The plan was solid – we avoid altitude sickness by climbing from the Galapagos to Arequipa, then ascend to Colca and twice over a ~16,000 pass before settling in to Titicaca, earth’s highest navigable lake at 12,500′. Then we bus down to Cusco and our Gap Year Phase II grand finale Machu Picchu. No headaches and “Cheap Tom” transports between 3 “must see” spots… what’s not to like?
Well friends, if you travel to Peru with limited time or funds, my advice is to skip Titicaca… its latter syllables are autological.
At least it’s not windy. Leaving Colca we pass just shy of 16,000’ again and ply the plains northwest towards Titicaca. The Andean Altiplano is vast, so it’s easy to watch the storm gather as we approach the soulless commercial center “Juli-yucka”. Soon the thunder begins to roll. Lightning strikes, nightfalls and rainfallows. We’re high so the rain turns to sleet then slush on the coal black road: there are no plows or augers here so our driver takes it slowly. He’s named Jesus, it’s the final night of Semana Santa, and we’re pretty close so we thank heaven for a safe journey.
And then there’s the purgatory of Puno. I guess the planners and police have taken holy week off – the two-way bus traffic through town has been routed into a single lane road. It’s gridlock. We weigh options but the rain, dark and danger of unknown mean streets conspire to keep us in our seats… we wait it out. In 2 hours we go 2 blocks until finally some traffic police emerge to condition and comb out the tangle. Ugh. Our hotel is smelly and dank, but we’re exhausted so Max and I man up and take the nastier room.
In the morning the sun breaks and we look forward to a gloriously blue day on Titicaca. But we underestimate the walk to the pier so have to hustle to catch the 9AM ferry… on the guide book’s recommendation we’re looking to go the independent traveller route today. Good news: it’s cheap. Bad news: she doesn’t look very seaworthy. 9AM becomes 10AM and finally it toodles out into the lake with a few locals and Peruvian tourists… we and young Brit backpacker Julia are the only caucasians on board.
Fleeing fuel fumes we evacuate the rotting cabin for the rickety roof, and there the sun and breeze wash away our discomfort. The ride becomes pleasant… almost reminiscent of our travels in Burma’s Inle Lake. We pull up to the first of the floating Reed Islands, and to our surprise we’re all sat in a circle and given a bit of a lecture by the island’s matriarch, then encouraged to buy crafts from the locals. Soon enough the mildly interesting lecture devolves into a peasant shake-down, with an inevitable 10 sole “ask.” We and the local Peruvian tourists ignored it and went back to the ferry. But the boat would not leave until the man was paid, so we negotiated it down to 3 soles each and were freed to go to the next island, with a cheap bitter taste in our mouths.
The next island wasn’t much better – very commercialized, we were greeted with loudspeakers encouraging us to come in for a trout lunch or shopping spree. Trapped for an hour I looked for options, and spied a some rickety boats out back, so I talked the shopkeeper into letting us borrow a rowboat for an hour. Julia jumped in with us and I attempted to row us out of the slough and into the broader lake.
The boat and her oars were crude and heavy, but I managed to move us a few hundred yards down the way to a more sincere reed island, where the local gasoline sales lady welcomed our wander. That’s better. We strolled just a little but I’m no oarman, so left with plenty of time to return the slow boat and make the next ferry back to Puno. Thankfully the return ferry was seaworthy, so we didn’t mind the long wait for passengers.
Pack at the harbor we taxied to town, grabbed a local lunch and negotiated the pickup of some future bus and train tickets. With clouds gathering we beat it back to the hotel in time to shelter from this evening’s squall, which was another doozie. Rather than slog out for dinner we found a pizza delivery, and gladly overpaid for the delivery. At least the market next door sold beer – that was easy. We spent the evening catching up on journals and preparing for our Gap Year Phase II Finale… Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.