It is a one hour flight from Cusco to Juliaca, followed by a 40 minute bus ride to Puno, where our hotel sits on the edge of the highest navigable lake in the world. However 4 days of incessant rain in Juliaca had turned their runways into the largest mud wrestling ring south of Texas. All flights in were cancelled. For the first time in memory, I did not verify on time departure schedule and we went to the airport after our goodbyes at the guesthouse totally unprepared for any delays. The woman at the check in counter suggested that we hop the next bus to Puno and that the total trip would take about 5 horas.
Off to the bus station and we purchased tickets for the next ride to Puno (leaving on runway number 9). The first available departure would be in an hour and a half. OK, so instead of 1 hour and 40 minutes total, adding the waiting time to the bus ETA, we were now looking at 6 ½ hours.
The bus itself was a double decker and we opted for the lower floor because of the additional leg room. Six and a half hours into the trip we were nowhere near Puno. It was dark and the skies opened up. At 7 ½ hours we reached what we thought was Puno. Turned out to be Jualica, where our flight was supposed to arrive. Driving down the main streets, vehicles were producing wakes large enough to water ski behind. It was clear to see why all flights had been canned. All the bus passengers alit at Juliaca save the two of us and one other local woman. As we settled in for what was to be the last leg of the journey, one of the two bus staff signaled for us to get off the bus. I was able to deduce that since there were only 3 passengers on the bus, the intent was to bundle us onto another bus leaving from the same terminal replete with passengers heading for Puno. Our knapsacks had already been transferred and the bus was waiting for us.
In actuality, the knapsacks had been transferred but the bus was not waiting for us. We stood in the rain as the second bus departed for Puno with our luggage on board but not us. One of the two employees tried to whistle and run down the bus to no avail. We weren’t happy. The other employee, who looked like a well tanned but not nearly as intelligent version of Chico Marx, stood in the rain, anticipating flagging down a cab at 10:30 in the rain on New Years Eve. I lost it – big time. There are benefits to rage. If your child is pinned under a car, you find it within to lift 3500 pounds of metal. In this instance, I found it within myself to start swearing in Spanish. I insisted that they got us back on the original bus and take us to Puno. I would figure out the luggage part later. Driving in the torrential rain, I tried to contact the 24 hour emergency number for our travel agent. The number in Puno took 4 tries but eventually I got through. Our saviour confessed to speaking “a leetle Inglesh”; not hugely comforting. As I tried to explain the bus-luggage situation, miraculously someone had contacted the driver of the other bus, who kindly pulled over for 10 minutes and allowed us to board, which I did after visually assuring myself that the knapsacks were there. One more volley of “!tu es una mas stupido y idiota!” and we were off to Puno. Total time of journey from arrival at Cusco bus terminal – 10 ½ hours. We were greeted at the station by our intrepid unilingual emergency contact and his English speaking son who had a manageable to understand speech impediment.
New Years Eve arrived as we had dinner. The entire town of Puno set off fireworks and we were treated to an incredible pyrotechnic display. One of the best things about visiting this place is that you can join the mile high club (actually, the 2 ½ mile high club) without leaving the comfort of your hotel room. New Year’s Day started off at 6:15 after a wonderful 4 ½ hour sleep.
January 1st. We were taken to the wharf and boarded a small vessel that was to be our method of transport to our two stops on Titicaca. The first was the floating islands of Uros. Inhabited since the 1500’s, Uros was created by the Incans who had little inclination to be either murdered or enslaved by the Spanish. They fled the shoreline, built islands out of reeds and hid out in the middle of the lake. Five centuries of fishing have now given way to acting like monkeys for the tourists and selling their handicrafts to boatfulls of tourists such as ourselves, who make pitstops on a regular basis. Electricity is derived from solar panels and is used to power TV and the internet. I assume that microwave ovens and hair dryers will be the next major uses. In actuality, they, along with virtually every Peruvian we have met to date, have been gracious, kind and apparently genuine.
It was a three hour tour. I played Thurston, Lori – Mary Ann – she wanted to be Ginger but I wouldn’t let her. Taquille is situated in the middle of this enormous lake. The lake is divided 2/3 – 1/3 between Peru and Bolivia. It is the 11th largest in the world and is 275 meters deep, so don’t drop your watch overboard. According to Jacques Cousteau, the lake resembles a puma chasing a rabbit. While the forms he referenced can be made out with a serious squint, he was obviously a better undersea explorer than Rorschach Test analyzer. Back to Taquile.
Inhabited by 2,500 people, their hierarchy is most unusual. The women spin yarn (literally) and the men knit. Mostly hats. The hats indicate matrimonial status. Burgundy means married, burgundy and white means single. Burgundy and white with the white folded over on top means engaged. One Taquillian who sashayed a bit when he walked wore a hat with mauve, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red stripes. I dunno.
As seems to be our custom on this trip, despite prognostication of evil weather, the sun shone through a great deal of the time. At 14,000 feet some pretty unusual visual effects can occur. The altitude creates ice microcrystals which are suspended in the atmosphere. The result of zillions of prisms in the atmosphere is a permanent rainbow, like an aura around the piercingly bright sunshine.
In addition, our timing of a New Year’s Day arrival produced unanticipated benefits. The locals were dressed up in their finery
and our arrival at the summit ( I have now taken to humming Marley’s One More Mountain to Climb on a regular basis) coincided with the commencement of a musical religious service held in the town square. The event was not on our agenda. I’m doubtful that the tour guide had any idea that it was going to happen. I heard haunting music coming from the inside of the tiny church and was drawn, in an almost mystical fashion, inside. There were a few men in traditional garb playing an assortment of string instruments and an electric piano. A dozen or so men were seated in the first few pews. The same number of women, clad in black nun-like habits that revealed bright colourful skirts in tones of greens, yellows and reds that were visually piercing in terms of vibrancy, sat on the floor in front of the musicians. The musicians played and the two groups sang in a responsive fashion – men first, women replying. Back and forth, back and forth in Quechuan, the ancient language of the Incas. The music left me spellbound, the chorale moved both Lori and I to tears.
I don’t think that with the occasional exception provided by the Shaar’s choir and Gideon that I have ever experienced anything as stirring in a religious setting. At the conclusion of the chorale, two of the men circulated amongst the singers and musicians, reaching into a multi hued wool satchel that they all had attached to their embroidered belts and pulling a small handful of coca leaves out, handing them to all of the participants in the service. It was like a communion that actually meant something. I requested and received a few, too. It was important to me to be able to share in this experience. To call the moment magical would be to undersell it.
Emotionally satisfied and spiritually uplifted, it was time to attend to more corporeal needs. Lunch was served at a small restaurant access to which required a traversal of the island. One more mountain to climb. Lunch ended. 585 stone stares laterwe are at the dock reboarding our vessel. A nice siesta punctuated by the usual traveler banter amongst ourselves and our shipmates and before long, actually after long, we were back at the port in Puno just in time to greet the rain. A full day of experiential amazement behind us, we headed back to the hotel marveling once again at our good fortune.
|View of the lake from our room|
Dedicated to Audrey – Ci mancherai caro