Wandering the West
It’s good to be from the lofty elevation of Park City when traveling in Peru. During a recent trip there, we stayed at Lake Titicaca where the base elevation is 12,500 feet and the hiking is all uphill from there. The air was thin, but we didn’t ever need the oxygen bottles that helpful guides pack along. The altiplano of Peru and neighboring Bolivia looks a lot like Utah’s western deserts, except for the hanging glaciers which frost the tops of the Andes.
And it’s a bit like the Wild West. There’s a mining boom in progress and the largest towns near the lake, Juliaca and Puno, are fast-growing, busy, dirty and sometimes dangerous places just ask me. My camera was stolen at the Puno bus station. Otherwise, the trip to Titicaca was one of the highlights of a recent month in South America.
Puno is lakeside and the logical jumping-off point for touring the Titicaca region. The lake is South America’s largest, and, they say, the highest navigable lake in the world. Even though it’s landlocked, both Bolivia and Peru maintain small navies on the lake, as they don’t always get along.
Even near the equator, this is not a lake for swimming and water sports. Glacial snowmelt and Andean rivers feed the lake. The highlight here is to get in one of dozens of tour boats for short hops that take you to another time and another world.
Twenty minutes from Puno, the boats stop at the Uros Islands. The Uros people centuries ago wanted protection from both the Incas and the invading Spaniards. They hit upon the idea of floating islands made out of totora reeds, which are prolific along the shoreline. The Uros cut deep into the reed beds, harvesting not just the reeds but the thick mass of roots and muck at their base. They stitch small sections of reeds into islands a few hundred feet across, and layer more reeds on top. Above, they build small reed houses and impressive reed boats. They even eat the bulb portion of the reed, which tasted to me like cucumber.
The forty or so floating islands are anchored to the lakebed by driving poles through the islands into the mud below. They use other scrap lumber and poles to erect observation towers. Half the islands are open to tourists each day. Islanders compete with their neighbors for tourist traffic by beckoning visitors ashore with colorful native clothing, singing and friendly banter in their native Aymara language.
Each island generally has a family group or a group of friends. "What happens," I asked, "if you don’t get along with another family on the island?" A man grinned, excused himself, and went to his hut, retrieving a rusty carpenter’s saw. Islanders can saw off their section of the island, float it over to another island and reattach it. Islanders lay down a layer of mud and stones and place their cooking fires on top. Some islands have a hole cut in the middle, lined with netting and filled with fish. Catching dinner is easy. Walking on the islands is like walking on a waterbed. One woman proudly showed off her solar panel connected to a car battery, which was connected to a small radio and television!
Nearly two hours beyond the Uros Islands, a different culture, the Taquile, occupy two permanent islands. Here farmers use terraces originally built by the Inca to farm small crops of corn and potatoes. The corncobs are just five or six inches long because of the elevation, but it is enough to get by, along with fish. On Taquile Island, visitors are welcome to hike to the village at the top of the hilly island, where weavers display goods made from wool spun from the island’s llamas and alpacas.
It’s easy to spot one’s status here. Single men wear red-and-white stocking caps. Single women wear equally colorful headgear and skirts. Once married, women wear dark hats and clothing, while their husbands wear a sash woven by the bride and carry a woven shoulder bag that contains coca leaves. Sitting around with other men talking and chewing coca is the pastime here after the chores are done.
Coming from the culture of Park City, it’s interesting to see how little one needs to lead a happy, low-stress life. There’s plenty to eat, and if your neighbor drives you crazy you can always get out your saw and float away.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Fly to Lima, then take either an all-day scenic bus ride to Puno or fly to Juliaca.
Insider tip: The beggars are notorious around Peruvian tourist sites. Resist the urge to give or you’ll be hounded for more.
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