Featured writer: Emma Makepeace – http://emmamakepeace.com/
Peru’s most famous tourist attraction is undoubtedly Machu Picchu and with every reason. It’s stunning. But before I made it to Cuzco for my trek along the Inca Trail, I flew into Juliaca landing at 3826m above sea level. Apparently anything above 2000m and you should acclimatize yourself by moving up in 500m increments to allow your body to adjust. I didn’t have time for that. I had two weeks to cover as much ground as I could and Lake Titicaca was where I planned on beginning my Peruvian adventure. Collecting my pack and with the assistance of my Spanish-speaking America friend, Blake (we’d met at the Baggage claim), I boarded a bus to take me the remaining 45km to Puno sitting a few metres higher at 3830m elevation.
It took fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes before my stomach started knotting up in pain. Fifteen minutes before my throat began to involuntarily gag. My ears wouldn’t pop and my conversational skills began to dwindle as altitude sickness set in. Blake continued talking away providing me with something to focus on and a distraction as I struggled to maintain my end of the conversation with my new friend. I was incredibly glad for the distraction too.
We arrived at Puno, a small port town on the eastern side of Lake Titicaca. A few natural altitude sickness tablets supplied by Blake (I’d left mine in the first aid kit of my mum’s pack as we had flown to Lima together then gone our separate ways) and we set off to enjoy some local Peruvian food in a very early dinner. Chicken with Cocoa leaves, some more chatting about Peruvian things to see and do and by 8pm I was out cold, as the early morning flights and nausea finally overwhelmed me.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. At 17okm in length and 60km in width it’s a decent sized swimming hole, although at a fresh less than 15 degrees C all year round, it’s far more fun cruising around on the azure blue waters island hopping. My first island stop – Islas Flotantes. These floating islands were originally created by the Uros people. They cut totora (dry water) reeds and layer them on top of each other until they create a floating mass, big enough to live on. They cook, farm and live on these islands and somehow even managed to have a telephone connected. The locals keen to sell their handicrafts or make a few bucks out of photos, made me realise how much of an intrusion our visits were. While it provides work through a market to sell their wares to, I couldn’t help but resent the impact tourism had made on their lives, when the tiny row of colourful woman sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in the Aymara language that was now native to the islands, as they waved us goodbye.
Isla Amantani was the resting spot for the night. But before there would be any resting, each person from the group was introduced to their host family and whisked away for a home cooked lunch and to drop our belongings at the little guest room in the family’s farm house. The fresh air on the lake had been helping somewhat in calming my squeamish stomach or maybe I was adjusting to the whole altitude thing a lot quicker. Wrong. An afternoon hike up Isla Amantani’s highest hillside, Pachamama and Pachatata (Mother and Father Earth) to watch the sun set, brought all of my horribly delirious altitude sickness symptoms rushing back. At a little over 4000m above sea level, I was ready to sacrifice my self to the sun gods on who’s lake I now sat wallowing in nauseated self-pity. I smiled (not sure you could actually call what I was doing smiling) for the obligatory sun set photos, before putting all faith and trust in my boots to get me safely back down the hillside.
Dinner and a quick wash in a warm bucket of water with a wash cloth and it was time to get dressed up in our hosts finest traditional ensembles to head off to the village dance. All the guests together in our borrowed brightly coloured skirts, ponchos and beanies danced the night away with the locals to the upbeat tempos of panpipes, flutes and hand drums played by the band. I’d felt torn by the idea of this all being a show. But seeing the locals laughing (with us and only occasionally at us), dancing and having a good time interacting with us, their paying guests, made me reconsider. Maybe it was a show, but maybe they really enjoyed sharing their lives and culture with others. Not all the inhabitants on the island had to house visitors. But the whole island had to agree to tourists entering and staying with the locals. It was a voted matter and one they accepted, as it allowed a cross-cultural exchange of language, beliefs and social and historical contexts. The small number of families living on the island (approximately 1000 people) were able to benefit from learning about the rest of the world, provide an income to support their small farms and to provide their community with opportunities to grow and prosper (e.g. they’d built a school and community hall utilising tourist money, that was used on a daily basis for all sorts of community activities). With panpipes, island lifestyle and thoughts of throwing up dancing through my head, I once again slipped easily into an exhausted sleep.
My last day on the lake and I woke early. The sun rose quickly above the deep blue water and after a warm porridge and tea breakfast, good byes were said to the family and I joined the rest of the group on the boat to Isla Taquile. Site seeing, a bit of handicraft shopping, plenty of photos and a 500 step climb from the dock to the boat and back and my adventure on Lake Titicaca was coming to an end. All to soon the boat was heading back to Puno. And all to soon altitude sickness and gorgeous blue waters drifted through my dreams as I passed out in the hotel in Puno, as soon as I’d walked through the door.