There are two ways to tour Lake Titicaca, from Puno in Peru and from Copacabana in Bolivia. Both have their merits, and both are recommended as one of 10 things you must do in South America by Lonely Planet. I did it from the Puno side, having already booked a tour for about £35 in Cusco, and was met at the bus station at 5:30am by a liaison, who instructed me to get breakfast as we wouldn’t be leaving until 8. This I did, and by 8:30 I was on a boat with various others who would be taking the tour with me. There were about 20 of us who made the 3 hour boat journey to the first island, of varying nationalities, but mostly French. The other primary English speakers were 2 Americans from Philadelphia and 1 from California. The one from California especially stood out because he really was the real deal. He was big on meditation, having done it for 2 months with Columbian hermits, and back home was a ‘trimmer’ in some mountains in Northern California. He’d decided to book this trip 12 days in advance, and had been going for about 5 months, with a few more to go. As soon as we got on the lake he started explaining that this place had a strong positive energy, and that he would try to sneak off at some point and camp on one of the islands for a month. He’d also made his way onto the boat without paying a cent, so that was something.
One thing that did strike me while we were on the boat, cruising to our first destination, was how surreal it was being 3, 000m above sea level and yet being on a body of water this big, effectively an ocean. It felt kind of like we were floating, and if we went far enough into the horizon, we’d simply fall back down to ground level. The lake also has a calmness to it that feels weird. It has the size of a sea, but no waves. So the water, unless it’s windy, is completely still and everywhere is very quiet.
The first island we visited was effectively a large bed of floating reeds tied together, with about 10 reed houses constructed on top. It was inhabited by 5 families of the Aymara people, one of the indigenous groups of the Andes. Our guide, who was actually from one of these islands, explained that they construct new ones every few years as the old one gets worn out and starts sinking. We also got to try out a boat they called the Mercedes for some reason, that was made out of, you guessed it, reeds.
Thankfully we discovered that this wasn’t the island we’d be spending the night on, and we moved on after about an hour. Our island was to be a real island, and a much larger one, inhabited by Quechua speaking people (Incans). There are about 3,000 people on this island, and the families take it in turns to have foreign tourists stay in their homes. I was put in a family with the two guys from Philadelphia, Jake and Joey, and our mama was called Basilia, a large woman we assumed (you can’t tell as they wear so much clothing) who rarely spoke and stared at us much of the time we were out of our room.
Our accommodation was homely and comfortable, and the island was really beautiful, even with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. After some confusion surrounding the toilet, which had no flush – we had to pour more water in to replace the dirty water – lunch was served. Most lunches you get when staying with locals, be it up Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca or the Bolivian salt flats, consist of Quinua soup with potatoes and maybe some other veges, then a main course. I really like Quinua, although it can get a bit old after days on end of having it, but here’s was especially good, especially with maté coca that came with it. Coca is the leaf used to make cocaine, so unsurprisingly it has many traditional health benefits when chewed or drunk as mate (tea): stomach problems? Coca. Headache? Coca. Altitude sickness? Coca. Tired? Coca. Etc. But is really is a big cure of many ailments, and everyone you see has one big cheek from storing it and sucking its nutritious juices for the day ahead.
Lunch was a success, and we complimented her on the food. Maybe it was the compliments, or just something she had to do, but soon afterwards she brought out a bundle containing many hats, llama toys and other assorted trinkets for us to buy. Was followed the most awkward 10 minutes of our lives, as we started complimenting her on her lovely creations, then sat in silence waiting for her to take them away, avoiding all eye contact. It’s funny to think about now but was excruciating then.
After lunch we met up with the others to climb one of the hills, pacha papa, to deposit some coca leaves as an offering to the local God. Most of the others hadn’t broken under their mama’s stare, but 4 Czech men had, and turned up in ridiculous blue and pink traditional hats, much to our amusement.
Climbing the hill was pretty hard, as it always is at that altitude, but surrounded by waving yellow corn fields and stone buildings, we felt as if we were in the dream sequence in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe sees his family again, so started singing the theme tune. Look it up and you’ll get the idea. I think there’s a picture of the corn (or whatever grain it was) on my Facebook.
When we returned, we had some dinner, thankfully this time sans Basilia’s trinkets, and afterwards we’re given some traditional clothes (a hat and poncho) and taken to the town hall for a dance.
This wasn’t salsa or tango, but basically holding hands and running round in circles to some traditional music played by a live band. There were about 70 people there from different tours, including their mamas, so it was pretty fun.
We had a pretty early night, as we were to get up to leave the island at 7:00am. Our breakfast was a pleasant surprise, pancakes, and so happily we made our way down to the boat to say goodbye to Basilia and leave for the next island. We arrived there at about 10 to brilliant sunshine and blue skies. From the jetty we trekked up to a small restaurant with an amazing view of the lake, and at last had some meat (which we’d been waiting for for since we got there) in the form of fried trout. Pretty incredible.
The way back to Puno lulled me to sleep, sitting on the back of the boat in 30 degree hdat , and soon the 3 hours were over and it was time to go. Saying goodbye to the others, who were headed back to Cusco, I booked a bus for the next morning to LA Paz, amend chilled out at the hostel. I’d like to say something nice about Puno, but its main purpose is to get to and from Lake Titicaca, and not much else, so I wouldn’t recommend staying more than a night.
Tours from Copacobana are slightly different. Its a much more pleasant town, far more touristy though, and covered with restaurants. From there you take a short blat ride to the Isla del Sol (island of the sun) and maybe the Isla de la Luna (island of the moon) and do some trekking and watch the sun set/rise. I’ve heard it’s a little bit better than the Peruvian tours, so I’ll have to check it out if I ever come back.
After Puno I was on the road to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz…
Me, the Americans, and our Pachamama
Three coca leaves brought up to an Inca temple to bring good health or summink