One lake, two countries – exploring Lake Titicaca

We were still suffering the after-effects of our hike when we boarded the bus for the long journey from Cusco to Puno. The journey itself was fine but we felt equal to very little when we arrived and our first evening in Puno was a lazy one, even by our standards. We managed to organise our trip for the next day, through the hostel, and then we ordered take away pizza which we ate sat on our twin beds, watching two different shows on our iPads. Boy, do we know how to travel.

The next morning, feeling ever so slightly revived, we set out to explore the city/town of Puno. There isn’t a huge amount to it, but the centre has the charm of colonial buildings, although without the picture-perfect exteriors that can be found all over Cusco. There were also fewer tourists here and the main square was filled with locals either selling their wares or just watching the world go by.

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The centre of town took us about an hour to cover before we headed back to our hotel to get ready for our tour of the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. Our hotel had sorted a great value tour for us, and perhaps its cost should have been a clue as to what was to come.

Right on time we were collected by a taxi and driven to another hotel, where a German couple shoe-horned themselves into the car next to us. We were then whisked off to the port, where our taxi driver deposited us and waved at a man on a phone to come and take care of us. We have no idea how he knew which the right man was, or even if this was indeed the right man, he had nothing to identify him as a tour guide. The Germans looked as confused as we did. Our assumed tour guide continued talking on the phone and indicated that we should stand to one side, which we did. Call completed, he told us to follow him down to the jetty and waved us onto a completely empty boat, where he left us. A Spanish speaking couple and their son joined us on the boat and, after another 15 minutes of waiting for nothing, we set off. Our guide introduced himself and Willy, our captain, and then proceeded to give us 25 minutes of thorough and interesting information about Titcaca in both English and Spanish.

Things started well as we cruised out through the reads and got some nice views of the floating islands.

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It pretty much went downhill from here. We arrived at one of the floating villages and were given a very, very brief description about how the islands were made and what life on them was like before being invited to “explore”. These islands are about 30 metres square with reed huts on them, there is no exploring to be done. What you can do is buy souvenirs, which we had no intention of doing, so we sat and waited for 30 minutes until we moved on again.

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The one silver lining is that there was a tiny puppy to play with.

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We were then told that we could use “local transport” to get to the second island for the bargain price of 10 Soles each. As we had already paid for one boat, no one in our group had any inclination whatsoever to pay for another one, so that was a bit awkward. But really, it was a complete rip-off in the first place and in the second, yes it’s a reed boat but it’s pushed along by another boat with an outboard motor, what precisely is the point of that?! Fortunately, the Germans were as unimpressed as we were by the whole thing so it was a really fun day for our guide.

We set off on our original boat and stopped again 200 metres later at the next island, which was just a floating restaurant. Another tourist trap and one we had no intention of engaging in so, again, we sat and waited until we could leave. Then the boat took us back to Puno, that was it. We did at least get a realistic view of the locals cutting reeds, fishing and home time at the local school as we made our way back.

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For what we had paid we weren’t too concerned about the money, but it was an almost complete waste of time. We have now seen the floating islands though and been out on the lake so box ticked, time to move on. We do get that people are just trying to make a living, and we sympathise, but it’s just not an activity worth doing anymore, which is a shame, because it could have been very interesting if managed properly. Perhaps those islands which lie further afield are more realistic.

The next morning, we boarded a bus for Bolivia, specifically Copacabana, where we would be sampling the delights of the south west shore of the lake. It was another smooth journey, although lingering grossness meant that we both felt fairly unwell on the way. It did have the added diversion of our having to walk across the border, which was a first for us. We ran in to the German couple again as we walked across. Border control was incredibly efficient and we had the joy of being really proud of our country folk when an English woman kicked up an enormous fuss because she had outstayed her Peruvian visa and was livid that she had to pay a fine. Firstly, she outstayed her visa, so it was her own bloody fault and secondly, the fine was all of two dollars, hardly breaking the bank. She spent so much time complaining that the bus continued without her, which was gratifying.

The trudge up the gentle hill to our hostel was pretty hard work and then it transpired that we were staying on what felt like the 57th floor so we were gasping by the time we made it up there, we had a pretty view though.

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We are planners, we like to be booked up a couple of days in advance and we particularly like bus tickets arranged with plenty of notice. However, in South America we have noticed that, more often than not, it’s easier to arrange things in person and we have never struggled to find space just a day or two in advance. We didn’t even bother trying to book a boat to Isla del Sol for the next morning, we very much doubt that they ever run out of space, even in the high season, but we did want to get our bus tickets for La Paz. You would be able to find a space in one of the local buses at a minute’s notice but these are basically people’s cars and minivans rammed full with people and bags and the price difference is negligible for the relative comfort of a  tourist bus. The tour companies up and down the main street offer widely ranging prices for the same service and we found that it was easiest and cheapest to go directly to the bus company and book our seats for two days’ time. The tourist buses are also timed with the return of the boats from Isla del Sol so it is all very easy.

Admin done, we had a bit of time to explore town. It doesn’t take long, Copacabana is pretty tiny and very tourist focussed. That being said there is a certain charm to the town and it was a nice place to pass a couple of days.

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Standing proud in the centre of town is Copacabana Cathedral. A church ridiculously large for the size of the town that it serves. It’s really rather lovely with beautiful Moorish tiling and a large paved courtyard.

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Everyone but everyone raves about the trout in Copacabana, the lake is chock full of the fish and every single restaurant offers at least one trout dish. We went for the local option, dining in one of the huts on the lakeshore.

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We went with the typical preparation, a la plancha.

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The trout was tasty, not the near religious experience that we had been expecting from the rave reviews that it had received, but it was an enjoyable and very cheap dinner.

The next morning, we strolled down to the shore, secured two return tickets for the boat to Isla Del Sol and settled ourselves in for the 2 hour journey. Before we set off, a man with a tiny guitar and no shoes boarded the boat and we both sighed inwardly, the usually spiel about using his “art” to pay for his travels was followed by some truly painful singing. Particularly appalling was a song of his own authorship about recycling, for which he accompanied himself with a kazoo made out of a water bottle. For the benefit of us non-Spanish speakers he would stop every couple of lines to translate. It was teeth-grindingly awkward and the only saving grace was that he buggered off before we left the dock.

It takes the full two hours to reach Isla del Sol; the island is practically swimming distance away but the boats chug along at a glacial pace.

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We disembarked at the port on the South side of the island. You used to be able to go all the way to the North and walk the length but disagreements between different villages resulted in two thirds of the island being shut to visitors. This is a real shame as it looked beautiful but there are certainly views to appreciate on the South side. First and foremost are the Incan steps that lead steeply up the hill from the beach.

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There are no roads on Isla del Sol and therefore no cars, so for the many tourists who chose to spend a couple of days this means a long steep sweaty climb with backpacks, regardless of how fancy your hotel is. The locals have found an ideal alternative to cars in donkeys which are about as ubiquitous as people, much to Caro’s delight.

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In the immediate vicinity of the steps, every single building is either a restaurant, a hotel or both and there was a constant stream of people up and down. By venturing over to the far side of the island and walking almost to the edge of the allowed area we were able to get some space to ourselves and enjoy the views out over the lake.

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Caro’s insistence that she was never, ever, walking above 4000 metres again was short-lived as it turns out that the peak of Isla del Sol is in fact over 4000 metres but at least this time it didn’t take us 3 days to get there.

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The German couple were up there too.

We definitely preferred Copacabana to Puno, although we agree that this preference is probably somewhat informed by the fact that we were starting to feel better, on our last morning in Copacabana we would go so far as to say that we felt normal again. That aside, the whole place is just slightly more appealing and the key attraction, Isla del Sol, whilst still enormously touristy, has been managed far better than the reed islands in Puno. Hundreds of people pile onto Isla Del Sol everyday but it was still possible to escape and find something close to an authentic experience. Overall, we could have given the whole Titicaca experience a miss. We can say that we have been now, and it is a cool claim to fame, the world’s highest navigable lake, but it’s just a lake, and a very touristy one at that, but beautiful. For our money, there are better things to do with your time if you are short of it.

 

 

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