a small help, but I was too lazy to get up again! Next thing I knew, it was 6:10 am, and after figuring out my alarm was set for 5:15 PM instead of AM, I rushed around getting all my stuff together. Luckily there was a bus a little bit later, too, so I scarfed down a fried-egg sandwich and we were off to the main road to catch the bus. We had to run the last little bit, uphill. At this altitude (something like 14,000 feet I think), it almost killed me, but I made it. As we picked up lots of locals on our way to the bigger town where we could catch the bus to Puno, a woman got on with her braids undone, and a comb stuck in her hair! The passengers tittered, she explained herself in Quechua (another local language), and I was comforted to see that running late for the bus is a universal experience.

I arrived in Puno around 9, after 2 hours smashed in the back of a small colectivo, and picked up my big backpack at my hostel. I found out the only tourist buses to Bolivia leave at 7:30 am, and I didn't want to stay in Puno all day, so I caught another colectivo to the border, a 2-hour ride. I met up with a few Brits, and we caught yet another colectivo for the 20-minute ride to the town of Copacabana, where I am now. My first border crossing was uneventful, although now I have to deal with a few exchange rate and different money!

Copacabana is beautiful; I'm splurging on a $12 room with a view over the lake. The shower at the hostel is amazing, and may alone be worth the money. $12 seems like a lot in this part of the world, but this same room would probably cost $75 or more in the US or Europe. I had a huge lunch of boiled potatoes and fried cheese with a crazy peanut sauce and a beer for $3.50, and tomorrow I'm taking a 1 1/2-hour boat ride for just over $1, so it all balances out, I guess.

Oh, and the lake! The lake is gorgeous, the clean, clear water is a deep, deep blue. In places, you can't see the other side, so it feels more like an ocean than a lake. I feel lucky to be here.

Posted by Amy on October 20, 2004 04:23 PM
Category: Peru

Awesome Amy! I can just taste the squeaky fried cheese. Moon Handbooks Peru JUST came out. How ironic that now you're leaving. Bet I can get you a copy of Argentina. . . Would you like me to send one somewhere?

Posted by: amber p on October 20, 2004 04:49 PM

Way to go Amy! Eschewing the touristy route. I am captivated, after teaching about Lake Titicaca in geography classes ( many years ago), I have to say you are the 1st person I know who has been there. Can't wait for pix of that and Copacabana.

Posted by: Dad on October 20, 2004 05:30 PM

I can't believe you're not more enthusiastic about the fried cheese! Frankly, it's shocking coming from you.

Posted by: RB on October 20, 2004 06:16 PM

Amy-- sounds like a blast. When you get to Argentina, try the Yerba Mate (herbal tea), if you haven't already somewhere else. We get it here in the health food stores, but I bet it doesn't compare to the real thing.

Posted by: Marketa on October 21, 2004 12:42 PM

Wow. Amy you're amazing: How do you have time to do everything you're doing and still write as much as you do so consistently?

Love the photos, love the entries. Can't wait to see where you're headed next.

Posted by: Toby on October 25, 2004 04:23 PM


I have loved reading your stories. Your adventures remind me of my own adventures in South America. Copacabana and Lake Titicaca were both one of the special memories I have.

I can't believe that you haven't fallen in love with the squeaky cheese. As you described it, I can remember the salty taste of it.

When you are in La Paz, you should walk around the withches' alley. I thought it was really interesting and one of the best places to buy a manta.

Keep sharing. I am living vicariously through you.

Posted by: Duyen on October 27, 2004 09:25 AM

Amy, it sounds like you're flourishing! I'm so glad you're enjoying everything :)


Posted by: Miss Mobtown on October 27, 2004 02:52 PM
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