Teehee! Lake Titicaca

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lake Titicaca is often mistakenly called the highest navigable lake in the world and it’s easy to forgive the boast. At 3809m in elevation and ridiculously huge in size (165 km long, 8560 square kilometres, and 274m deep) such exaggerations are performed by your very senses. Puno, the main stop on the Peru side of the lake, was to be our last stop before crossing the border to Bolivia which shares the lake. We were met at the bus stop by a woman with a hostel for 15 soles which solved the first problem. Dinner, the second, was taken care of by a local who brought us to some of the best roast chicken I’ve had in South America. The third and final problem was what to do. There are two large islands off the coast that you can visit by boat and (on Isla Tequile) stay with a family. Additionally, there are the floating island(s) of Uros which other travellers had warned us were very touristy. Then on the Bolivian side is Isla del Sol which is similar to Isla Tequile. So I devised a pretty good and efficient plan. The next morning we’d head to Uros and visit the floating islands in spite of recommendations against it – it’s pretty unique and I would do my best not to be phased by the overt tourist industry – and then catch the afternoon bus to Copacabana in Bolivia. After a night there we’d walk 17km to the tip of the peninsula and catch a boat to Isla del Sol where we’d hike that afternoon and the next morning before boating back and bussing to La Paz. Sounds good if busy, right?

The Floating Islands

It takes about half an hour on the boat to arrive at the floating islands of Uros. They came about as Aymara people started living on reed boats to avoid the aggressive Inca. As the boats got larger they eventually started fashioning islands upon which they’ve lived for the last few hundred years. Islands vary in size and population but usually house 20 or so people and are run (and anchored) autonomously. We were greeted by waving inhabitants on the shore and the women hastened to tie down our boat. Then our guide and the chief explained how the islands are constructed and anchored and a few of us (myself included) were invited into the chief’s home. We had been told that they don’t actually live on the islands anymore, but that is definitely not true. The chief’s home had four beds and a TV run by solar panel and he told us about how the kids were schooled and other things of note. They too are having a problem with most of the young leaving the ‘farm’ for the cities and a more modern life. Still, they speak Aymara so the language is preserved for this generation at least. Of course they tried to sell us their crafts and then we were brought onto a reed boat and paddled to another island – only to be told at the end that we had to pay for it. Things like this always bother me but I was oddly unperturbed this time and paid what little change I had which wasn’t the full fare anyway. The whole trip was three hours and, contrary to other reports, interesting and worthwhile. We were back in time for a lunch (Alpaca Saltado) and caught the bus to Bolivia.

At the Copacabana

The border crossing was the easiest I have ever done. The guard on the Bolivian side didn’t even look at my identification page, he just flipped to a page with room for a stamp and wrote down 30 days for me. Ty, however, had a big series of headaches involving photocopies, photos, and a $135 VISA processing fee. We arrived in Copacabana that evening and had a trout lasagne that was good if somewhat small. Then a portion of fries and then some beer to try to fill the void. We sat with an American couple from Pennsylvania whom I didn’t realize pronounce ‘full’ as ‘fool’. With nothing to do and the temperature unpleasantly cold, we went to sleep early. The next morning Ty and I set out on the road to Isla del Sol. It’s possible to boat straight from Copacabana but what fun is that? So we walked and saw only one other traveller the whole time, and the walk was beautiful and interesting. The locals we encountered were exceedingly friendly, stopping as we passed to get our life’s story before we said a friendly goodbye. One group of men we said hello to offered us some of their beer after only a brief and friendly conversation. It was 10:30 AM so naturally we accepted. They were hilarious, gregarious, and schooled us on customs of drink. We paid for a few more beer, kicked the ball around with one guy’s son (and another’s grandson) and said our goodbyes. Bolivia had earned a lot of brownie points by the time we met another local, Hilario, who ferried us across to Isla del Sol after stopping to look at some other ruins on a mostly abandoned peninsula.

Island of the Sun

The boat ride out was beautiful if a bit too relaxing and I alternated between a wide-open mouth as I looked at the huge snow-capped mountains on the horizon and a wide-open mouth as I snored and slept in more tranquil parts of the journey. He dropped us at the southern tip of the island and we began our trek to the main town in the centre. As we passed some ruins a man came up from the fields asking for money to enter the island. He had no ID, no uniform, only some paper tickets and since I’d never heard anything about fees to visit the island, I said no. We had an argument and he refused to let us pass and then we saw a group coming out of the ruins. Can we ask them? No, he wouldn’t allow us to do that either. So I stepped around him and asked them anyway and sure enough there was a fee. We paid it and continued on to the town. There was a Bolivian wedding taking place in the square overlooking the water and we watched for a while and marvelled at the band starting and stopping seemingly at random intervals and mid-song as well as the huge collection of people at the wedding and, a bit later, the huge collection of beer. Then we had dinner overlooking the lake and went back to watch the wedding some more over a cheap but pretty decent bottle of Bolivian wine ($3) whereupon we were accosted by a rambunctious little boy climbing all over us who went from funny and cute to annoying and still sort of cute. It was getting stupidly cold and we had no luck meeting anybody so we went back, watched the excellent City of God, and called it a night.

Escape from the Island

The next morning we trekked all the way to the northern tip of the island and the Temple of the Sun which took a solid four hours but allowed us to say that we had walked the entire length of Isla del Sol. The temple was pretty cool but you need a guide to know what you’re looking at besides rooms and windows. Then we turned and took the low trail south to a small northern town from which we were supposed to be able to get a boat back for 20 Bolivianos ($3). Unfortunately, we arrived after a large group of others who had done a terrible job negotiating and got the price for 12 people on a boat to 500. And the boat would only go halfway to the tip of the peninsula instead of Copacabana, meaning we had to additionally get a taxi. Supposedly the waves were too high and it was dangerous but talking to some locals that did not seem to be the case. Still, he refused to take more than 12 on the boat and 13 others (plus us to make 15) had to take a different boat. Naturally, he wanted the same deal but we managed to get away with paying 30 each. Sure enough, the water was fine – he would use the motor to push the boat and then let off so that the wave crests could push and he only used one of the two motors. We got back and surprisingly got our taxi for less than a dollar promptly and soon we were on a bus for La Paz. First there was a channel to cross in which the buses were emptied and put on small floating platforms so that they bobbed in the water like toys in a bathtub. Meanwhile, we crossed on small boats. Otherwise, the journey was uneventful and we reached La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, 5 hours later.

Lake Titicaca Photos

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