Altiplano [Puno and Lake Titicaca]

June 25-26, 2009

There´s a reason you all haven´t heard from me in a while. From Arequipa, we took a 6-hr journey by bus to Puno. The bus ride took us through vast, dry, arrid landscape as we go up higher from Arequipa´s altitude of 7,000ft to 12,500ft. At this altitude, you won´t see any trees, or any green plants, aside from cactus. The scenery, though beautiful, seems very hostile.

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We passed by vicuñas, which is in the same family as llamas, but smaller and are native to this area. We stopped by a couple of places to take pictures, but it was extremely cold and the high altitude makes it much harder for us to breath so I even preferred to just stay in the bus.

It was hard to enjoy our time in Puno mainly due to the altitude. Puno has it´s own charm, and I have to admit there´s something in the place which I didn´t find anywhere else. It´s like going back in time, where most women still wear traditional clothes, with layered skirts, shawls, and a brimmed round hat which barely sits on top of their heads.

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I liked Puno because it seemed like a genuine place. It´s not swarming with tourists, and nobody bugs us to buy this and that, or pay for this and that. Locals mainly just leave us alone. I took so many pictures of children and locals, and they didn´t seem to mind. They just go about their daily routine. Children have permanent blush on their cheeks, red and chaffed from the cruel sun and air. Older women have skin as tough and dry as leather. Very few speaks english, but everyone is very warm and friendly.

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On our first day, we had to settle our transportation to Cusco, which is where we´re headed after Puno. While in Arequipa, we learned (Thanks to our B&B host!) that there was a strike going on and the roads from Puno to Cusco had been blocked for several days now. This means we cannot take the bus to Cusco, as planned. So we went to a travel agency recommended by our hotel, to see what are our other options. We were told that all flights out of Puno are booked , unless we want to stay few more days in Puno. Other options given to us where to take the bus back to Arequipa, then fly out of there.. which means flying to Lima first, then to Cusco. The options were not great, and we have to work out all the timing between the bus rides and the flights. Maridol and I were coming up with other options, but it was so hard to explain everything in Spanish. I was basically telling the lady where to click on her computer screen, and to do this and do that, until we lost our patience and asked if I can just take over her seat and check the options myself =). Anyway, we came up with combination of flights and bus rides, which is still not ideal. We said we´ll look for other options and we went to the LAN airline office, which told us to check the next day as LAN might open up another flight.

Puno´s altitude, at 12500ft, was taking a toll on us. Jilly and I had headaches that come and go. Maridol´s headache went away as soon as she took soroche pills, fortunately. Walking for a block would leave us breathless. The air is so thin and dry, it feels like a knife goes through my nose and throat everytime I breathe. My nose was constantly bleeding, though they would dry up instantly. In the hotel room, I would wet a face towel with hot water and breathe through it just to have some humidity in the air that I breathe. My head constantly feels heavy and light-headed at the same time – yes I know, I can´t even describe it. Even changing clothes or brushing teeth would leave us breathless. We have to rest after taking a shower, and try to catch our breath again. Jilly says she can feel her heart beating against her ears =). Anyway, we tried to make the most of our stay. We walked around, in a sloths´pace (ok, that´s an “o” not a “u” ) , and watched people around. We found a bakery which we then frequented – they had the best empanada! Their empanada de lomo is to-die-for.

 

On the second day, we were up very early for our day tour to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at about 12,500ft. We started our day with our usual breakfast, and my coca tea, which by now has become part of my daily diet. We were picked up at 6:45am. One thing we noticed here, is that they are very good with time. When they tell us we will be picked up at 6:45, they will be in the hotel lobby by 6:45. We then boarded a boat, which had rather comfortable seats, which was a relief for me since I badly needed some sleep. I wasn´t able to sleep well the night before due to a terrible headache. After about 15 minutes, we reached the floating islands of Uros. These islands are made by the Uros people, from totora/reeds, which are like tall bushes with very thin bamboo like stems. The island is entirely made of reeds, as well as their houses. And yes, this is where they live. Historically, their ancestors were trying to flee from other tribes, and thus ended up living in the lake. This generation of Uros people are disappearing though as the young generations opt to go to school in the mainland and eventually work there.

It was about 7am, I had 2 layers of clothes, my SF winter jacket, and a beanie, but I was still shivering. It was freezing cold, the reeds which we were standing on were covered with ice, but the Uros people were walking barefoot ! We were told these people have a different biological make up than the rest of us – they have stronger heart, bigger lungs, and much more red blood cells making their blood really dark, and almost black. I believe that. A body like mine will never survive this environment. I can barely survive a day. We walked around the island, took pictures, and bought some tourist knick knacks. It was very fascinating to see that in this part of the world, people still live this way. I went inside one of the reed houses. It is basically one room, with everything stacked inside. They do have a tv though =). Food are cooked outside, using clay pots. They go to the mainland during church and market day to get some food not availabe in the island.

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After the floating islands, we headed to Taquile Island – a real island this time. It took about 2 hours to get there, and I had my most needed sleep in the boat. In Taquile, we had to walk up the island , which as you can imagine, took out every bit of energy we had. We were exhausted by the time we reached the top. We then walked to the other side of the island, and on the way, observing the lifestyle of the 2,500 inhabitants of the island. They live autonomously, having their own form of government and their own rules. There are no police, no dogs, as apparently, there are no crimes. We saw women herding sheeps, or knitting.

The island is known for their handicrafts. By this time, it was hard for me to enjoy whatever I see or discover, as I was already feeling sick. Everyone else was feeling exhausted. We had lunch on top of the island, which I had to admit, had amazing views of the lake, the nearbly islands, and the Bolivian snowcapped mountains. To go back to our boat, we had to walk about 500 or more steps down … arghh… It wasn´t fun. The stone steps were wide and tall, and every step is accompanied by laboured breath. At the end of the day we all agreed we could have given Taquile Island a miss =).

When we got back to our hotel, we found a note from the bus company saying that the roads had re opened and to call them if we still want to go the next day. Yes, we do want to leave Puno already and go somewhere lower. Few minutes later, a representative from the bus company was in our hotel, giving us our bus tickets. We were all looking forward to a much lower elevation where hopefully, we can all function normally again.

I didn´t even have any energy left in me at the end of the day to try and write emails… so here I am now, sitting in an internet cafe in Cusco, just sharing our 2 days in Puno, so relieved to be at 11,000ft. Compared to Puno, Cusco feels like sea level !

Cusco to follow …

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