As I explore the high places in Peru I hear the John Denver song “Rocky Mountain High” playing in my head. I find the thin and dry air invigorating after I finally adjust to the altitude and climate. Compared to humid and sea-level Lima, these areas Ian and I have explored are energizing. Last year’s adventure in Cabanaconde and the Colca Canyon had the same effect. Add to it the majesty of the Andes, a big sky, llamas and alpacas, the wild flowers and herbs and the colorful native people. One of the joys of such travel are the serendipitous events that occur along the way, and we had a few as we visited Juliaca, Puno and Lake Titicaca in the alti plano of Peru (high plains at 12,500+ feet) this past March.
The trip began smoothly with a comfortable fight from Lima to Juliaca. I made a friend on the flight, and she helped us climb onto a local combi bus for the ride into Puno toward our hotel on the lake. Little did we know it would take 2 hours and give us a free tour of the cities of Juliaca and Puno! Then, to top it off, the lovely Elvita gave me her shawl which I had admired during our time chatting at the luggage claim. What do you say to such a gift? The colors were perfect for the clothes I had brought and useful for the cooler weather. I have her address and hope the thank you card gets to her in Puno. This was just one of our many blessings and surprises, along with pigs floating on islands, towel sculptures, quinoa and muña tea.
We planned the trip to visit a church and mission in Juliaca and also to have a vacation alongside Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. Having chosen our hotel from the internet, we were thrilled that it sat alongside the lake with sheep, pigs and alpaca all pasturing in the foreground and alongside the restaurant. Gardens surrounded the entrance with flowering shrubs, herbs and topiary trimmed into the shapes of cats, birds and mysterious creatures. Outside our window, storms crossed over the lake providing colorful skies and cloud formations. Everyday we returned to a clean room with our towels artfully folded into animal shapes (How could I not tip the maid?).
The churches we visited were lively and full of people of all ages. Using contemporary music and Anglican traditional liturgy, the worship was joyful and lively. I loved having whole families worshiping together and casual conversation afterwards. Yes, I practiced my Spanish all week!
Our boat ride out onto Lake Titicaca during the week was the highlight of our trip. The tourist trade is a major source of income for the local people, so Ian and I enjoyed supporting them. The pottery and woven scarf/table runner are lovely reminders of our time away and the creativity of the people of the high plains.
Our guide explained the construction of the reed islands while a local woman demonstrated the many uses of the reeds. Using the totora reeds to make crisscrossed layers over the root structures, these people work for a year to create a new island. Up to ten families live on each one, and when the numbers grow, they all help build a new one. Each island lasts about 50 years and new layers of reeds are added every three months or so. They visit each other easily using reed, rowing and small motor boats. There is no electricity, but we did see some solar panels. Food consists of fish, the young reed shoots (good source of iodine), ducks, pigs (which live on little floating islands of their own) and supplies brought in from Puno. Some tourists spend the night on an island, but I wondered what you did from 5 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning staying in a grass hut close by everyone else? Campfire songs? Dancing? Eating, no doubt. I imagine the water bed effect and quiet is wonderful for sleep!
As we left the island of Santa Maria, we continued to look onto the other islands and watch the lake traffic go by. Imagine attending a floating school!
We continued in our comfortable motor boat on to the island of Taquile. This is one of the rock islands of the lake where people have been living for centuries. The Quechua people inhabit this island where they farm and sell beautifully knitted and woven articles to the tourists. One workshop is called “Knitting Men” because it is mainly the men who knit. Walking from the dock on up the Incan stone paths, we met the local people dressed in their colorful outfits. The colors and styles told whether they were married or single. On this island there is no divorce. Young couples live together in a type of trial marriage, and then marry if all seems to go well. The community is supportive of families and they work as a collective to sell their beautiful crafts.
We bought a lovely scarf which I will use as a table runner. Made from wool and alpaca, the colors remind me of the flowers covering the island of Taquile. We enjoyed the local trout for lunch and then headed down the many stone steps to the harbor on the far side of the island.
Every bend in the path afforded a view of the lake or a farm with its fields, sheep, a few pigs and ducks. Flowers bloomed everywhere! We noticed imported eucalyptus trees growing in hedges and wondered why anyone would import these thirsty trees to this lovely island?
We returned to our hotel that night, tired, but full of new images of Peru and the satisfaction of a day on the water cruising through varying weather, from bright sun on the Uros to bucketing rain on Taquile. After months in the Lima desert, a good thunderstorm provided a simple thrill! We capped off the perfect day with a Pisco Sour by the log fire in the hotel: my kind of vacation!
Our final day was a relaxing one for Ian and me. We visited a British ship named the Yavari, docked a mile or so from the hotel. It had been built in England in the 1860s and then sailed to Chile where it was dismantled, loaded up onto mules and trekked over to Lake Titicaca. The overland trek took six years.
The boat was reassembled and used on the lake for years to keep the borders secure and patrol the lake. The people in charge of it hope to get the ship up to code and take it out onto Lake Titicaca for tourist cruises. Having enjoyed the tour and feeling patriotic, Ian bought the hat and I got the t-shirt–all for a good cause. You can also spend the night in one of the cabins and have breakfast the next morning–all for $45! Maybe next time.
Visiting Lake Titicaca had been on our agenda for a year or so, and the trip proved to be everything we had hoped for–beautiful scenery, a church visit, new cultures, and time to relax. The elevation was an adjustment, but with the help of coca tea, muña tea and a few ibuprofen, we adjusted. Next year? Perhaps the Amazon!
Enjoy the slideshow of our adventure.