Puno, on the whole, rivals Punta Arenas as the least attractive town IÂ´ve visited on the trip. Aside from being on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the city doesnÂ´t have a whole lot going for it. This didnÂ´t matter too much though as we were only there for a day and a half, enough time to do a bit of shopping and do a day tour of the Lake. The bus ride from Arequipa to Puno though was possibly one of the nicest of my trip so far. The company, Cruz del Sur, pulled out all the stops to make it an enjoyable journey, including having a pre-boarding lounge in the Arequipa bus station with bag drop off and a security checkpoint. A much different experience from the usual wait outside for a bus to pull up and throw your bag in the cargo holder experience. We even got to watch a decent movie for once, Knowing with Nicholas Cage, although the end was pretty bad. Any time you try and conceive a serious movie and then explain the plot away using aliens, youÂ´re in for trouble. (Sorry if I just ruined that for anyone)
The Puno bus station was considerably less enjoyable than the Arequipa station. Within seconds of entering the station, we were hounded by eager taxi drivers, all offering the lowest rate to take us to any hostel but the one we actually wanted to go to. We finally made our way through the madness to find an honest taxi driver who would take us to our hostel, Los Pinos, more a hotel really. Definitely not the kind of place you would go if you wanted to meet other travellers. We spent the rest of the first day walking around. We discovered a fair-trade souvenir shop that wasnÂ´t actually fair-trade and had lunch in a terrific fair-trade cafe (we think) next door. We witnessed a political parade led by Shrek (not kidding). And we dined at a terrific little pizza place with a terrific name, Macchu Pizza. There wasnÂ´t a tourist in the joint but it was filled with locals, which is the sign of a good restaurant.
The next day we woke up early to embark on our day tour of Lake Titicaca, what would become the most touristic thing I have done in two months of travelling. About 15-20 tourists were collected from various hostels around town and brought to the docks where we boarded a small two-level boat with an open air viewing platform. IÂ´m really not sure what I expected from the day, but at the end of the day, Lake Titicaca is just that, a lake. It happens to be the highest freshwater lake in the world and it happens to have some “so-called indigenous” people on it who have sold their culture out to tourism. Our first stop, after about 20-30 minutes on the lake was the floating islands of the Uros people. The islands are completely manmade using reeds collected from the lake and bundled together. Several times a year, as the reeds wilt away under water and get trampled by activity on the island, the island is replenished with more reeds. As well as the island itself being made of reeds, everything on the island is made of reeds, houses, lookout point, etc. The Uros people originally did this as a defense mechanism, so that should they be attacked (I suppose by the Spaniards or other indigenous people) they could move the island (and their lives) anywhere else on the lake. All of this was explained to us by the citizens of the island in their indigenous language and translated by our guide. Of course, we later found out that all the residents of the island speak English and Spanish, so the whole thing is basically a dog and pony show. But nevertheless, the architecture and way of life was interesting to hear about and experience first hand.
I should probably explain the picture above. There are a whole bunch of floating islands, on each one lives about 3-4 families. There is one elementary school on one island for all the residents of all the floating islands, and to get to school, the kids have to get in boats and paddle themselves to the school. As this was being explained by our guide, the boat in the picture above went by, and our guide exclaimed, ‘right there, thatÂ´s the school bus!…seriously!’. To go to high school, kids have to paddle themselves all the way into Puno. Other interesting facts about the Uros…the reeds on the island are completely edible. You peel off the outer layer, and the inside is like a mushy piece of celery that tastes like nothing. But they eat them – it’s rather convenient I imagine. Hungry at night? Just rip off a piece of your house and chew. The Uros people use the reeds for everything, including their boats. Every island has at least one boat made entire of reeds and shaped as some elaborate figure – everything from a dragon to a multi-level catamaran.
After visiting the Uros, we spent two hours on the boat travelling to Isla Taquile (which everyone always calls Tequila by accident). Isla Taquile is a large island out towards the middle of Lake Titicaca, inhabited by another indigenous tribe, the Aymara. Although the scenery was nice, the visit to the island itself was unimpressive and somewhat uninteresting. It is possible to do longer, overnight tours of the lake, many of which include a homestay with a family on Isla Taquile, or another island. Possibly this is a better way to take in the culture of the island, as the visit we had was basically a shuffle from one tourist show to the next with a piece of Titicaca trout at the end for lunch. Another two and a half hours back to Puno and the day trip was done. If I sound like IÂ´m being hard on the Titicaca experience, its because I am. Although the Uros islands were interesting architecturally, the rest of the day trip was way too touristy for my liking.
Nevertheless, the weather was great, we got some good scenery in and met some interesting people, including a Dutch couple that we went out to dinner with that night and I later ran into at Macchu Picchu. This was after we switched hostels, from one extreme to the other. Our second hostel could not have been more different from the cold, unsocial atmosphere of Los Pinos. The hostel, Phajsi Aruma (which means Night Moon) was situated in the suburbs of Puno and run by an amazingly nice older couple. After we arrived, they gave us a ride back into the center in their very classic Chevy station wagon, and also gave us a ride to the bus station the next morning, saving us a fair bit of cab money.
On to Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire!