From a travelers perspective the city of Puno is fairly lacking...The food is standard at best, accommodation options are limited, and overall there isn’t much too see. Never the less the city pops up on just about any Peruvian itinerary. People visit the city for the singular reason of Lake Titicaca; and on first inspection, I was not impressed.
Titicaca or Grey Puma translated from Quechua or Amyara (slightly different depending on the language; this is one Quechua interpretation), is considered to be the highest navigable lake in the world, though the definition of navigable is not totally clear. The lake is high, sitting at 3,800 m (12,500 ft) and also quite large with the widest section reaching 80+ km. Though impressive in size and elevation, I was skeptical, it was a lake; not the cleanest, brightest, or most scenic from the shore, just a big one.
To be fair the lake itself is not necessarily the main draw to the region but rather the islands within it, and the indigenous peoples and cultures that remain there. Breaking one of my cardinal rules of traveling, no tours, I booked myself into an overnight trip. It’s quite rare that things work out this way but from time to time an organized tour is actually cheaper than doing the trip yourself. In this case the logistical hustle of the whole thing was not worth what would at most be a meager savings. A hostel in Puno set me up, I would be visiting three islands and spending the evening with a local family in their home.
In the morning at the port the captain of the group’s vessel ushered the tourist hoard aboard the small wooden craft. It turns out the captain was the same person who I had discussed pricing with the day prior when trying to get a deal. I felt self validated, the tour and solo explorers all ended up on the same boat with the same people for the same price.
Stop one was the floating islands of Uros. An archipelago of man made structures, this is the quintessential picture from the area. What I found upon arrival was not quite the floating civilization of legend I imagined. It’s more of a Disneyland portrayal, full of souvenirs and coca-cola products, floating in the lake. The general history of the islands and the people was glossed over to get to the good stuff faster, selling key chains...After about 30 minutes bobbing around on the reeds it was back to the boat. What had I gotten myself into.
The second island on this lake expedition was Amantani, and unlike Uros, which was a 20 minute ride, Amantani sat two hours away towards the Bolivian boarder. Our craft puttered along and eventually confirmed a sneaking suspicion that we were not in a no wake zone but in-fact had a maximum cruising speed of about 6 knots. After some investigation I came to the conclusion that the boats motor was a retrofitted truck engine that lived its life in first gear. A propeller was welded onto a rigged up drive shaft. Gracefully we docked at the small jetty and disembarked for the day.
Once on land things began to look up. My accommodation for the evening turned out to be the captain’s house and his family was wonderful. The house was comfortable, and their eight month old baby was a riot bouncing around in a walker. Sharing this experience with Abi, Edwina, and myself were three Spaniards whom we got along with swimmingly. A tasty lunch of soup, pan seared cheese slices (similar to Halloumi), potatoes, and rice was served and we all got our bearings.
Amantani is a small, mountainous island and home to about 2000 people. Most residents work small terraced fields of potato, sweet potato, or barley. Others care for small flocks of sheep. Since anything that can not be grown on the island needs to be imported from Puno, sheep are the logical animal of choice as they sustain themselves off grassy overgrowth. The island has no roads, but is adorned with a network of paved walkways made of hand chiseled stone tiles cut from the island’s landscape. Two peaks mark the highest points of the island each capped with a Quechua temple.
After lunch we hiked to the the higher of the peaks where the temple Pachamama (Mother Earth) rests. The beauty of lake Titicaca, and the reason this adventure ranks in the guide books, exposed itself as the sun began to set. Massive Andean mountains broke free of their cloud shroud on the Bolivian coast. Peru’s lit up as the sun eased in behind them. Distant storm systems added a light show as flashes of lightning broke through sheets of rain. The top of Amantani seemed to sit at the center of it all, isolated and protected by the lake turned moat.
Back at the house dinner and beers were consumed. My new Spanish speaking friends helped translate the captain’s stories when my primitive language skills failed and as a group we learned what life, far removed from our respective homes, was all about. Probably the most interesting and eye opening anecdote was of the captain’s son. His commute to school on the island had been a two hour walk each way, and when this became too much, at the age of 13, he relocated to Puno to attend school. He lived alone in a rented room in the city and saw his father occasionally when he would spend the night in Puno with the boat. The island was dark, and before bed I had a chance to take in the night sky. There was no moon and the Milky Way played backdrop to shooting stars and endless dots of light.
The next day we were on the boat early to make our final stop at Taquile island. Overall this was pretty similar to Amantani. The entire tour regrouped to have a delicious trout lunch in the main square and learn about the traditional clothing of the region. One final hike back to the boat offered views of the lake and then the three hour crawl back to Puno began.