Having gotten ourselves to the world’s highest navigable lake, we decided that we ought to explore some of it. Becci and I wandered down to the marina with our new pal, Doncaster Dave, to explore our lake-faring options.
At the marina, I visited briefly with Captain Hector, who wanted to take the three of us on a private tour of several islands for 400 nuevo soles (about 135 dollars). This pitch, which occurred on Hector’s boat, was noteworthy primarily due to his attempt to move his boat mid-conversation out into the bay, leaving me stranded and significantly weakening my negotiating position. Smelling a rat, I leapt back onto the dock just in time, and was encouraged by a mildly amused Bex to pass on Hector’s offer in favor of something more reputable.
Ultimately we decided that our best option was with tour company All Ways Travel, who offer an interesting and somewhat challenging two day / one night island tour, visiting three of Titicaca’s islands.
Titicaca means stone puma, btw. The Incas named it that because the lake sometimes appears to have a grey hue, the color of stone. Titicaca is an absolutely huge lake…it is larger than the entire nation of Costa Rica, and has a surface area of 8,372 square kilometers. At an elevation of over 3.8 km, Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. For comparison, the highest incorporated municipality in the United States (Alma, CO) has an elevation of less than 3.2 km. Only seven US states contain a city with an elevation greater than 2 km. Folks, it’s tough to breathe at an altitude of 3.8 km, and that elevation makes beer foam like you wouldn’t believe. Beer foams up at Titicaca if you look at it fast.
There are quite a number of islands in the old stone puma, and a few of them are inhabited. The folks living on the islands are largely indigenous, and the grown ups still speak Quechua, a native language spoken by about 8 million people throughout the Andes. Quechua existed well before the Incas, but was promoted by them as the official Incan language in order to unify their empire. Quechua remains an official language in Peru, along with Spanish (which is far more common). Until we reached the islands of Titicaca, we had not encountered anyone in Peru speaking Quechua.
A number of Quechua words have entered English via Spanish, including coca, condor, guano, jerky, llama, puma, quinine, quinoa, vicuña and possibly gaucho. The influence on Latin American Spanish includes such borrowings as papa for “potato”, and chuchaqui for “hangover” in Ecuador.
We were taught to say hello (rimaykullayki) before we hit our first island, one of the many small Uros islands. Brace yourselves, readers, as this next bit has a high potential for sock displacement. You really have to see the Uros islands to believe them. Luckily, we have provided photos.
The Uros islands are a set of approximately 100 man-made islands inhabited by the Uru people. These islands are small and are constructed entirely of mud and semi-dried reeds. Each island houses two to ten families, who sustain themselves selling handicrafts and dealing with tourists. The men generally work in the nearby port city of Puno, while the women entertain the tourists. We saw only women and children during our visit.A reed home on a reed island.
The islands were originally conceived and constructed as a defensive mechanism in pre-Incan times. If a threat arose, the islands could be moved. The largest island retains a watchtower constructed entirely of reeds. As a matter of fact, virtually all parts of each island are constructed of these totora reeds, which grow in the shallows of Puno Bay. The houses are made of reeds. The boats that the inhabitants use to travel are made of reeds. Their furniture is made of reeds. Reeds are eaten as snacks. The islands themselves are constructed of blocks of reed roots, lashed together, and then covered by a layer of reeds about one meter thick. They feel squishy when walked upon, and due to decay, each island’s top surface must be refreshed approximately every ten days. We saw a demonstration of how this is done.
While we were touring one of these small islands, we were invited into the home of an island-dwelling family. The place was tiny; the house consisted of only one small bedroom. Cooking is done outdoors atop small stone stoves. A solar panel outside of the house powered one overhead light and a small television, although we learned that most homes have no power whatsoever. There was a fat little baby breast feeding, and we got sold a handmade something-or-other before we escaped.
Next up was Amantaní, an old school island that can’t easily be moved and is made up of the traditional dirt and rock combination. This island hosts approximately 4000 inhabitants and one hell of a climb. There are actually two mountain peaks, Pachatata (“father earth”) and Pachamama (“mother earth”), with ancient Inca and Tiwanaku ruins on top of both. The hillsides are terraced to support agriculture. They are worked by hand and planted with wheat, quinoa, potatoes, and other vegetables. Livestock, mostly sheep and chickens, also graze the slopes.
We took a trip up ole Father Earth, reaching an elevation of over 4.1 km. We visited the highest point on the island. Getting there was no picnic; at 13,550 feet, there is virtually no oxygen in the air. At least that’s how it seems. A climb that would be difficult at sea level seems an order of magnitude harder at this elevation. As we approached the summit, we had to stop every couple hundred feet to catch our breath. All the while we were fighting various symptoms of altitude sickness, including headaches and digestive troubles. We continued the ascent and after a strenuous 90 minutes reached the summit. Becci developed a Lamaze-style breathing technique in a bid to remain oxygenated. I chewed on a few coca leaves (supplied by our guide Angel) to increase my energy and improve my mood.
As you can imagine, once we reached the summit it was lovely. During the last six months, we have gasped our way up countless steps upon numerous hills, towers, and mountains. The payoff at the top is almost always worth it, and this one did not disappoint. Across Titicaca we saw Peru to the west and Bolivia to the east. To the south lay the ever-so-slightly lower island peak of Pachamama. At the top of the hill sit the ruins of an ancient pre-Incan temple. This temple is unlocked for entry on only one day per year, but we poked around the outside and peered through it’s locked gates.
Speaking of coca leaves, I neglected to mention the vast quantities of these that we saw being ingested by elderly Peruvian women at the wedding we crashed. On the way up the mountain to see Pachatata, before we left the island’s main village, we stopped into a wedding reception in progress. Tour guide Angel escorted our entire group of 20+ into a full-on Amantaní-style wedding throw-down. Two brass bands dueled on twenty-minute versions of the same tune, while a good number of the island’s inhabitants, wearing their Sunday best, imbibed great quantities of Cusqueña beer (usually drunk straight from 630 ml bottles) and consumed coca leaves from large plastic bags.
After the wedding, the trek up the mountain, and the satisfying walk down, we enjoyed a few pints of our own in the town square, at the island’s only bar. In this tiny bar, I met a fellow named Paul, from Yorkshire. Although he now lives in Miami, he still produces a very heavy Yorkshire accent every time he opens his mouth. It turns out that Paul is a huge Miami Dolphins fan (Dolphans, to those that are), so we talked football for a while. Becci likes to say that no matter where I am, I find the Rush and Yes fans, which I have done already a couple of times of this trip (Doncaster Dave and Allan Fredrickson, I’m talking to you!). Now we can add Dolphins fans to the list.
A very unique thing about this particular tour is that we got to stay overnight in the home of a family that lives on the island. We ate with them, slept in their home, and to a small extent and for a short time got to live life as they do. In this case, we did without a few things, like meat, running water, and electricity during our brief stay. Actually, there was one electric light in our room, but it is powered by a small solar panel and thus had to be used sparingly.
There were admittedly some privations, but one thing that this family has in abundance is the energy and precociousness of their six-year-old daughter Pilar. Pilar visited with us during our meals and she met us in the town square after our big hike, in order to escort us back home. She entertained us with songs after the meal, and she made us visitors sing and dance as well. She played with Becci until they were both tired. Actually, Pilar didn’t look tired, but she was made to go to bed anyway. Pilar taught us a little Spanish, and she was fascinated with the balloon that one of the other guests gave to her. She was about the cutest kid I’ve ever seen. She’s in the conversation anyway.
As I said, we slept in the family’s home, and I woke up a couple of times during the night to brave the rain-soaked, chilly Peruvian night so that I might visit the outhouse. I have to say that I remain a fan of the running water and indoor plumbing that await me in the good ole USA. One night away from an indoor toilet was all that was required to confirm that.
The next morning, we said goodbye to Maryluz, Pilar, and the rest of our host family, and set off for the island of Taquilé. On Taquilé we enjoyed once again brisk, breathless climbs, beautiful views of Titicaca and the Andes, and a delicious meal of freshly caught trout. Like virtually every other meal that we have had in Peru, this trout came with rice and chips (thick cut fried potatoes). The spot was hit.
We learned a few things from Angel during our hike and over lunch. The men of Taquilé are the ones who knit the various items that are sold in the shops and the streets. The women spend their time producing the yarn that is used in the knitting.
We also learned that the people that live natively at this elevation, on the islands of Titicaca as well as the port cities such as Puno, can suffer from a type of reverse altitude sickness. Some of them develop fever and weakness when they travel to significantly lower elevations. Others, unaffected by the drop in altitude, feel stronger when they descend.
Jacques Cousteau famously searched for treasure in the vast Lake Titicaca in the early 1970’s. He didn’t find any gold, although he did document several types of local wildlife, and he found signs of hidden cities. These cities and treasures have since been found in the depths of this lake. We also found treasure on the trip, in the beautiful views and native people of Lake Titicaca.
Next up: My son Nick and future daughter-in-law Wendy join us in Cusco.