Lake Titicaca to Cuzco
08.04.2013 - 15.04.2013 -16 °C
After Rurrenabaque we spent one final night in La Paz before heading to Peru. For all of those who have read the book "Marching Powder", the last afternoon we spent in La Paz we went to the famous corrupted San Pedro prison but only as far as the outside. We had been asking travellers throughout our trip if the illegal tours in the prison were running but it appears the police have cracked down on it especially since the book has been released. To our surprise the prison is located near the centre of town and only covers a small space, 1 block. The front gate looks out onto San Pedro square. We were lucky enough to be there at visitor time so watched a line of women and children going in. Crazy to think that they live in there, as detailed in the book. Georgie tried to take a sneaky shot over the guards heads but was told off. For those who have not read it, the prisoners have to make money inside the prison in order to survive - ie. opening a restaurant or running errands. The prisoners have to pay for everything including their prison star. The richest prisoners cells resemble studio apartments with flat screen tvs, internet kitchens, etc.
leaving La Paz we encountered some difficulties just to keep our trip exciting. On arrival back in La Paz we both needed to get cash out, long story short we tried 26 ATMs with our credit cards without success and being a Sunday afternoon no banks were open. We had read of a dodgy ATM in Rurrenabaque and thought our cards had been frozen. We resorted to using our Aussie debit card which comes with a large fee for international use but luckily it worked. Now with money, we booked a bus to Puno, Peru. Puno is a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We had wanted to visit the lake on the Bolivian side from Copacabana and doing a tour of Isla de Sol (Island of the sun). Unfortunately a strike had been going on for over a week with no end day insight blocking all roads to Copacabana.
So we had booked a bus to Puno which included transfers from our accommodation to the border with a guide who would help us cross the border and both passport controls then to a Peruvian coach on the other side. After a massive line at the Bolivian Passport control we reached the desk to be escorted straight to another area. To our unbeknownst, unlike other countries that we had visited with a 90 day limit, Bolivia had just a 30 day limit. The officer calculated 19 days extra at a rate of 20BOB a day, 380BOB each. We were about 100BOB short each. We tried to explain that we did not know and showed that we didn't have enough Bolivianos to pay. We asked if there was an ATM anywhere and was told there were none in this town. We went outside to see if we could see our tour leader but him along with the group must have crossed into Peru. Eventually, the border official said he would just take all of the money we had and stamp us through. Classic Bolivia. We crossed the border and our guide found us and pushed into the line with the rest of the bus group for Passport control in Peru. When we got to the front of the line we experienced short delay as we had not filled in our arrival form that the Bolivian control had neglected to give us. This only delayed us behind the group by a max of 5 minutes. With our bags already in the coach we hurried to meet it but saw it drive off as we were running about 200 metres behind it. We chased it down the road believing it would realise we were not on-board and stop but on it went. With no money, no luggage, no jumper and no ATMs or credit cards that would work in a cold empty border town we felt a little stuck (not for the first time on this trip). There was no ticket office that we could ask to call the bus company to tell it to turn back, we had no money to make a call or buy another bus. We went to several hostels thinking they could help but they were abandoned. Looking as sad and desperate as possible we approached Puno bound bus who said we could catch a ride and withdraw money on arrival. On arrival the ATM in the bus station didn't work so we had to catch a taxi with a man who worked on the bus into town.. and success our cards decided to work again plus our luggage was at the terminal! We complained to the bus company and got a small amount back because we had paid for 2 busses. The Peruvian pisco sour went down very well that night with dinner.
We booked a 2 day island tour of Lake Titicaca from Puno the following morning. We travelled from the port for half an hour to the first stop that morning, the Uros Islands, a group of 80 plus artificial islands made of floating reeds . These islands are built by the native people by diving into icy water during the wet season and cutting clumps of reeds out. These reeds are only grown in shallow waters of around 2 metres in depth and the location of the islands is at waters of 17 plus metres. These people relocate these clumps and complete a series of processes in order join, anchor complete the little islands. The whole process takes a year to complete and an island will last for 25 years before it rots away. We got to visit one of the Uros Islas, have look inside a tiny reed house, meet some families and could buy their handicrafts. We also took a short slow trip on their traditional reed boat.
Lake Titicaca is huge, in fact it is the largest high altitude lake in the world. Most of the time we felt like we were on the ocean. It took us another 3 hours (on a motored boat) to reach the island of Amantaní. Here we were separated into couples and assigned with a "Mama" to stay with on the island as the island has no tourist accommodation. Our Mama was Aleje and she took us back to her house and made us feel at home. We met her family, ate an amazing and generous home cooked lunch, dinner and breakfast. The locals on all the islands speak the native inca language of Quechua but they all learn Spanish in school so we could converse a little. We guessed later on that the family must have misunderstood us as Austrians as they asked a lot of questions about Europe. Late that afternoon we met with the group, were provided with information about these people's way of life and hiked up to the Pachamama (which in Peru means Mother Earth) shrine on the top of the island, where we watched the sunset with a 360 view of the lake around the island. These people's way of life is based around indigenous traditions and the term "ima??" (Mine today, yours tomorrow, one for all, all for one).
That night after dinner our mama dressed us up in traditional clothing and took us to a welcome fiesta in the community hall along with the rest of our group and their mamas. We watched and danced to a panpipe band.
After breakfast the following day we said farewell to our mamas and headed for the smaller island of Taquile. Here we climbed the top of the island where the little town sat. We visited a small market and leant about the weavings on this island, which are said to be the best in South America. We were informed about the different hats or shawls worn by single or married men and women. Also about the importance of weaving and that a man was not worthy to marry if he had not knitted a hat of good enough quality in his family patterns. No foreigner can buy land on this island, the only way a person can move to the island is via marring a local and they have to learn to weave in order to do so.
Tourism is becoming important to these islands. The income gained by tourists buying their handicrafts or spending the night in their homes helps them to send their children to University in Puno and buy supplies in Puno, 3 hours away. These people still believe in Pachamama, the Mother Earth, and celebrate her in the hope for rain and crops. They still also practice natural medicines. Younger generations are now moving to the cities and not returning and the people are scared that there traditions and way of life will be lost. Tourism also helps to educate others of these traditions and bring money here so their children won't have to live away.
After spending one more night in Puno we caught a bus to Cuzco. Cuzco is the archaeological capital of the America's. We have been staying in a newly opened guesthouse with the British couple we met on our jungle tour, Nicola and Harry. As it is not on many websites yet it has been quite nice having virtually the whole place to ourselves. Cuzco is one of the most beautiful cities we have seen in South America so far. The city centre is lined with cobble stone streets, huge Inca built walls, and colonial buildings that lead to impressive plazas. There are many architecturally appeasing cathedrals and houses, at a glance you would think you were in Europe.
We have spent just under a week here exploring the streets along with much time in tour agencies trying to book the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. In Cuzco there are hundreds of tour agencies, some located in shops and others handing out flyers on the street. We read that you should do a check with the information centre to see if a company is registered, as there has been many issues where a fake companies hiring an office for a day, selling tours then disappearing. We found that several of the companies that had official offices were not registered when we checked. It took us two days to find a official company that offered what we wanted in our price range.
During our time here we have visited the Museo Inca, Chocomuseo (chocolate museum), Plaza de Armes and other Plazas, some markets, galleries, and climbed to the Christ statue (similar to the one in Rio) to be rewarded with a view of the city and of some Inca ruins. We also did a tour of Moray and Maras, located in the Sacred Valley. Moray is an inca site. Historians believe it was built as an agricultural laboratory that was most likely used to cultivate varieties of vegetables high in the Andes. Maras is made up of many salt mines or evaporation ponds also constructed by the Incas.
Tomorrow we have an very early start and begin the gruelling 5 day trek to be rewarded with visiting Machu Picchu on the final day. We are very excited though a bit nervous about the prospect of 5 days straight of trekking.