Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Puno, Lago Titicaca, and environs

We climbed out of the sacred valley and into the altiplano, a cold and blustery region ringed by snowcapped peaks. Here and there were fields of wheat and barley, and occasionally a lone shepherdess tending to her sheep. Huts of grass and mud dotted the landscape, and settlements of more than a few houses were few and far between. It seemed as though, except for the train, that we had backed three or four hundred years into the past. We tracked along the beautiful Rio Urubamba for some distance, and the amount and variety of birdlife was truly amazing – egrets, coasting above the river; hawks, sitting on fence posts or high up on the single strand utility poles; and standing in what looked to be a flooded field was a spectacular grouping of flamingos, pink flamingos; just to mention the few I am able to identify.

In the waning moments of daylight we made a lengthy stop in Juliaca, which put everyone in a foul mood as we waited, and waited, for the trip to continue. An unfortunate aspect of bus travel in South America is that the drivers never (or only very rarely) inform the passengers of anything. So when the bus makes a stop, and the driver and his helper jump off and disappear, you have no idea whether they will be gone for 30 seconds to take a leak or 30 minutes to eat lunch and perhaps enjoy a quick conjugal visit with the wife. You dare not leave the bus yourself, in fear that it will take off without you; so if you are hungry you depend on the stream of vendors who offer everything from soup to nuts; and if you have to hit the head you either take your chances or ask another passenger to please, please, make them wait until you get back.

After what seemed like hours but really wasn`t we got out of Juliaca and continued on our way to Puno. Night had fallen, and I was sorry that I could not see the landscape as we approached Lago Titicaca. We had met a young couple from Ireland on the bus, they were on their way to Bolivia. We also met a man who had boarded at Juliaca, and as soon as he saw us he handed us business cards pertaining to lodging in Puno. Our Irish friends, having been to Puno once before earlier in their trip, mentioned that they had other lodging in mind, and had suggested that it would be a good choice for Tia and I as well. Nevertheless, our would-be benefactor was quite pushy, and at the bus station in Puno the four of us dutifully followed him to the “luxury hotel, but very inexpensive” that he so highly recommended. The moment we walked in the door our minds were made up that we would not be sleeping here tonight, but once again, wanting to avoid any unpleasantries, we climbed the three or four flights of stairs “to have a look at the room”. We looked, and we left, and went on with our friends to their hostal of choice, which turned out to be just fine.

After settling in, we two went out to continue our never ending search for good stuff to eat. Alas, it was late, and on this particular night we did not have much luck, so we settled for some rather pedestrian fare at a local dive, where the waiter tried to interest us in a boat tour the following day of the floating islands on the lake. As a matter of fact, it seemed that almost everyone in Puno was trying to interest someone in a boat tour of “las islas en el lago”.
Tia and I, when traveling, seem to share a common fear, or dread, or dislike of doing what everyone else is doing. Therefore we had mixed feelings about going out to see the famous manmade islands of Los Uros – islands built of tortora reeds, which are constantly replenished as the bottom layers of reed rot away into the lake. On top of these islands are houses, also built of tortora, and in these houses live the remnants of the Uros, who once subsisted mainly on fishing but who now depend on tourism for their daily bread. Many boats do go out to the islands every morning; we had heard that once on the islands there was tremendous pressure to buy souvenirs or to pose for photos with the locals which of course had a charge attached as well. We did go down to the docks early our first morning to see about a trip out on the lake; but the longer we stood there and watched the groups of people boarding boats, not to mention listening to the musicians playing Beatles and Abba covers on their guitars and flutes, the less interested we became, and ultimately we chickened out. Meanwhile, I had hatched an alternative plan, and off we went in search of a collectivo to take us to Chucuito.


Lago Titicaca sits at right about 12,500 feet in altitude and many sources refer to it as the world`s highest navigable lake. It straddles the frontier between Peru and Bolivia, and far off in the distance across the lake are monstrous snowcapped mountains, which I assumed were part of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. At 3,500 sq. miles the lake is quite large by South American standards, yet it is only a fraction of the size of Lakes Superior or Michigan, in North America. Legend has it that in or near the year 1200 the founders of the Incan Empire, Manco Capac and his sister/wife Mama Occlo emerged one morning from Lago Titicaca, made their way to what is now Cusco, and began creating what was, at the time, one of the largest and most well developed civilizations in the world. At its height, around 1500, the Incan Empire ruled over more than 14 million people, most subjugated by the awesome size and might of the Incan armies. However, what comes around sometimes goes around, and by the late 1500`s the Spanish conquistadores had laid waste to much of the continent and brought an end to the Incan civilization.

I heard someone say once that you could put a shovel in the ground in just about any spot you chose in Peru and you would dig up some history – a bone, a piece of an artifact, maybe even evidence of an entire civilization. There was, indeed, a patina of antiquity nearly everywhere we went, and Chucuito was no exception. Although modernity was all around us - cars and busses whizzing by on the two-lane blacktop, the occasional aircraft high above us in the sky, an internet café here and there, or a boombox blaring from a windowsill - it took only a moment in Chucuito to block such things from view. With little effort except to walk 10 paces around a corner, or to cross the road onto a path winding through smallholdings of corn or potatoes; one can enter another world. A slower world, where time means little, and a friendlier world, where to not greet and then chat with any stranger you come upon would be thought an insult.

In Chucuito we did nothing but wander around aimlessly, and it was wonderful. Adjacent to the lake, it is situated beautifully and the air is crisp and clean. We did turn a corner or two, and as well we crossed the road to the lakeside and made small talk with those whom we came across. One farmer took us down to where he was harvesting tortora reeds along the edge of the lake, the ground was spongy and wet, so we took our shoes off which pleased our friend who was barefoot himself. Of course his feet appeared to be built of leather, whereas ours were white and doughy-soft. Later, as we returned to town, he showed us a bubbling, carbonated stream, which sprung from a little rise along the path just a few yards away.
Back in “downtown” Chucuito we walked by the very old Catholic Church, the graveyard, and the long ago closed down nunnery. The place was huge, and I was hard pressed to tell what keeps it standing. Once again, off in the distance, we could clearly see the absolutely astonishing snow capped range across the lake in Bolivia. We found a great spot to have lunch, and a few pisco sours, and I was amused by some paintings hung on the wall which seemed to be landscapes done in a kind of “folk-art” style. The paintings were charming on their own, if not a little hum-drum, so someone had carefully cut out photos of pretty young girls, scantily clad, of course, and pasted them into the scene in an apparent attempt to liven things up. I thought they had made a pretty good job of it.
We enjoyed Chucuitos for several more hours, and the more we wandered around doing nothing the more we liked it, and it was added to the list of places where we would like to spend a lot more time, along with Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Back out on the highway, we piled into a crowded collectivo headed to Puno, where we arrived with enough daylight left to enjoy some of its lively streets and tranquil parks.
(2 brief notes) 1. Collectivos are very small buses, better to call them vans, with little headroom and nominal seating for 12 or so – although at times we counted as many as 22, including ourselves, as passengers huddled together or contorted themselves in the most unlikely ways. It`s a great way to make new friends. 2. Peru is not too far south of the Equator, therefore the days, all 365 of them, are more or less comprised of 12 hours light and 12 hours dark. This varies given the North/South length of the country, but works as an average.

I had warnings from others that Puno tended toward grey and cold, but we were quite lucky during our 3 day stay – sunny days, not too warm; and pleasantly chilly nights, just about perfect from my point of view. We had enjoyed our day in Chucuito so much that we stopped there again the next day for a mid afternoon lunch, following a morning trip further up the road towards Bolivia to the highland town of Juli, which was rumored to have a small port. We had hoped to get out on the lake from here, to avoid the crowds back in Puno. Our collectivo dropped us on the edge of town, and we trudged up the long cobbled street towards the town center. It was market day, but not for tourists. To list all the goods available at this outdoor market, which spilled out over several streets is beyond my ability – suffice it to say, if anyone ever needed ANYTHING, it was most likely here. And in quantities sufficient for a large army. A sampler – muy corta, y en español – zapatos, herramientas, focos, muebles, crema dental, cepillos (para el pelo, y de dientes), gallinas, ropa, mas zapatos, pañales, quintales de arroz, quintales de frejoles, radios, antenas de los televisors, papel higienico, ollas, platos, y todos las cosas para la cocina, y mas, mas, mucho mas. (A sampler, very short, and in Spanish – shoes, tools, lightbulbs, furniture, toothpaste, hairbrushes and toothbrushes, chickens, clothing, more shoes, diapers, 100lb bags of rice, and beans, radios, television antennas, toilet paper, pots, plates, and everything for the kitchen, and more, more, so much more. We didn`t even bother taking any photos, there was just no way to capture the sheer volume of goods – once again, a common theme in Latin America. The marketplace here is alive and well.

We made our way through the market and walked quite a distance through town before stumbling upon “the port”, which consisted of a concrete pier, recently constructed, with attractive fixtures, nice wrought iron railings, and a completely empty building which looked to be intended for a restaurant and ticket sales, ostensibly for boat rides on Lago Titicaca. One problem – not only were there no employees anywhere to be found, neither were there any boats, save 2 small wooden rowboats anchored in the shallows. A few people were milling about, and we tried to get the story . . . but either we were misunderstood or no one knew. We could only guess that once upon a time, not so long ago, the municipality had had a great idea to develop some tourist activities to boost the local economy, and had committed funds to the new “port”. It was probably opened with great fanfare, a big parade, lots of music, dancing and drunkenness; but likely without promotion or publicity of any kind. So, after a few weeks or months passed with few (if any) visitors, the whole scheme was probably deemed a stupid idea and abandoned. Just a theory, but I`d bet at least parts of it are accurate. So, no boat rides for us out on the big lake, but we hung around the pier a short while and soon trudged back up the hill to town, where we bought a couple of slices of a delicious orange cake from a street vendor and sat and watched the world go by for a while. We got a lot of long looks, and gathered that these folks don`t have too many gringos coming to town and eating orange cake out on the main square.

Later in the day, back in Chucuito, we reprised our earlier visit and had an incredible lunch of lake trout with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, Tia was not feeling well, so she did not enjoy her lunch quite as much as I did. Our host at the restaurant prepared a little concoction for her, based on a liquer made from anis, and shortly thereafter she began to feel better. Nevertheless, we decided to call it a day and went back to Puno.
Tia was fully recovered the following morning, so we set out to see some sights in Puno. As usual we did a lot of aimless wandering, but we also made a point of visiting the very small Dreyer Museum just off the main square, which houses quite a nice collection of pre Incan (Aymara, Uros, Tiahuanaca) relics as well as several mummies. I am not a huge fan of museums myself probably due to a short attention span, but this one was quite compact, well laid out, and informative. Not to mention the friendly staff, of course. Soon enough we were back out on the street, where we belonged, and began our wandering anew. After a while we came across a large building where there was an awful lot of activity – lots of food being sold, people coming and going, and lots of noise and cheers coming from inside. We took an immediate interest and asked what was going on, and were told that there was a competition being held. We bought a couple of tickets, and indeed it was a competition, a cheerleading competition! The stands were packed, the teams of girls were in a frenzy, and groups of boys huddled together, assessing the attributes of the competitors. It was mayhem, or at least bedlam, in the coliseum. As in so many aspects of South America, there was a sense of anarchy – not political anarchy, and certainly not violent – but rather what appears to be a complete and utter disorder, to the point that one (the “one” being me, along with my controlled and orderly western point of view) wonders what is holding this all together and at what moment will it spin totally out of control. Yet, it almost always holds together, and if you can let yourself, it is a wonderful feeling to let yourself go and get caught up in the exuberance of it all.

We watched several groups of competitors come out to the floor and do their thing, which sometimes appeared to be nothing more than running in place, while other teams were finely tuned and performed relatively tight routines. I guessed that the competition included both private and public schools, and it was likely that the wealthier private school teams were the more disciplined. We did not stick around long enough to see the winners determined ( it could have gone on another 5 or 6 hours) – but instead we left el coliseo and enjoyed Puno for a few more hours, before waving goodbye later that afternoon as we boarded another bus, bound this time for Peru`s “intellectual capital”, the city of Arequipa.

I have uploaded some photos at www.picasaweb.google.com/rdlurie26

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All the way to Latin America to see a cheerleading competition?LOL
Thanks for the tour, it was wonderful. Brian S.