Up, up, and away

Reed boats in the Uros

Reed boats in the Uros

Cuzco is *&”£ing freezing at this time of year. Puno is !?*$ing freezinger. And the night I spent on the island of Amantaní in Lake Titicaca was possibly the ***%%$!!”ing freezingest night of my life. This has really helped to put the winter in Lima in perspective. As my colleagues shivered and snivelled this week in school, bundled up in coats and scarves, I ran gaily about in my cardigan feeling fine in the 14 – 17° weather. Although even I have to admit that however mild that sounds for the middle of winter, the humidity does make it feel colder, and the neverending cloud cover makes for a gloomy, relentless few months, as described by the Associated Press in this article on Lima’s coldest winter in 30 years.

Anyhow, back to Puno which, after a nightmare bus journey in which one of our party was almost left behind in a lengthy, unnecessary and aggravating pit-stop by the avenging bus driver, was much more pleasant than I had anticipated. The hotel had heaters in the rooms, an almost unheard-of luxury, and free tea and coffee. Unfortunately, the reasons I had booked this hotel – an advertised sauna and pool – were undergoing ‘maintenance’ and not in use. I should have seen that coming! We checked in, and went to check out the dining possibilities.

Calle Lima, the main tourist drag in Puno, was abuzz with activity. A range of options, from cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurants on the side streets, to fancy organic-coffee-and-ciabatta restaurant cafés, presented themselves to our journey worn senses. We chose a nice looking place offering traditional Peruvian cuisine – and pizza. By this point, the altitude was starting to make itself felt. At over 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), the couple of days in Arequipa (2500m) had not helped much on the road to acclimatization, and a two-day headache was setting in. So far, altitude is the only thing I have found that can decrease my appetite to the extent that even cakes appear less appetizing. A delicious sopa (soup) and a mate de coca (coca leaf tea) later and I was adequately fed and ready to hunt for a trip to the islands of lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.

The next morning, in the crystal clear, blinding sunlight of the Altiplano we headed off with our guide, Happy Bruno, for the two-day trip. This part of the holiday was the most exciting for me as Puno was the one place on our itinerary I had not visited previously. The trip out to the islands came highly recommended by friends, two of whom had listed it as one of the best experiences they had had in the whole of Peru.

Our first stop was on the fascinating, floating Uros islands; floating islands constructed of reeds and anchored in place with rope and eucalyptus poles. As the very friendly Marie explained (in Quechua, translated by Happy Bruno) the poles are essential to stop them from drifting off into Bolivia as none of the islanders have passports. Of apparently 120 islands, 80 now make their living primarily from tourism, while 40 maintain their traditional way of life and avoid contact with tourists and non-islanders as much as they can.

Uros reed hut with solar power

Uros reed hut with solar power

On the islands we visited, although the way of living is extremely rudimentary, basic electricity is provided by solar panels for each hut. The reed huts are surprisingly well insulated; a necessary quality in a place where there is a twenty degree drop in temperature after sundown and temperatures drop as low as -5°C at night. My big question – how can you cook in a hut made of flammable dried reeds, on an island made of flammable dried reeds, was speedily answered.

Cooking pots on reeds

Cooking pots on reeds

Put a big, flat stone down and do all your cooking on top of that.

After a couple of hours on the islands and on the fabulous ‘Mercedes Benz’ of the Uros, the reed dragon boat (see above), it was time to head off to Amantaní, an isolated, Quechua-speaking island community three hours boat ride from Puno. The islanders share out hosting duties so that the whole community benefits.

Our hostess and I were the same age, which gave us both food for thought. She has lived her life on the island. Like all the people there, she went to school on the island until the mandatory age of 15, but beyond that there was no money to go further afield for further education, so she worked with her family in the community, which is mostly sustained by agriculture. Her parents speak only Quechua, while she, her (much younger) brother and her teenage daughter speak Quechua as a first language and Castellano as a second, which certainly helps with the growing tourist trade!

With Norma and other guests

With Norma and other guests

She had a number of questions for me about whether I had children or wanted them (no, and no – answers which she took with much greater equanimity than the majority of seemingly more worldly Limeños of a comparable age), why I want to live so far away from my family (my parents wonder the same thing), and why I live the way I do. I had similar questions for her, but the answers were all limited by the small range of opportunities available to her. Her two brothers live and work in Lima and make the 22 hour journey back to the island once a year for Christmas. She says they are happy because they have work in Lima, but she didn’t elaborate on what they do. This made me wonder a lot. Amantaní, isolated as it is, has an extremely basic way of life. There is no running water, or sewage facilities, or gas. A number of houses now have solar panels for electricity which power lights in the evening. However, the air is beautifully crisp and clear; everyone seems to have a job and a role in the community, a place to live and enough food to eat. Lima, on the other hand, is overrun with awful traffic, pollution, the six-month fog, crime, dirt, and very long hours for very low pay. With discrimination against people from the provinces common, and given their relatively low level of education, I can’t imagine that living in Lima would be at all rewarding in comparison. But the evidence is against me. I suppose as social animals we are drawn to bright lights and big cities with people and stuff to do. As for me, my answers must have been just as inexplicable – especially as I still haven’t worked out how to say in Spanish, “That’s just the way I roll, baby.”

Amantaní chook (aka 'dinner')

Amantaní chook

Our time on the island was brief, but packed with activity. Interesting conversations in the smoky kitchen over

Sunset from Pachatata

Sunset from Pachatata

meals prepared by Norma in the fireplace, and steaming cups of muña tea – a delicious Andean herb which is from the mint family, but looks like thyme and smells like eucalyptus and menthol. Chickens clucked around the small yard and fields. We took an evening walk to the top of one of the twin peaks of the island: Pachamama (earth mother) and Pachatata (I’m hazarding a guess at earth father). We went to Pachatata and watched the sun set over the peninsula and the distant, snow-capped Bolivian ranges.

After sunset, the temperature drop was dramatic, and all the extra layers of clothing I had brought came out for the night. The stars, as mentioned by our friends, were spectacularly brilliant in this remote location – and four kilometres closer to them than usual! After dinner, the final activity was a huge, whole-town knees-up. For this, guests were offered traditional clothing. For women, the colourful skirts (each community wears a different colour – Norma and all the women of the host families wore hot pink, I had a green skirt from a neighbouring area) heavy, embroidered shirts and headscarves make for a well-insulated outfit, suitable to the climate. Men were just given a poncho. It was interesting to see that the more distinguished men of the community wore their ponchos over full suits. I wore my shirt and skirt over jeans, two jackets and numerous layers of t-shirts. And I certainly warmed up when the music kicked in and the dancing began!

Folkloric dancing on Amantaní

Folkloric dancing on Amantaní

A night sleeping in an amount of clothing and full winter pyjamas under six blankets, on a bed lined with reeds for comfort, was surprisingly comfortable and warm. A fellow guest informed us over breakfast that the temperature had apparently fallen to below zero in Puno overnight (oh the everpresent joys of technology with iPhone) so god knows what the temperature was on the island. However, we survived, a warm, sunny day dawned and we were off for a day hiking across the neighbouring island of Taquile and the long boat ride back to Puno. A fond goodbye to Norma and off we set once more on the tail of Happy Bruno.

Amantaní harbour

Amantaní harbour


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