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Lake Titicaca

Peru: Lake Titicaca
August 1-2, 2009


We had a seven and a half hour bus ride to Puno.  We alternated between dozing and listening to David Sedaris.  Although we were still at a high altitude, we were on a sort of plateau with fields that were used for grazing animals.  It was slightly surreal to be listening to Sedaris’s vivid descriptions of living in Tokyo for three months to try and quit smoking while looking at pastoral Peru.  But it helped pass the time.

The bathroom on this bus, while not stopped up, presented a different challenge: the door could be latched from the outside but not the inside.  So while one was trying to unbutton one’s pants, maintain balance, not touch the toilet surface with any body surface, not spray urine all over one’s clothes, wipe, and throw the tissue in the trashbin, one also had to use 50% of one’s arms to hold the door closed the whole time.  It was difficult.


Views on the way to Puno

View of Puno and Lake Titicaca from our hostel roof

Our main purpose in going to Puno was to see Lake Titicaca.  We found the name irresistible.  At nearly 13,000 feet, Puno had the highest elevation of our trip.  We compared it to the moon because in the sun, it was quite warm, but in the shade or at night, it was very cold.  Although the temperature dropped below zero at night, nothing was heated.  They, and we, dealt with the cold by wearing layers and drinking lots of tea.

We arrived around 3:30, took a taxi up a dusty and desolate street and checked in at Bothy Backpacker Hostel.  The taxi driver had pointed out Ave Lima, the main tourist drag, on the way up.  After dropping our bags off and adding a few layers, we walked down to the square, where there was a market selling handicrafts to tourists.  We bought some sweet street snacks from an old man, then wandered around looking for a good restaurant.  We finally settled on one that was around the corner from the main tourist street.  Zac had trout and I had spaghetti.  After dinner, we walked back by the square and were fortunate enough to witness a wedding procession.It consisted of the wedding party slowly walking down the middle of the street followed by all the family and friends and a band playing traditional music.  The best part was that the procession had been “announced” by firing a few fireworks into the air right above a crowded square. 
 (click here for video)

Back at the hostel, we bought tickets for a tour to some islands on Lake Titicaca the next day.  We spent the evening drinking tea.  It was too cold to even brave taking a shower.  Although we were in a dorm room, we didn’t have any roommates and the hostel wasn’t heavily populated, so we had a good night’s sleep.

Our hostel was up this road

Wedding procession

We were the only diners in this beautiful restaurant

Morning light on the buildings near our hostel


The hostel served complimentary pancakes for breakfast, so that was a nice start.  The lady who had sold us the tour tickets took a taxi with us to the docks.  She pointed us on to the right boat, but we were the last to board and it was one seat short.  That made me a little irritable, because we had shopped around for tours, and they all insisted that the tour groups were small, the boats had nice seats, etc.  But in the end, they just cram as many people on as possible.  Our tour guide was Bruno, an unfortunate name that has been forever tarnished by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character.  Bruno was another guide who would say a lot in Spanish and then just a little in English.  He seemed to think that one of his main goals was to teach us the name of the lake we were on, as if we didn’t already know, as if it wasn’t solely for this lake that tourists came to Puno.

Uros Islands

Our first destination on our Lake Titicaca tour was the Uros Islands.  These are floating islands built from the reeds that grow naturally in the shallows of Lake Titicaca.  The Uros people live on these islands.  For me, this was the worst part of the entire Peru trip—worse than my stomach problems after the buffet in Urumbamba, worse than the bus bathrooms, worse than sleeping in noisy hostels.  Psychological discomfort can often be worse than physical suffering.  Yet I have trouble articulating why it bothered me so much.  But what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t try anyway?  In northern Namibia, there was a group of people called the Himba.  They are the ones who are topless and wear loin cloths, who coat their body and hair in a reddish mixture of something…many people viewed them as the “real” Africa and tours there were very popular.  Zac and I never had any desire to go there whatsoever.  I guess the problem I had with visiting the Himba, and the problem I had with visiting the Uros people, is that it just doesn’t seem right when the people themselves, and their way of life, are the spectacle.  Plus, I never feel like I’m having an authentic experience.  It’s kind of like watching animals in a zoo, except in this case, the human animals are aware that you’re watching them.  Maybe I’m just sensitive to this because when we were in a village in Namibia doing our training, the kids would all gather around the classroom windows and stare at us.  I hated it.  In China, random people would come up and want their picture with us.  At first I thought it was cute, until it dawned on me: to them, I’m a Himba person, a freakish person they want to be able to prove to their friends that they saw.  Thank goodness the kids in Namibia didn’t have cameras.

In physics, I believe, there is some concept that merely by observing a phenomenon, you inevitably end up affecting the phenomenon in some way, so its true form can never be observed.  This was definitely true for the Uros people.  We got off our boat and onto one of the floating islands.  Very short, fat women wearing extremely bright clothing greeted us.  There was a little demonstration area where Bruno and local helper showed us how the islands were built.  Basically, they carved out the reed roots in blocks, then put a spike in the middle of each, which were then tied together.  These foundations were then covered with crisscrossing layers of reeds.  Their houses and boats were also built of reeds.  We noticed one house had a solar panel outside, and Bruno said that was to charge a battery to watch TV.  Some people might lament this invasion of modernity, or somehow be enamored by the contradiction of reed house and TV.  But I wished they all had TVs and I wished they were all wearing blue jeans.  I know I have no right to wish such things, but for some reason it always bothers me that people are living in different time periods, especially when I suspect that it is artificially so.  Bruno said the Uros people’s livelihood consisted of eating fish, eggs, waterfowl, the reeds (we all got to eat one—it tasted like celery) and tourism was their source of income.   They sold trinkets and weaving and the kids demanded money if they caught you taking their picture. 

After the demonstration, Bruno encouraged us to buy things from them, saying, “We must teach them to work, not to beg.”  I know I’m reading way too much into one innocent sentence, but that phrase bothered me for several reasons.  First of all, they wouldn’t be begging or selling trinkets if we tourists were not here.  Secondly, who are we to come here and teach them anything?  The way it was phrased was as if we outsiders were somehow superior and had to teach them the ways of the world.  The audacity.  But, upon further reflection, I realized we’d embraced that very idea throughout our travels.  I can’t recall a time we ever gave a coin to a beggar, and believe me, we’ve encountered far more than our fair share.  Yet in Cambodia, didn’t Zac and I buy a CD of horrible traditional music because “at least these limbless guys are working instead of just begging”?  And didn’t we buy some note cards from another amputee for the same reason?  True to form, we did buy some trinkets from the Uros women.  Perhaps I selfishly hoped that they would save up for a solar panel or some blue jeans.

Next, we were funneled onto a little reed boat to be taken to another island that was exactly the same as the one we were just on.  (It was like a whole village of tourist-oriented floating islands.)  Three little kids got on the boat with us and sang songs and demanded money.  I ignored them.  They were persistent.  I ignored them.  They asked for money for their school.  I ignored them.  I didn’t think the money was really for school, and their songs were terrible—a butchered English rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star followed by a butchered Spanish version of the song.  The Uros people speak Aymara.  But all this ignoring wasn’t easy, because even though I felt justified, the human element in me still felt guilty.  Our tourist group’s attire probably cost more than their GDP.  The other irony I thought about was how Zac and I donate to charities and aid organizations and micro-lending programs like Kiva, yet take out all the bureaucracy and we won’t cough up a dime.

The Lonely Planet guide claims that there are more authentic floating islands of the Uros people that have not been infiltrated by tourism.

Bruno on the boat

Zac and Sera on top of the boat

no need for daipers

demonstrating how the islands are built

a solar panel outside a hut

inside a hut

eating the reeds

displaying a cloth for sale

A souvenir stand

tourists boarding the reed boats to go to another tourist-oriented island

aboard the reed boat

tourists wait on the island

Isla Taquile

Freed at last from the floating islands of tourism torture, we got back on our motor boat and headed further out to a larger, non-floating island called Isla Taquile.  This island was at least big enough to absorb tourism and still maintain some of its own existence.  The floating islands had felt claustrophobic when the 30 tourists outnumbered the local inhabitants on each island.  The plan for Taquile was to climb up to the plaza in the center of town, where Bruno said we could observe a local festival in honor of some saint (Fiesta de San Diego).  We were to meet at the church door at 12:30, when he’d take us to a restaurant for lunch.  Then we’d proceed down the other side of the island and our boat would be waiting for us there.  I think Bruno was kind of a lazy tour guide, because I noticed other tour guides actually telling their groups about things on the island on the way up. 

The steps up the hill were strewn with women and children selling local handicrafts, and we had to stop frequently to catch our breath due to the high altitude.  Taquile would be a nice place to live.  The air was fresh due to the total lack of cars or industry, the island was big enough to support farming, and it had views of Lake Titicaca with snow capped mountains in the distance.  We looked at those mountains, which were actually in Bolivia, and wondered if the French guy we met on the plane was on top of one of them.  He was a serious hiker, with crampons and one of those magical sleeping bags that keeps you warm at 40 below.  Not like Zac and I, who exerted ourselves just climbing the type of hills and mountains that would never have snow on top.

We huffed and puffed a little and arrived at the center of town, on top of the island.  In the town plaza, a group of local inhabitants were dressed in colorful outfits and were playing flutes and drums and shuffling in a circle.  You’ve all heard the ubiquitous Pueruvian flute bands; David Sedaris even happened to mock them in the audiobook we were listening to.  Throughout the trip, Peruvian bands played outside restaurants in the tourist districts in all the places we went, selling CDs and asking for donations.  It’s not my favorite traditional music, but it does beat out Chinese Opera.  The performance in this square was somewhat authentic though.  They weren’t selling CDs and there was no place to drop some coins; rather a panel of grim looking judges were set up in one corner of the square, and the audience was only about half tourists.   Bruno said they would celebrate this festival for fifteen days.  Could you imagine?  Fifteen days straight of Peruvian flutes?  Click here for video


festival dress

selling handicrafts


For lunch, Bruno led us to a humble outdoor restaurant.  It was here that we had one of our best meals of the whole trip.  First, we were given a delicious quinoa soup and some wheat bread that we could eat with salsa.  Then we got our main plate, which had trout, rice, salad and some papas fritas (fried potatoes, although I something translated it to “fried fathers” in my head, just for fun).  We drank Inka Cola during the meal, and they served tea made from an island herb after the meal.  Perhaps it was just a normal meal, and we just perceived it as being better, like how everything tastes better when you’re camping.

After lunch, Bruno told us about how the men on the island wore different hats depending on their status.  The village leaders, which were elected for one-year terms, had special hats.  The married men also had different hats from single men.  The other striking thing about the culture on Taquile was that the men all knitted.  If a man couldn’t or didn’t knit, he stood no chance of getting married.  When a couple got married, the wife would knit half a stole and the husband would knit the other half.  The men also carried a special knitted purse with their coca leaves inside.

After lunch, we walked down the other side of the mountain, through some very photographic arches.  We had a three hour boat ride back to Puno.  On our way to the island and back again, the boat driver was munching coca leaves the whole time.  He chewed through nearly a whole bag.  On the way there, he offered Zac and I some to try.  We’d been drinking the tea, made from these very leaves, for a few days but hadn’t chewed them yet.  I chewed a few; they were bitter and made my mouth a bit numb.  Then I fell asleep.

Sera eats quinoa soup

best meal



A man knits in the market


We needed to buy a bus ticket to Arequipa, where we wanted to go the next day.  The signs posted at our hostel had said they could get tickets for us, but charged a seven soles commission fee (a little more than two dollars).  Always willing to have a mini-adventure to save a few bucks, Zac and I decided to try and purchase the tickets on our own.  We remembered when the bus dropped us off, the station had been near the lake front.  As our boat from Taquile neared the harbor, we scrutinized the coastline to see if we could find the bus station.  We thought we saw it off to the left, and it appeared to be within walking distance.  When we disembarked, we headed past all the taxis and tourist shops, and went left at the first main road. It took us directly to the bus station after about ten minutes of walking.  It was almost disappointingly easy.  In fact, it turned out to be a pleasant walk on a sidewalk between a wide road and a wide, smelly, wetlands that abutted Lake Titicaca.  Some people were out playing soccer and volleyball in the evening light.  Volleyball is about the last thing I would have expected in Peru, but they actually have (or had) a very competitive women’s national team, that won silver in the 1988 Olympics.

Once at the bus station, we looked at signs posted at the various bus companies’ booths, trying to find a suitable time to leave for the six hour journey.  10:30 would be too late, 6:30 too early, we were Goldilocks in search of the “just right” bus time.  We were thinking 8:00 sounded good, but we only found one bus that left at that time.  Using my cave-man Spanish, I procured two seats for us the next morning.  Before leaving the ticket booth, I carefully checked the times and dates on the tickets to verify that they were correct.  “See,” I said to an imaginary Eddy, “that wasn’t so hard.  It only took a couple of seconds!”

We took a taxi back up to our hostel, dropped off our stuff, and headed back down to the tourist street for supper.  We decided to have pizza for supper, and found a nicely decorated restaurant.  We chose the table in the back.  I think we were cultured-out.

men knit while watching the fesitival

Back at the hostel, I decided my hair, at least, needed a shower.  I couldn’t skip another day, no matter how cold it was.  The shower at this hostel did not draw water from a hot-water heater, like our luxurious warm showers up to now had.  This one had an electric contraption on the shower head that heated the water as it came out.  Or was supposed to.  It didn’t work.  But I kept trying.  After five minutes of cowering in the shower corner while ice cold water came out, I asked Zac to go find one of the hostel ladies for help.  I put my clothes back on, shivering.  The ladies came, they tapped, they ran back and forth, they flipped switches somewhere, and eventually I had a shower that alternated between cold and tepid and occasionally, for brief moments, hot.

The CougherThe incident that made us pay a little extra for private rooms the rest of the trip.

Our second night in the hostel, it was much more crowded.  There was a bag in our room, so we knew we had a roommate.  I saw her go in the room once, so I knew which one she was, but it didn’t seem convenient at the time to shout across the hostel common room, “Hey, we’re roommates!”  She ended up leaving on an errand and didn’t come back before we went to bed, so we never really conversed.  The group was still viewing a DVD in the common room when Zac and I retired early.  If I haven’t emphasized this enough, let me reiterate it now: the tile and  concrete interior, that seemed to be a popular hostel design, amplified sounds, rather than absorbing them.  The movie seemed to only grow louder as we tried to fall asleep.  In an act of true love, Zac reached across the abyss and offered, “Earplug?”  Never was such a tender word spoken. 

The movie more or less blocked out, I thought a good night’s sleep was possible.  Then our roommate came in to sleep.  Except, she didn’t sleep.  She coughed and moaned all night.  You know how everything is worse at night, in the dark, when you’d rather be asleep?  Now imagine a stranger with a deep, liquidy, persistent cough.  All night.  Followed by a little moan here and there.  What you end up picturing in your mind, while trying desperately to sleep, is little green germs filling the air and multiplying with each cough, spreading throughout the dorm and infesting your own lungs.

Common area of the hostel

hostel kitchen

our hostel dorm room

The next morning, when Zac woke up, he asked, “Is she gone?”  I said yes.  He added, “She should go to a hospital.”  I agreed.  We ate our pancakes, drank our tea, then got a taxi to the bus station.

To Arequipa 

We found a bus that appeared to be our bus.  It had the bus company name, there were people outside it lined up, and the lady at the door that checks to make sure you’ve paid your bus station departure tax nodded when I asked if that was the bus to Arequipa.  We were about to put our bags under to bus and board, when a lady came and grabbed us and said that bus was going to Cusco and we were on a different bus.  She whisked us back to the desk, where women were busily copying a passenger list from one clipboard to another.  She issued us a new ticket with a different bus company and sent us over there.  As much as I could piece together, sometime in the 14 hours since we’d bought our ticket, our bus company realized more passengers were headed for Cusco than Arequipa, so they changed the destination of the bus and sold us to a different company.  Some might be annoyed, but I was thrilled.  These bus companies had the flexibility and adaptability that Poopoo Rail was lacking.  They could change as needs arose, in a way that benefited passengers (more people who wanted to go to Cusco now could) and benefited their bottom line (they didn’t have to send a bus all the way to Arequipa with only a few passengers).  “See, that wasn’t so hard” I said to an imaginary Poopoo Rail manager.

Our bus to Arequipa was stuffy and stinky.  Maybe everyone who had stayed in Puno skimped on their showers, like I had.  At on point, a young boy got up in the aisle and sang, said a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand, then appeared to be selling candy.  Later, an old man did the same thing but asked for money without offering any candy in exchange.  Zac and I ignored them both, turned up our iPod and focused on David Sedaris’s story about trying to buy a skeleton for his boyfriend’s birthday.  Also, at some point on our journey, we passed a broken down bus and picked up some of its passengers, filling in the few empty seats on our bus.  Poopoo Rail would have just gone on by.

The bus ride afforded spectacular views of the dramatic and vastly empty landscape.  Golden fields lead to snowcapped mountains and the blue lakes were pristine.

Our new bus

Mt. Misti
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