Puno, Uros and Isla Taquile, Peru
05.01.2011 - 07.01.2011 17 °C
I took a bus from Cusco to Lake Titicaca that took all day but with the journey broken up by some sightseeing on the way. We took a pretty drive through the Andes, stopping at indigenous villages, Incan ruins and at the highest altitude point on the road which was a breath-destroying 4,300 metres. A huge buffet lunch was included (more Quinoa soup for me yum!), even an English speaking guide, a huge bonus. As we neared the town of Puno, stopping off point for the lake, we seemed to be driving through a complete hell hole of a town. I mean real rancid, run down, disgusting. Huge piles of rubbish everywhere, filth, dirt, dust, derelict buildings and visible poverty. This created the most revolting smell that penetrated through the air vents into the bus. If Cusco is the naval of the earth then the Peruvian town of Juliaca was surely the anus. The guide explained what was happening in this city. The main source of income for the people of Juliaca is smuggling of contraband across from the nearby Bolivia border. An example being cheap fuel, heavily subsidised by the Bolivian government and the subject of recent protests in the capital city La Paz when the government tried to remove these subsidies. So many residents of Juliaca depend on illegal smuggling for their income that not many folk there pay taxes, which means no money in the government coffers for rubbish collection, road repairs, anything really. Such a depressing place.
Anyway, luckily I wasn’t stopping here thank gawd. Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and, at around 4000m above sea level, the highest navigable lake in the world, straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. Numerous islands within the lake are home to some unique and culturally distinct indigenous groups so i thought this was worth a look. As I am filling out my personal details during check in at some hotel in Puno, I get asked out for dinner by a local guy! First person I meet here, Peruvian men are soooo forward but also polite and it is pretty easy to decline such kind offers and save face, unlike other countries I had been to! The town of Puno itself was not up to much really. A couple of nice plazas and streets, but other than that pretty run down and a bit depressing.
Next day, I joined a tour boat to visit the islands in Lake Titicaca. First stop was the fascinating Uros islands that have been constructed by the tribe living there using reeds from the lake. We were greeted by a song and dance by some very colourfully clothed plump ladies from the tribe. This is where the tourist razzmatazz started. We were herded to the centre of the village and told about how the islands were constructed and how they are maintained, about how they not only build with the reeds but they also eat them, how they catch fish and how they exploit tourists! After these introductions, we were shown inside a ‘typical’ home of the Uros people, complete with solar powered TV, then promptly shown various arts and crafts ‘you buy something???’ Oh here we go! To be fair, it is pretty obvious that these people would not be living like this, on islands made of reeds and maintaining their traditions, if it were not for tourists, so i guess it is a good thing. It just felt so non genuine, tourist conveyer belt style. Still pretty interesting.
After a neat ride in one of the traditional reed boats we left for a bumpy journey further across the lake to another island, Isla Taquile, a completely different story here. At first I must admit I did think, oh no here we go again. We were greeted by a couple of gentlemen dressed in very unusual clothing, smart black trousers and white shirt with a waistcoat and a wide decorative waist band and a bowler hat. I assumed these guys had dressed for the tourists. Taquile is a stunning island, absolutely beautiful, very green, very steep, covered in farming terraces and Incan ruins. We trekked to the top of the island, much easier said than done I can tell you, bloody altitude. I was actually one of the first ones up to the top though, being all acclimatised now, had to wait another half hour for some of the others! Over lunch (MORE Quinoa soup followed by fresh trout from the lake, delicious) the guide explained about the clothing of the people here. I had already sussed out that they didn’t just dress to please the tourists, everyone we met here was dressed in distinctive clothing. Most of the men looked kind of like santas elves in brightly coloured woolly bobble hats and baggy trousers. Turns out that the colour of the hats actually indicates the marital status of the guy!! Red hats are worn by married men and red and white for bachelors. The decorative sash around their waist contains a knitted bag for keeping coca leaves, eaten during celebration and given as gifts so very important in Taquile culture. The beautiful, giggly ladies here were also in very distinctive clothing, their black shawls, which they seemed to use to nervously hide behind, made them look like nuns!
I was intrigued by this place, it certainly felt special here. OK, so many tourists do come here, but experiencing the gentleness of the people, the unique traditions and natural beauty of the island felt magical. Not a bad idea either to openly display marital status like this, would make the dating ‘game’ less of a stress that is for sure! A beautiful stroll back down the island, enjoying every minute being in this peaceful place, before a pretty rough boat ride back to Puno. The weather turned so quickly and I happened to be sat on the roof of the boat chatting to other travellers when we started being tossed around like crazy. I seriously thought that our little boat might capsize at one point, you do not expect these kind of rough conditions on a lake. Relieved to get back onto dry land, and time to prepare for the border crossing to Bolivia.