Puno & the Uros Islands
Located on the boarder of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and is also considered the world’s highest navigable lake at 3,812 meters above sea level. Puno, the city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, was supposed to be a 7 hour bus ride from Cusco. However, for us, it took closer to 10 hours because the bus we took broke down and we were stranded on the side of the road for two hours until another bus was able to pick us up. Ironically, the name of our bus was called (no) Power Bus.
When we finally arrived in Puno, we found an excellent hostel called Quechuas Backpackers that we made our home for the next few days. Our room was on the fifth floor which often felt like a struggle to get to because we were already at a high altitude. Our floor had its own little common area that we shared with a group of traveling Irish teachers and two girls from Switzerland during our stay there.
As we walked down towards the lake, we saw a huge market that filled an entire street for about 8 blocks. The vendors sold everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to soap and shampoo. It was here that I personally experienced one of the techniques the thieves in South America use: the spit and grab. Someone spit on the back of my neck and a “good samaritan” helped me wipe it off and tried to search my pockets. Luckily, knowledge is power and since I read about this happening so I knew it was best to just keep walking and wipe it off later. Thankfully nothing was stolen and all my valuables were still safely hidden away in my shorts underneath my pants. The robber did manage to practically unzip one of my jacket pockets and examine my glove that was in there. It turns out that my skin color is a bigger attracter than my height is a deterrent. After I cleaned my neck, we continued through the market and made our way to the lake so that we could find out about tours to the infamous floating islands.
As a lake by itself, Lake Titicaca is not all that impressive. I think the fact that I was born so close to the Great Lakes skewed my perspective since Lake Michigan has over 6 times the surface area and 5.5 times the volume of water of Lago Titicaca. However, what made our visit to the world’s highest lake worth it was the cultural experiences we had.
The main draw to the lake is the floating Uros islands which we were able to book a tour to through our hostel. On the day of our tour, a bus shuttled us down to the dock, and we took a boat ride for 2 hours to the islands. Although the distance is not that far to the islands, the boat was not able to go fast because the lake was petty shallow in some parts. Along the way, our tour guide told us many facts about the history and culture of the lake. We passed many areas of reeds and our guide said that the reeds are protected because the local people use them for everything from food to material to make boats, houses, and even the islands themselves. One of the most interesting facts the guide told us was about how the Uros Islands got their name. He said that there was a group of people of the same name that were trying to escape the Incans who were trying to kill them. At first, this fleeing group of people lived on boats on the lake, but then eventually learned how to make the floating islands.
The Uros Islands are actually made up of dozens of small islands scattered amongst the reeds. Only about 5 or 6 families live on each one and there is a “mayor” that presides over a couple of them. When our boat finally arrived at the islands, we stepped off onto what felt like an overly inflated waterbed. Even though we booked a tour, we were still required to pay an additional 10 soles to take a ride in one of the reed boats on the island, but this money went directly to the families living on the island. After we met the leader, he gave us some reeds to eat. This was a weird experience since you peel the bottom of the reeds like a banana and bite into what tastes like a grass flavored packing peanut. We learned that the people living on the islands sometimes get stomach problems from drinking the lake water so they eat the reeds as medicine.
Once we were finished feasting, the island leader took us on a little reed boat ride using only a stick to push us through the water. He was really honest and told us about their culture and about the poverty they live in. Most families that live on the islands only have enough money to send their kids to primary school. It was not until recently that they had electricity on the islands because a few French tourists donated one solar panel to every family that the government had not already helped to get one. Finally, our leader gave us a very interesting demonstration of how they make and maintain their floating islands before allowing us to explore the small island by ourselves. There were also handicrafts that you could buy to help support the families.
Next, we hopped back on the boat and made our way to Taquile Island where we hiked around, had lunch, and saw the UNESCO protected handicrafts made only by the men of the island. All in all though, unless you are really interested in Taquile Island handicrafts, I would recommend doing the half day tour of only the Uros Islands instead of the full day tour of Uros and Taquile.
Bolivian Boarder Crossing
So long Peru! The next day after our tour of the floating islands, we took a 3 hour bus ride to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake. Even though we had read the entrance requirements to Bolivia several times and had all the paperwork it said we needed, we were still a bit anxious to cross the Bolivian boarder in light of the recent events concerning Bolivia and the States. During our travels, we talked with several people who had trouble getting into Bolivia because they needed unlisted things (like a passport photo with a red background or a police report showing they had no criminal charges) that were not on the Bolivian entry requirements site. For us though, we filled out the visa form at the boarder, gave them a copy of our passport, and paid $135 in US dollars and were on our way. We later found out that we were the only Americans on the bus because the entire bus was waiting for us to finish the visa process since many other countries do not need a visa to enter Bolivia. Oops!
Copacabana & the Isla Del Sol
Forty minutes from the Peruvian-Bolivian boarder is the small beach town of Copacabana. It is really cheap and really touristy. On the main street down to the lake, there a a bunch of restaurants and souvenir shops filled with other travelers. The most popular ones were the ones closest to the lake, but they are also the most pricey. At this point in our travels, we have learned to look for hostels that are not right by the main area or plaza. In Copacabana, we only needed to walk 2.5 blocks from the lake and we found Hostal Gabriel, a very basic hostel that only cost 15 Bolivianos (just over $2) per person per night. We put our bags down, then went to find an ATM so we could withdraw some Bolivianos since Copacabana was our first stop in Bolivia. Our travel book and several other websites said that there was no ATMs in Copacabana, but we were able to find a few close the the main tourist area.
The next day we packed up all of our belongings and walked down to the lake to catch the ferry so we could sleep on the Island of the Sun. We wanted to go to this island because it is the site of the Incan creation story and we felt it was appropriate since we had seen plenty of Incan ruins during our travels. Again, the ferry we took was a similarly slow moving boat to the one we took to the Uros islands. However, since this trip was a straight shot, the boat driver told us where we should go while on the Island of the Sun. When we safely arrived to the north side of the island, we went with our guide to two small museums and also bought our tickets to the ruins. As we walked along the path, listening to our guide rattle off facts, we snapped some cool pictures of the surrounding environment made up of mostly hills. The first part of our guided tour was pretty uneventful and once we got to where the main ruins were located, our guide forced us to tip (read: pay) him and we were left to explore the ruins by ourselves. It was weird to think that we were essentially in the Incan’s Jerusalem as we wandered about the first Incan’s house. It would have been nice if there were signs that told us the Incan creation story or a little more about the house.
With our full backpacks still on, we prepared ourselves for a 3 hour hike across the Isla Del Sol towards the south end of the island. I tightened up my tattered shoes and started along the rocky path. Along the way we were stopped to pay a “toll” several times, and we were told that it was to enter the towns. The whole path though was on top of the hills the whole way and we never enter any village until the very end. If you are planning on hiking, use the restrooms before you start the hike because we only saw one along the way and it was closed.
When we arrived in Yumani on the southern tip of the island, we looked for a hostel, but reevaluated our plans and eventually decided to take the ferry back to Copacabana. Supposedly, there is some magnificent stargazing from the island, but since the hostels were twice the price and we were leaving for La Paz the next day, we thought it was best to sleep in Copacabana. So much for bringing all of our stuff along….
When we got back to town, we went back to Hostal Gabriel and then out to eat. We had an interesting experience at dinner because we tried to order a local dish called Pique Macho that was recommended by our book, but the lady at the restaurant said they did not have it even though it was on the menu. Since we were on the hunt for this specific dish, when we started to leave, the lady magically said that they did have it, but it would take a little time to prepare. When she finally brought out, it was well worth the wait and the hassle. Good food makes me happy!
The morning of the following day, we bought our ticket to La Paz. All the bus companies charged the same price, but we were lucky enough to find one with WiFi. As we waited for our departure time, we found out that we did not need to be in Brazil by the date we originally planned. This was both good news and bad news, but part of the fun of travel is being ready for anything.
When we originally set off on our adventure, we were set to be in Brazil the second week of August, but since our plans changed, we now have more time to go to other places we did not have time to visit before. Anna and I started reading and hashing out a plan for our new route on our way to La Paz