Friday, June 20, 2008

Lake Titicaca - back on the water!

We all took the bus to Puno from Arequipa, about five hours. The long distance buses in Peru are very comfortable and they serve a meal pretty much like an airplane used to. Puno is a mud walled good sized city on the shore of the lake and the center area is tourist fueled. This is the base for exploring the lakes´s islands and heading further to Boliva on the far end of the lake. We had planned to go around the lake and spend time there and in La Paz but several things led us to cancel. First, Bolivia is experiencing political troubles and is very anti American. They have instituted a $100 fee for a visa for Americans and secondly, they require a yellow fever documentation. Scott and I didn´t have one with us. We visited a number of local travel agencies to confirm this and then heard on the radio that there were road blocks on the Bolivan side that had caused travelers to be delayed up to several days. We all decided to confine our visit to the Peruvian islands.

I unfortunately came down with a bad case of stomach flu and spent 24 hours in our hotel. As this wasn´t the first time, I took some antibiotics to wipe it out. That day in Puno the others spent the day walking around the city. As it turned out, there was plenty to see there. They checked out trips to the islands and saw the Yavari.

This iron gunboat was ordered by the Peruvian Navy in 1861 to patrol the Lake. It was shipped in parts from London and then carried 290 miles up steep and trecherous trails, including a 4700 meter pass by porters. This took 6 years. It was launched in 1870 and due to a lack of coal converted to using llama dung! They had to cut the boat in two and expand it by 12 meters to hold the bulkier fuel. In 1914 steam was replaced by a diesel engine and 50 years later it was decommisioned and left on the banks of the lake. An English woman, Meriel Larken rescued it in the 1980s and with the help of Prince Philip it was refurbished and launched again in 1999. The Bolinder engine, lovingly restored by Volvo, is considered the oldest working ship engine in the world.
The next morning I felt well enough to join everyone. We took a small boat captained by Simon, a native of Amantari, to visit the Islas Uros, Amantari and Taquile for three days. The first are the "floating islands", home to around 200 descendants of the Uros people who first built these islands of reed out on the lake to escape the Incas and Spanish. We had a demonstration there of how they build their island homes, reed boats and their way of life on them. They even use the reeds as a food source. We peeled the stem and ate some - rather tasteless and watery. They live in groups headed by a grandfather and marriages are arranged, often at birth.
Next we motored to Amantari where we spent the next two nights living with Simon´s family; his wife, Clara, daughters Vickie, Libia, Yanet and son, Elvis (attending secondary school in Puno. Their home was very basic but had two guest rooms where Honoree & Walt and Scott & I stayed (Brenda and John stayed at a nearby hostel, still run by a local family but with an inside bathroom). These were probably their children´s rooms when they didn´t have a tourist to stay. We ate our meals in a small adobe kitchen out back where one of the women cooked the meal over a wood fired clay stove with places for two pots. It was very smokey as it didn´t have proper ventilation unfortunately, but the food was tasty, although mainly
vegetarian. We did have trout at one meal and always potatoes in one form or another.
Potatoes are a staple here and in most of Peru. We saw families harvesting them all over the islands and preparing them for preservation. They water them several times a day and spread them out on the ground, both day and night. In the morning frost covers them. The process also involves using your bare feet. Our grandmother spent hours standing in a pot outside filled with potatoes and water and manipulating them. It looked just like squashing grapes in Italy. Up in the fields they dance on piles of potatoes as well. It is fascinating.

We climbed both mountains on the island, Patchemama and Patchepapa. The views were specacular and there were ruins on the top. The islanders were busy in the fields and grazing the sheep. The local cheese figures prominately in the food. One of our meals was fried cheese over potatoes and carrots.
Next we took a boat to Taquile and walked all over that island as well. We are really comfortable now at this altitude - the Lake is over 13,000 feet high. Cusco is lower and Machu Pichu even more so! The islanders all wear traditional clothing and there is no electricity or running water. Everyone is very welcoming.
We sat on top of the boat on the way back in the sun watching the lake and the shore. It has been really fun for us to be back on the water.
Our next stop will be Cusco. We are taking a day long special bus called the Inca Express which will stop at several Inca ruins along the way and one lovely Colonial church known by some as the Sistine Chapel of South America.

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