Imagine a plateau nestled in the tops of the mountains, a lake so high it surpasses the tree line, and a capital city almost as high as the top of the Rocky Mountains.
The final leg of our adventure was also the most challenging: a week fully at high altitude, over 12,000 feet.From Cuzco our tour climbed upward to the Altiplano, the huge plateau stretching from Peru to Argentina. It’s noted for its thin air, but by this time most of us were well-acclimated and able to enjoy the scenery.
Our journey took us along the Ruta del Sol, the Route of the Sun, which wound in and around the mountain peaks, often following the railway line. The skies were an unearthly blue in the thin, clean air.
We passed a surprising array of traditional villages, their women wearing a variety of different hat styles specific to their region.
There were a surprising number of farms managing to grow crops in the increasingly difficult elevations.
While we saw a lot of signs for modern products, the architecture was mainly still adobe brick.
At lunchtime we stopped at La Raya Pass, an intimidating 14, 271 feet high, but you couldn’t beat the view.
At the top there’s a research centre and a small bazaar where the colourful Andean handicrafts are vivid against the deep blue of the sky and the charcoal and amber mountain peaks topped with snow.
From La Raya we travelled across a vast, flat and windy landscape of ochre scrub against brilliant blue skies. It felt almost alien in its remoteness.
Somehow people manage to raise cattle in the rarified air, well above the tree line with little in the way of pasture apart from spiky tufts of tough Andean grass.
As we got closer to our destination for the night, the city of Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca, which is fed by numerous small rivers, we could see thin ultramarine waterways snaking across the plateau.
By dusk we reached Puno, set spectacularly at one end of the lake.
The next morning we clambered into tuk-tuks for a wild and crazy ride racing through the streets (literally — our drivers were competing with each other) to the harbour.
At the harbour we bought food gifts (fresh produce and olive oil) for our hosts — we’d be spending the night in homestays on Amantani Island about two hours away in the middle of Lake Titicaca — and boarded our motorboat for an amazing ride across the highest navigable lake in the world.
The part of the lake closest to Puno is a maze of totora reeds, whose thick stalks provided shelter and a new way of life for ancient people fleeing conquest by the Incas.
The Uros people fled the Incas out into the Lake and built floating islands from the reeds that they’ve lived on for centuries. There is regular traffic between the islands and Puno, and our boat passed a teacher being rowed out to the islands.
The islands float placidly on the relatively still waters in this section of the lake.
The Uros use the reeds for many purposes: as the base for the islands, as homes, food and natural remedies. The reeds can be opened up and are remarkably cool inside — they’re used as compresses for aches and pains.
It’s a remarkable culture that seems to be staying more-or-less untouched, apart from a few motorboats.
Each island holds a complete family, and each has its own style. Our tour included a stop on one family’s island to see how they live. The islands are constructed of layers of reeds running in different directions, and as the top layer dries out, fresh reeds are added to the top. Walking on them is a little spongy, but not wet. Remarkably, they even cook with open fires on their floating patch of ‘land’.
The family gathered together to show us how they make their handicrafts…
They also gave us a little demonstration of how the islands are constructed,
Their quite beautiful handicrafts are for sale, and help provide income.
The Uros culture is an incredible peek into an ancient past, and a world of colour set at the top of the Andes. If you go to Peru and can manage the altitude, it’s not to be missed.
From the Floating Islands we continued on for another hour and a half across the stunning blue waters edged by snow-crusted mountain tops, where we really got a sense of traversing this super-high lake.
At Amantani Island we met our homestay “mothers” and were escorted to our homes for the night.
Amantani truly is a time capsule, although the women who provide their homes must have certain conveniences and be able to speak two languages. Our mother, Rosa, spoke Quechua and Spanish. If you’re thinking of doing this, it will be of great help if you can speak a little Spanish so you can converse with your hostess.
Rosa had added a top floor to her adobe home for bedrooms, which were clean, basic and colourful — just comfortable beds and thick woven blankets to ward against the night chill. There’s no central heating, and the temperature drops precipitously when the sun goes down.
We ate three meals freshly cooked by Rosa and her daughter, Kenia.
The islanders are vegetarians — they keep a communal cow and their own sheep to provide milk for cheese. Our lunch consisted of a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a plate of an assortment of cooked potatoes, with a semi-soft cheese and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers picked from their garden behind the house.
There was a fully-functioning bathroom with a flush toilet and cool shower. I’d been expecting much more rudimentary facilities, so this was a nice surprise.
After lunch we walked to the central village, which is small but has a school, church and some cafes, which serve as local gathering places.
After a supper of vegetable stew with rice, with more of the vegetable soup to start, each housemother provided traditional clothing for her guests — which we put on atop our regular clothing, as the night was already quite chilly — and led us to the community centre, where they put on a lively dance for us and we got to learn Andean moves. We didn’t keep them up too late, as they lead very busy lives without modern conveniences — but they took a photo of all of us in our finery. It was a really fun evening, after which we went back to our home, changed into thick sweats and crawled in under our blankets to fall deeply asleep.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and more potatoes, Rosa walked us back to the boat and we continued on to Taquile Island, famous for its beautiful knitwear. While Amantani was fairly flat, Taquile is a big hill, and many of us were stopping regularly to gasp for air as we climbed the long grade up to the town.
Taquile is very dry and scrubby, with lots of succulents and meandering rock walls.
This island has some hydro, but the residents live simply and recycle everything, like this pair of old sandal soles repurposed as gate hinges.
With its rolling scrubby terrain and tall dark green trees set against a deep blue sea, I felt like I’d stepped into Greek mythology, even though we were on the other side of the world.
The town is larger than the one on Amantani, and has a craft cooperative located in the two-tiered building you see below.
The island is world-renowned for the quality of its knitting, which is all done by the men; the women do the weaving for garments. Each pattern has a specific meaning and often incorporates elements from the weaver’s/knitter’s life.
While we didn’t converse much with the villagers, while I sat to eat a sandwich this little girl seem entranced by a game of ‘I’ll roll the bottle cap down the steps and you pick it up and give it back to me’, which she did over and over again.
The island was full of vivid villager life, like these two boys rolling hoops down the steep paths. I took many pictures, too many to show here.
All too soon it was time to board the boat to return to Puno and head to Desaguadero, the somewhat wild frontier-like town that governs the border between Peru and Bolivia on this stretch of road.
It took us quite a while to circumnavigate Lake Titicaca.
We were high enough to pass through areas with snowfall.
Desaguadero is a jumble of shops, thick traffic, the customs house and people waiting to get across the border.
The central square is a bustling hive of tough-looking money-changers and sellers of anything from housewares to ‘fresh’ meat.
Trucks, buses, pedal-carts and people all throng the crossing waiting for their turn.
Once across the border, we headed across the Bolivian Altiplano to the ruins of Tiwanku, which I highlighted in a December post.
From Tiwanaku, across the barren heights where it seems impossible to live, we headed to our final destination for the trip, and our final overnight stop, the capital city of Bolivia and the highest capital in the world, La Paz. It nestles stunningly between a ring of mountain peaks, and sits at roughly 13,000 feet high.
This altitude is not for the faint of heart, and while some tours actually begin here and work their way downwards, I wouldn’t recommend it. Every hotel stocks coca leaf tea in the lobby.
La Paz is a fascinating mixture of old and new, climbing up and down the hills on dusty streets. We were only there overnight and didn’t get to see much, particularly as one of our fellow travellers was ill and we stayed in to take care of her. But we were glad to have been there for a little while, in this city at the top of the Andes.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little escape to South America, particularly during this cold, virus-challenged winter, and I hope I’ve inspired you to visit these amazing places one day. Take your camera and a lot of storage capacity — you’ll need it. If you’ve been there already, I hope I’ve reminded you of some pleasant memories.