After Machu Picchu, I had some decisions to make, the primary of which being: Where to go next? I could head on to La Paz, or take a quick trip over to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca. Heh. I still laugh when I say it. I know, I know. So, based in no small part on being able to say "Titicaca" over and over in casual conversation, I decided I'd better stop there for a bit. It's so close, and I could hardly tell my inner 12 year old I wasn't going to visit Lake Titicaca. Heh. I ended up deciding on the small town of Puno, for no other reason than the intrigue of setting foot on the "Islas Flotantes" - man-made floating islands which people have apparently lived on for hundreds of years. Sounds cool anyway.
I'd bought my bus ticket a couple days earlier, and as I looked at the receipt in my hand, I was somewhat proud of my growing negotiating skills. "Always be willing to walk away" - Nate's words echoed in the back of my head. To make a long story short, I ended up going from a $30 ticket to an $8 ticket for the same destination. I allowed myself a little smile.
It lasted until I saw the bus. I ended up in the front-left seat of an aging, dirty, leaky double-decker coach. My seat had cigarette burns all over it, and there were wrappers from something chocolaty on the floor. There was a TV hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the isle to my right. The metal harness screwed into the plastic paneling looked old and overstressed. Bare copper wires flopped out from the back of the box, aged duct tape kept the bowls of the set from spilling through a crack in the side, two broken red and white A/V cables still hung in their slots. I felt I needed a shotgun to put it out of its misery. Oh well. Whatever. Eight bucks man. Eight bucks! I settled in, and set about finally finishing "American Gods". About five minutes before we took off, the vacant seat to my right was filled by a dude from Seattle named Dale. He was reading "The Lost World" by Crichton. No offense to Dale (who I know will be reading this), but why can't I find seats next to beautiful women? Apparently they don't take the bus (or at least $8 buses), because I haven't seen them.
Outside of my window not being equipped with a "shut" feature, and having to listen to the wind screaming right next to my ear for six hours, the ride was actually pretty smooth and uneventful. No livestock in the road, no rocks falling from the cliffs above, no muddy tracks to traverse, no rainwater on my shoulder. Just a bus ride. It was refreshing.
We pulled into Puno around 3:00 pm. The bus terminal was right on the shoreline, offering a view of Lake Titicaca spreading out to the horizon - a grey-blue expanse under a cloudy white sky. It was like seeing Lake Michigan from Chicago - you'd swear you were looking at an ocean. The choices are somewhat limited in Puno, so Dale and I ended up staying at the same hotel. We decided to share a cab, and once we'd secured our bags and headed out of the terminal, we set about flagging one down. Turns out the most prominent means of conveyance in Puno is the trusty rickshaw. You can chose between a motorized version and a pedal-powered rig. There are regular cabs to be sure, but they are of course more expensive, and... well, hell, they aren't as cool as taking a rickshaw! We flagged down motorized rickshaw with a Batman logo on the back. It was sweet. It's like riding a really weak three-wheeler with motorcycle tires. They only go about 15-20 miles an hour, if that. It was pretty fun though.
We hadn't talked a lot on the bus, but once we got settled into our hotel, Dale and I walked the city for a bit. He's an interesting guy - a molecular biologist who worked for a company involved in the Human Genome project. I may have heard wrong, but I believe he directly or indirectly worked on the project himself. He even told me one of the guys he worked for was interviewed by Crichton for "Jurassic Park". Cool stuff. Anyway, he too was taking a year off and taking a walkabout. You can see some of his pictures and read about his travels at http://www.accidentalexplorer.com.
Puno's a pleasant enough little town, but one I wouldn't want to spend a long time in. It reminded me of a slightly more upscale and more temperate Nazca. After exploring the city for a while, I stopped at a little Italian restaurant for a bite to eat. About the time my food arrived, I thought I heard band music - like marching band music, and it was getting louder. My table faced the glass door and I watched in disbelief as a full-scale marching band strolled past. Wednesday afternoon at 5:30. It was like the end scene of "The Naked Gun". Assuming this wasn't an everyday event (or maybe that's just how Puno rolls), I asked the waiter what was going on - it was apparently the city's pre-amble to Carnivale.
When I walked outside, the streets were filling up with people. Street vendors were selling cans of aerosol spray foam for people to shoot at one another. Kids were running around with squirt guns and water balloons. I could hear another band playing around the corner. I walked around for a while and found what looked to be the center of the activity - a small parade with men and women in full dress costume dancing to the sound of yet another marching band. It was a good bit of fun. Being a good target, I got nailed with foam more than a few times.
The next morning Dale and I took a pedal-powered rickshaw down to the pier to see if we could catch a boat out to the floating islands. We tried to haggle (or at least Dale did - he's more of an independent traveler than even I). This time, however, we got sucked into the tourist trap. We ended up on a boat with about 20-25 other people part of an organized tour with a guide. Definitely not what we had in mind, but by the time we figured it out, the guy we talked to was nowhere to be seen and we were on the boat. Whatever. It took our slow little boat about 30 minutes to chug out to the Islas Flotantes. It turned cold once out on the water. Titicaca (heh) is the world's highest navigable lake, and the wind coming off the water was biting. The sky was bright blue, with only a few cottony wisps visible. In the distance along the horizon to the North you could see snow-capped mountains rising out of the lake. It was beautiful.
Our boat pulled up alongside a piece of "land" which looked like a few acres of thick country hay sitting on top of the lake. Once secured, we jumped off the boat onto the squishy, soft reed-island. It was a strange sensation. The ground gave a bit as you stepped, but it was solid. However, if you got near the edge and jumped, you could feel the entire area around you shake and ripple. Very cool. We sat down on some benches made from the same reeds the islands were constructed with. One of the "leaders" of the island and our tour guide explained the history of the islands and their construction. Their entire world is based on the tall 3-meter tall reeds growing in the lake. Though very canned and very touristy, it was fascinating.
At the conclusion of the presentation, we were invited to buy some of the handicrafts (of course), then treated to a few songs by the ladies of the islands. Again, ridiculously touristy. The performers sang with the passion of a teen-aged wait staff singing happy birthday to a table of kids at Golden Corral. We then hopped on a large reed row boat over to another set of islands. After milling around on the islands and avoiding the purchase of some more "handmade" goods, we boarded our good old motorized boat. I didn't realize it yet, but this leg of our cruise lasted for what turned out to be 2.5 hours. The boat was ridiculously slow, and it was cold and windy out on the lake. However, it was a boat ride on Lake Titicaca. How many times am I going to be able to do this?
We finally pulled up to a dock on Isla Taquile, a natural island in the middle of Titicaca which has been inhabited for thousands of years. It was a very pleasant place - very calm and soothing. It couldn't have been much more than a mile square, and pretty much every inch was accounted for by the way of terraced fields or pastureland. As a part of the tour, we walked up a little stone trail and eventually through a pasture to the small house of a local family. We sat down on the grass in their yard/pasture and listened to our guide talk about the history and culture of the island-dwellers. It was pretty interesting. The highlight for me was the hats the men had to wear. Young or old, it didn't matter. They looked like Christmas elf hats which drooped in the back and had a small poofy ball on the top. Single guys had to wear half red/half white hats, and the married guys got a hat of solid red with some accents. I amused myself by thinking about what that might look like if implemented in the states.
After the presentation we had the option/no other choice of having lunch for some exorbitant cost right there at the family's house (conveniently outfitted with a big industrial fridge full of beer, Coke, and all the other amenities of a small restaurant). Fortunately, Dale and I had wisely bought food the night before and had packed it in our bags. We sat down and had lunch on the grass.
We were soon joined by three kids - the oldest of which couldn't have been more than eight or nine. The ringleader was a little boy with a red/white floppy hat. He was a relentless salesman, trying to get us to buy some of his little woven bracelets - he'd put them on our wrists and nod his head, waiting for us to give in. He was quite entertainer - he had a little shtick of running around and falling down on purpose, trying to elicit a laugh. The two girls were a bit older than he, and appeared to be sisters. They were wearing matching outfits and were very quiet. All three sat down with us and we shared our lunch with them. They posed for pictures, and took some of us, and we played along. They were great kids - it was a good bit of fun.
The guide then gathered the group together for a little display of native dancing which was again much staged and only mildly amusing. Afterwards, a group of us walked up a stone path to the top of the island to find the "market" which was an unimpressive set of buildings again aimed at selling handicrafts. We soon walked through the remainder of the small village and crossed to the other side of the island.
The view from the top was tremendous. The lake spread out in all directions, slate gray against the low white clouds that had rolled in during the afternoon. To the east you could see the distant mountains of Bolivia. We continued on for about 5 minutes, where we reached the end of the island and met our boat.
The two and a half hour ride back was really, really long. Painfully long. The boat moved agonizingly slow. I'm sure we could have rowed faster. I talked for a while to an Asian woman in her late 30's/early 40's who turned out to be a lawyer from Chicago who had an apartment in the Hancock tower. After an hour, we ran out of things to talk about. They handed out surveys about the trip, but wisely skipped me. When we finally pulled into the dock, I was numb with boredom.
All in all, I'm glad to have done it, but would definitely do it differently next time. One, stick to the floating islands. Two, get a faster boat. Three, do it yourself and don't go on a tour. Still, I've now seen Titicaca. Heh. My inner 12 year old is still giggling.