P and I landed safely in Puno, Peru after one of the most beautiful and frightening flights I’ve ever taken. Beautiful because we flew over some gorgeous mountains. Frightening because while beautiful, those mountains caused our plane to experience quite the turbulence. (I’m sure on a relative scale it was actually extremely mild…but I have my own system of determining the intensity of turbulence known as fear.) Anyhow, because Puno is about 3,800 meters (12,500ft) above sea level, I was experiencing some mild symptoms related to the altitude upon landing. I was feeling out of breath and light headed but was okay in all other respects.
We enjoyed scenic views of the world famous Lake Titicaca as we descended into Puno proper and headed for our hostel. We had an absolutely lovely chat with our cab driver who, it turns out, is also a teacher during the school year. It would appear that wherever I go, I somehow find other teachers. Once at our hostel, they provided us with free cocoa leaves to chew on in order to prevent some of the nastier side effects of altitude sickness.
After picking green leaves out of our teeth, P and I wasted no time and headed out to one of our most anticipated sites while in Peru: the funerary towers at Sillustani. These towers or chullpas, built upon the hilltops next to Lago Umayo, can be as tall as 12 meters. The chullpas contain the bones of entire families in addition to food and personal belongings that would help aid the family on their journey into the next world. And they were stunning.
Despite the gentle inclines of these rolling hilltops I was entirely out of breath and struggling to find energy as we walked around Sillustani. My cocoa leaves were not doing the trick, it seemed. Despite how I was feeling, this day was simply perfect! We followed our visit at Sillustani with a dinner at a beautiful restaurant and afterward we went back to our hostel and enjoyed a cup of tea with cocoa leaves while watching The Big Bang Theory from our bed. Just an FYI: there is one English station that we could find in both Peru and Bogota, Columbia that faithfully aired The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men – at all times of the day. You know, in case you’re ever stuck watching television from your hotel when you’re in a country you didn’t have plans to visit and it’s not safe for you to go outside…but more on that later!
Visiting Lake Titicaca felt in some ways culturally voyeuristic and immoral to me, but on the other hand, we went with a company that had a respectful, sustainable and dialogical ethos in relationship to the Uros (or, the Uro-Aymaras) who populate the floating islands. I believe that P and I do our best to travel as ecotourists where we can (and where we can afford to do so) and we also do our best to understand how our travels affect the people in the communities we visit. Based on our research, the people who live on the floating islands have a mutually beneficial relationship with the tourists who visit them and the travel companies who work with them.
When we arrived on the first floating island we were given a wonderful presentation of how the islands were constructed. The women performed a traditional song and dance and they gave us totora reeds that we could taste (I ate my entire reed and also P’s…it was very tasty). According to the locals, Peruvians living on the floating islands need not brush their teeth because their diet of reeds provides them with enough calcium to keep their teeth extremely healthy and clean. As a self-proclaimed floss addict I’m not sure I could ever live on a floating island. Afterwards we were allowed to tour the island freely and enter into different huts and we had the option of riding one of the boats made from reeds.
Afterwards, we traveled to the Island of Taquile. In order to make it to our lunch destination we needed to climb approximately 500 steps to the islands peak. An easy feat at altitudes we were used to, certainly, but, at our new altitude well above sea level, this hike was a challenge. At lunch, we ate on the rooftop of our restaurant while listening to a local artist perform music on both a charango and panpipe (at the same time!). Our typically chatty group sat quietly soaking our surroundings and our good fortune: we were eating delicious food, experiencing gorgeous weather and listening beautiful music. Could it get any better?
We also learned a bit about the people of Taquile: at just over 2,000 residents, Taquile is a very tight knit community (pun intended: they are known for their hand woven textiles). We learned that they have monthly meetings where they collectively deal with any issues that crop up. They each share business from tourists on a special rotational calendar and all products and food are shared communally. They are completely faithful in marriage – “you won’t find any infidelity on this island” – and they indicate their marital status with hats and belts rather than diamonds and gold. This last part isn’t my cuppa tea but I like the extreme sense of community, care and trust that exists on this island. We were fortunate enough to learn the island code spoken in their native tongue of Quechua: ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla . I’ll let you look that one up.
On our way down the other side of the island, we saw breathtaking views of Lake Titicaca, and what we thought were clouds in the distance turned out to be the tops of a mountain range in Bolivia. Just when we thought our hands and fingers couldn’t swell any more we had reached the bottom of the island. On the boat ride back I made friends with a lovely woman from Britain who was visiting South America with her mom. We talked a lot about the Olympics, life in London, England and our respective travels around the world. Admittedly, I have fewer stories than I might like, but I listen eagerly to the travel stories of others in the hope that one day I’ll have more to share.
This evening we returned to the same restaurant that we ate at the previous night because we simply couldn’t find any others that were close by or open. And it was just too darn good. I finally had ceviche and P had steak and quinoa, but little did we know that our trouble started here. As we readied for bed I noticed a knot in my stomach but I chalked it up to excitement for our bus tour through the Sacred Valley of the Incas the next morning.
How wrong I was.