Lago Titicaca

Puno, Peru

As if seeing the largest bird and deepest canyon weren’t enough, we are now on the world’s highest navigable lake, Lago Titicaca. Getting there is a bit of an eye-opener … the things you see from a bus that you don’t from a plane.

The subsistence living of the herder families, in their one (or maybe two) room cinder block dwellings, on rocky soil with nary a tree, kind of shocks us. We can’t figure out what the animals find to eat, much less the people! And how do they keep warm? At this altitude it is cold, below freezing at night.

We pass through Juliaca, the town with the airport, and feel like we are in some kind of post-apocalyptic movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, like “The Road”. Yes, that bleak. It is hard to tell if the buildings are falling down or in the process of being built. Maybe a bit of both?! To make matters worse the theme music from the movie “Schindler’s List” is playing on my iPod. Am I in bombed out Dresden circa 1945?

Puno, our destination, and the main tourist centre for Lake Titicaca, is much better, although outside of the zona turistica it too is crumbling and dismal. The weather is cold, windy and wet, which doesn’t help.

The bus itself is brilliant. Huge reclining seats, personal video screens, a clean bathroom, with a seat on the toilet and toilet paper. Luxury!! The two lane highway with no shoulder and limited visibility because of the curves and hills is a bit frightening and we are not encouraged by the many, many roadside memorials. Drivers regularly pass with a solid line on a hill going around a curve. Miraculously we make it to Puno in one piece.

We awaken to a clear blue sky our first morning in Puno, a good way to start what proves to be a pretty fabulous day on Lake Titicaca. First stop Uros Island. Made of reeds, it floats. When the water level rises, so does the island. When it falls, ditto. They are anchored via ropes attached to poles buried in the lake bottom. So while they float, they don’t float away.

The houses and boats are also made of reeds, which grow plentifully along the shore. There are forty reed islands on the lake and apart from solar panels to provide electricity and a few motor boats, the islanders live as they have for centuries.

It’s strange walking on the spongy reeds, wondering if a foot is going to break through to the lake below. Until I notice that some of the ladies are a lot larger than I am and seem to be managing just fine. The reeds do rot over time and are continually replenished from the top. Fire is a concern. The cooking area is situated on stones and, understandably, there is no smoking!

Next stop Taquilo Island, yet another UNESCO world heritage site, the designation awarded because of the quality of weaving and the textiles the inhabitants produce. We are treated to some traditional music and dancing, as well as lunch. I try to get the recipe for the quinoa soup we are served, but of course nothing could be produced in writing. I was told about the process and ingredients in a local Spanish dialect, of which I understood very few words. Ginger and pumpkin seem to figure prominently. I’ll try to reproduce it in my kitchen back in Vancouver.

Back in Puno, a competition amongst many troupes of dancers and musicians is happening in the main square, a short one block walk from our hotel. Called Bandas de Sikuris, drums and pan flutes, folkloric dancing and colourful costumes are on display. All against the backdrop of the cathedral. Later, as we are having dinner, the parade of troupes continues on the street in front of our restaurant and, back in our hotel room, we hear the music late into the night.

Our last morning in Puno we wander the streets, stop in at a few museums, have lunch in a secluded patio. Travel is not always about the spectacular: the largest, the deepest, the highest. Sometimes it is just sitting on the steps of an out-of-the-way church, watching. An old couple dressed in black show up with a big bouquet of flowers. Who are they mourning? A couple of young girls buy candles from the old woman selling them by the entry door. Who will they light them for? Jolly fat ladies with bowler hats perched on their heads sit on a bench in the park across the street. One of them gets out a cell phone and starts squawking into it. Ordinary life for them. An extraordinary experience for us.

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