Well, there´s always something that doesn´t work out when you´re traveling. In my experience, every trip has one disappointment, something you had been hoping to do that turns out to be closed, or off-season, or covered in tarp. For this trip, it´s Isla Taquile.
The island, an inhabitated island on Lake Titicaca, is 4-5 hours each way from Puno. Tourists leave first thing in the morning, run around the island for two hours (which includes a 30-minute climb just to enter), then return by the same boat. Sounds dreadful to us. The appealing thing is to take the boat out, but after most tourists leave, stay. The island is said to be quiet and peaceful, with scattered Inca ruins. You can spend the day exploring, then stay with a local family. It´s cold and heat is minimal, but you sleep under alpaca blankets. I was looking forward to seeing the southern sky from the Lake, where the alititude makes everything sharper and brighter.
We couldn´t do it. The limited boat departures don´t correspond with our flight to Arequipa. It would have required either massive rushing and stress or many more days in this area, neither a good option. If any of you ever get to spend the night on Isla Taquile, I would appreciate a report.
So, with this ruled out, we suddenly had a lot more time. This morning we took care of a few business-y things: the farmacia, dropping our dirty clothes at the lavanderia, going to the bank and the post office, and arranging transport to the airport tomorrow. It´s actually fun to do this stuff in another country and another language, when things are going smoothly, which today they were.
Next, we took a ride with a tri-clo, the three-wheeled pedaled taxis that are very common here. We see locals taking them all the time, especially uphill when they have packages. A very friendly young man rode us to the Lake, all downhill, kind of fun. At the dock, we were immediately approached by a man arranging trips to Las Islas Flotantes, the Floating Islands. People cover ground here trying to nab you before you reach the stalls where other people are selling the same thing.
We arranged the little trip, and boarded a boat with a few other Peruanos (that´s Spanish for Peruvian, eh?), and a young German couple who spoke Spanish well. The part of Lake Titicaca that you see from Puno, Puno Bay, is a tiny portion. The vast blue lake lies beyond the islands.
Soon after leaving, we started seeing the reeds that are the staple of life for the Uros people. That is, we saw them growing out of the lake. This did not lessen our astonishment when, about 30 minutes later, we reached the Floating Islands.
These islands are completely human-made. They are made entirely of reeds. On them, there are reed houses, where families of Uros people live. They build and use reed boats, shaped like canoes, which can hold up to 20 people and last about a year. They fish and trap birds (mostly to eat, only a tiny portion is sold), grow potatoes in the shallow dirt near the reeds´ roots, and make handicrafts to sell to tourists. There is also a small admission fee to enter the islands, which supports their cooperative life. They speak the Aymara language, which is only found in the Lake Titicaca region.
We were absolutely amazed. The reed ground has a little spring in it, a little give when you step down. A Spanish-speaking resident of the islands gave a very good talk, but he didn´t speak English. I asked him to speak slowly, and understood a good 80% of what he said, then translated for Allan - my first time as an interpreter! The young German man was able to translate a few questions of mine, and although we´d like more information (Googling and reading when we´re home, for sure), we got a decent background.
Then we all boarded a reed boat for a trip to another Floating Island. The islands all have observation towers - the baskets made of reeds, but the ladder and legs made of wood - so you can climb up and get a really cool view.
The tour included three islands, and then we boarded the larger boat and returned to the dock. Great stuff.
At the dock, we were met by the same tour broker, who wanted to book our afternoon. There are some minor ruins outside of Puno, which we hadn´t planned to see, thinking we´d be on the Lake. But with more time, it seemed like a good idea.
After that, we took another tri-clos, this one uphill. The young driver asked us lots of questions, and knew a fair amount about Canada. He told us he is studying to be a tour guide - he goes to class in the morning then drives his cab in the afternoon. His first languages are Aymara and Quechua, the language of the Incas. He is also fluent in Spanish, speaks beautiful English, and is learning French and Italian. Plus he was driving us uphill, so we paid him double, and were glad for the experience. (And when I say paid him double, it´s still dirt cheap.)
Then we went for lunch and had kind of a bad experience.
Near our hotel are several small, simple restaurants that clearly cater almost exclusively to locals. They have a menu del dia, very simple, and are very low cost. We always enjoy eating where local people do, wherever we are, and naturally wanted to do the same here. We don´t do this to save money, we do it for the experience, and the authenticity, and to get away from hordes of tourists.
At the first restaurant, heads turned, and people stared - no, glared - at us. There were no free tables, but as I was looking around to see if we could sit, at least a dozen people were staring at us.
At the next restaurant, we saw a free table and sat down. The owner came over to the table, gruffly asked, "Dos menus?" and we were served. Lunch was tasty and simple - corn soup, fried chicken with potatoes and rice, and fruit juice. While we were eating, a woman at another table was staring daggers at me. She looked seriously angry. As we got up to leave - you pay at a cashier in the front - she also got up, and was clearly trying to meet me at the front desk.
Then an unfortunate thing happened, and through my own ignorance I made the situation worse. Prices in Peru are written like this: S/7.00. That is 7 soles - an upper-case S, then a slash, then the number. The menu on the wall said S/2.50. Allan thought the price for lunch might actually be 2.50 soles, which would be less than $1.00. The writing wasn´t completely clear, and, thinking 2.50 was impossible, I thought it must be 12.50. So, thinking our lunch came to 25 soles, I tried to give the owner 3 ten-sole bills. He was clearly annoyed, but was speaking quickly and I couldn´t get what he was saying.
The woman who had been staring at me said very pointedly, "Cinco soles". Then it dawned on us that our meals actually had been 2.50 each. The owner and the woman were both talking, both annoyed, but I didn´t understand them, and flustered, I paid, and we left.
Immediately afterwards, I wished I had asked the woman what the matter was. I could have made myself understood, and maybe learned something.
The whole thing really bothered me, perhaps more than it should have, but bothered me just the same. Did we overstep some unwritten rule? Were people annoyed because we were eating cheaply when tourists are thought to be rich and can afford more? Or were we simply invading private space? It bothered me more because I don´t know what happened, and also because of that old "what I should have said" feeling we´re all well-acquainted with.
After lunch, at the appointed time, a van picked us up at our hotel. We were in a group of about 10 people, all of whom spoke French and quite decent Spanish. The guide was another young Andean man, fluent in half a dozen languages, including Aymara and Quechua. We rode back into the altiplano, to a place called Sullistani (the double-L in this case is not pronounced as a y, as it usually is in Spanish, but as an L).
On the rocky hills of Sullistani, overlooking Lake Titicaca, are dozens of cylindrical funerary towers, some from the Collas, a pre-Incan people, and others of the Incas. They have been partially destroyed, either by lightning or the Conquistadors, but you can see good examples. Each includes a tiny door, where a body would be placed in the tower, lying in fetal position as the soul went back to Mother Earth. The Incan towers use the same perfect stone work, but in this case, the walls are round.
The site also has some remains of holy temples, oriented to winter solstice - June 21 here. The temples are part of a chain of holy sites that extends from an island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, all the way to Cuzco.
Our guide was excellent, although he spoke in more detail in Spanish than in English, I think because he is more confident in that language. But he answered many questions, and I worked up some confidence to converse more in Spanish.
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Altitude sickness is gone for the most part. I didn´t sleep last night, and woke up with a pounding headache, but felt better by late morning. A few times during the day I was light-headed or short of breath, but nothing serious. Thank goodness we suffered through Cuzco and got somewhat acclimated before coming here. I´ve heard that coming from Lima to Puno can be brutal.
Tomorrow we´ll hang around Puno a bit more, then head to the airport for a short flight to Arequipa.
* * * *
Someone asked me about coming into towns without hotel reservations, how that works. Here´s what we did for Puno. On the train on the way down, we looked in our guide book, Lonely Planet Peru, at hotel descriptions in our price range, which Lonely Planet calls mid-range. We picked a few hotels that were nearby each other, then took a cab to our first choice.
That hotel turned out to be full, which surprised us. I asked the desk person if she knew of a hotel that might have vacancies, and she offered to call another place for us. On learning they had a room for us, she got all the information, showed us on a map how to walk there, and wished us a lovely stay in Puno. Is that nice or what. If she hadn´t done that, there were several nearby we would have walked to on our own.
On other trips, we´ve called ahead to the next town, booking a room a day or two in advance. In Ireland, for example, we were driving, and it was very easy to get a calling card, pull up to a phone booth and speak to bed-and-breakfast owners. Here, phone use is more difficult, and the language issue makes it even tougher. But there are taxis at every airport and train station, and always an area where several hotels are clustered, so this method should continue to work.
Did I say taxis at every station? Try a crush of taxis, and hawkers from hotels, people literally trying to take your bags out of your hands to force you to use their service. It´s very annoying. We barrel through the crush, shaking everyone off, get a little farther away where we can breathe, then hail a taxi who is not screaming in our face.
Photos of Puno, the Floating Islands and Sullistani here.