We have made the 309km journey to the small city of Puno which rests on one of edges of the highest altitude lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. Deciding to allocate three days to here before setting off to Arequipa in the west. One of the highlights of the city happened to be our hostel owner, letting me have a go on his guitar, borrow his charger and just generally being a very friendly guy. We also solved the mystery as to why we haven’t smelled any marijuana in the city, the safe assumption being that it is all kept in his drawers and pockets.
In my mind there are two main and distinctively separate experiences that Puno has to offer; Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands. The lake is splendid. Before 9am the quiet is only matched by the stillness, vessels of many variations clink together at the edge of el Puerto Puno like the used syringes underneath Bournemouth Pier. The water is soft and tranquil, as blue as the sky above and twice as smooth. Being the highest altitude lake in the world also means that it bestows some idyllic and intriguing horizons. Snow capped mountains appear a few hundred feet above the surface and there are many long descending panoramas to which there seems no completion, as if looking at the end of the world. It really does provide quite a feeling of isolation, like the edge of Puno and the bowl of water completing it is suspended above the rest of the Earth. If you cross the horizon, you are sure to fall off.
Joe and I visited four Islands within the lake during our time in Puno, three floating and one standard. Your standard island. The floating islands intrigued me greatly before I made my way to Peru. “They are made from reeds and dirt and people live on them” they’d say, “You’re bloody lying mate, that sounds crazy” I’d retort. Well that conversation clearly never happened but I was nonetheless impressed by this feat of man conquering nature and was eager to learn more. What I can say in support of the people of the islands is that it truly is an impressive achievement. Stepping on to the hovering terrain for the first time is quite bizarre. Feeling simultaneously as if I could plummet straight through to the depths of the lake leaving only my plaid shirt and prescription sunglasses to float to the surface for people to remember me by and that the surface was surprisingly secure. The islands are made up of a combination of reed root, rope, sticks and the reeds themselves. The root floats the contraption, the rope and sticks hold it together and the reed provides the top layer for general walking and living on. The tarmac of the lake they call it (again, not true). It’s a bit like walking through the woods, over a big patch of leaves where you aren’t sure what’s underneath but you are sure that it doesnt seem stable. No island that we visited ever exceeded 100ft in length and in fact most were smaller, housing only four or five families. The downfall of these islands (depending on your perspective) comes with the commercialisation. Clearly years ago the inhabitants realised the novelty of their living situation and decided to capitalise on it. Now there isn’t a big McDonalds made of mesh wire and duck beaks, nor is there an underwater Starbucks put together from the straw of old scarecrows and discarded Pepsi bottles. What there is, however, is an abundance of pressure and ‘encouragement’ to purchase items made by people on the island: pillow cases, necklaces, toy boats, practically every item an 18 year old male really wants to bring back after his time travelling. This may sound fine and a legitimate way for people on the island to make money and I would be inclined to agree with you, after all, the free market is a cornerstone of our society. However, it would appear that the same pillow cases, necklaces and toy boats are sold on every island despite the claim that they are unique to each you visit. At one point Joe and I were bundled into a juxtaposingly very authentic Hut and aggressively marketed blankets. I tried to ask him what the Spanish was for “Hostage” but it didn’t seem that his work on learning the language had come that far yet. I think that a part of me hoped these islands would be free from the pursuit of wealth, not from some self righteous, pseudo-communist wish for the world but just to know that these people didn’t need to prostitute their culture for profit. To know that they were confident and proud enough of their own small but impressive world that they wouldn’t want, or indeed need, any part of ours. This is the reality but in my mind the most important part of the reality, as usual, isn’t the human component. What can be relied upon and hopefully will always be reliable is the infectious allure of the lake. This was no more true than at our final island visit to Taqilla. It was a long, bumpy boat ride to get there (on which Joe and I shared a earphone of Ricky Gervais’ XFM show, like a couple of regular guys) but when we arrived, there was no way either of would regret the turbulent journey. We walked about 20 minutes up quite a steep hill, beset on all sides by sheep with legs tied together – to prevent any wooly Steve McQueen types from getting any ideas. We would also periodically run into small Peruvian men knitting hats, scarves, gloves etc. (I guess they haven’t heard of Amazon) on the way to the top. I was told before stepping on the island that many of the inhabitants believed that a photograph being taken of them would steal their soul. I had heard similar things about people from Boscombe though so I wasn’t too thrown off.
We reached the top and dined like kings on quineao soup followed by an onion heavy omelette. The site that prevailed before our eyes as we were spoon deep in some above average soup was something of a marvel. No more than three feet in front of us, the landscape dropped another forty, rolling Bath-esque hills speckled with sheep, huts, people, stone pathways and grass verges. Then the land hit the water as if it always had to. Coloured as if God had tried to pick the most realistic blue but hadn’t quite got it right, it certainly took a few takes to absorb. It was thick and it was deep and it looked unnervingly solid. Like a GCSE Photography student, whacking the colour saturation up past levels which could be believable. It was hard to fathom that we were the only ones allowed to witness this, even for the relatively short time that we were. Rivalling the very best we have seen so far. Joe is now writing a full A4 page description of each day in Spanish in an attempt to learn the language. Still looks like a bloody confused goose whenever anyone tries to talk to him though. Arequipa is on the horizon.
You can read more about Loz’s travels on his personal blog: https://loztheblog.wordpress.com/