Category: Lake Titicaca, Perú


Taquile tradition

One of Taquile's two points of entry

One of Taquile’s two points of entry

As the boat approaches Taquile Island, the mountains of Bolivia rise out of the distant lake horizon, a reminder that the coast road can deliver us to La Paz in under four hours.

Barely a mile wide and three miles long, Taquile is home to little more than a couple thousand people.

Everything from the color and position of the tassel and threads in the sash has a meaning.

Everything from the color and position of the tassel and threads in the sash has a meaning.

 

This is one of the last places taken by the Spaniards during their Conquest of the New World.

When its lands were granted to Count Rodrigo of Taquile, a Catalán Spaniard, the islanders adopted Catalán dress that they wear to this day.

Visitors have been coming here since the 1970’s, but outsider access is controlled a collective of the islanders.  Two piers at opposite sides of the island are connected by stone staircases to the central plaza and village.

Local wearing a Catalán barretina

Local wearing a Catalán barretina

A villager in a Catalán barretina passes through the hilltop gates just as I begin my climb.

If walking on the reeds of the Uros Islands feels like floating on a raft at the top of the world, then Taquile feels like climbing the ridgepole of the celestial tent.

View across the island to Lake TIticaca.

View across the island to Lake TIticaca.

The thin air – we’re still well above 13,000 feet – makes for breathless stops along the way, but the view from the top is worth it.

The lake is an endless reflection of the most startlingly blue sky I’ve ever seen.  Clouds that have always towered far above me seem here to be within arm’s reach, and they’re blindingly brilliant in the unfiltered sunlight.

Woman in Catalán garb herds her sheep

Woman in Catalán garb herds her sheep

 

Even though I’ve been tiped off  about local dress, it’s still a bit of a cultural disconnect to see centuries-old Catalán clothing on the backs of indigenous people halfway around the world five centuries after they were first in fashion.

A woman driving her sheep looks like a snapshot from the foothills of the Pyrenees.

 

 

 

A brass band announces the ceremony

A brass band announces the ceremony

 

 

 

Fortune has smiled on this day, for there’s a harvest celebration just beginning on the plaza.

A brass band plays at the foot of a flagpole.

 

 

 

 

Bystanders look on from staircases and doorways, most of the men wearing signature Catalan sashes.

Local residents ring the plaza for a view of the pageantry

Local residents ring the plaza for a view of the pageantry

 

Two boys watch from a staircase vantage point

Two boys watch from a staircase vantage point

Here, as among the Uros, the colored tassels on caps or  women’s pigtails all have significance  depending upon their color and the side of the face on which they are worn.

A mix of Catalán and native dress is often evident

A mix of Catalán and native dress is often evident

It’s probably no accident that the Taquileños use their dress as a sort of language and an important part of ceremony.

The islanders are known for the quality of their hand-woven fabrics and clothing.  Knitted fabrics are produced only by men and woven fabrics and yarns produced only by women.

Smoldering incense fills the air

Smoldering incense fills the air

 

At the center of the plaza kneel men and women in native dress, cloth bundles on the stones before them filled with  dried blossoms and herbs and barks.

 

Like a shaman, one of the figures lights fragrant wood splints and their smoke drifts upward as their scent settles into the crowd.

A masked devil is poised to rope

A masked devil is poised to rope

Only a few feet away, a masked figure bearing a rope advances on a pair of cattle.

The cattle are readied for their part in the procession

The cattle are readied for their part in the procession

 

The design of this plowshare has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years

Traditional wooden plowshare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image of paired cattle is a motif appears widely in Peru as clay miniatures that are perched on rooftops for good luck, fertility, and prosperity.

 

The design of this plowshare has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years

 

Identically dressed women join the procession

Identically dressed women join the procession

The ceremony escalates into processions which circle the plaza, each with its own impeccably costumed players, costumes, and props.

 

Just as elsewhere in Latin America, the Catholic presence undeniably threaded through the proceedings is mixed with a strong dose of local tradition and dress.

 

At times the Christian connection seems to fade into invisibility.

 

 

In the final circuit of the plaza, somber women dressed identically in bright red and black move in a double line.

A spectacular finale

A moving finale

 

Altar boys carry the wreathed image of paired bulls.

Altar boys carry the wreathed image of paired bulls.

At the head of the procession a wreathed image of paired bulls is hand carried by altar boys.

 

As I reflect on the visit during the descent to the boat dock, the Taquile experience seems hard to top, but Lima – and yet a whole other flavor of Peru – is still ahead.  Read on.

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Untouched Uros

Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Part of Ollantaytambo’s appeal is that Inca descendants living in the shadow of monumental Inca architecture bring the visitor one step closer to the feel of these ruins when they were still occupied by their builders.

 

On Lake Titicaca, two indigenous cultures are alive and well in their ancestral environments, unchanged in centuries and accessible to the curious.

 

There are too few opportunities to experience such “living legacy” cultures, and with the cultural integrity of  many indigenous communities  threatened by the impact of Western civilization, many such opportunities are fading all too fast.

Uros Island village

Uros Island village

The first of the two cultures is the Uro people, after whom the floating Uros Islands are named.

The Uros moved into the lake for the same reason that ancient Venetians first settled in a swampy lagoon:  They were more defensible.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

 

Their islands sit not five miles offshore from the Puno harbor, and the route is via a boat channel that has been cleared through the reed-covered lagoon.

 

The morning sun is still low in the sky and a chill in the air as the boat departs.

 

The islands soon appear as clusters of huts, watchtowers, and catamarans all made of reeds.

 

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

 

 

 

 

 

The men typically are out fishing during the day, but two pass by in a small motorboat as we approach.

Every island seems to have a watchtower

Every island seems to have a watchtower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another man looks out over the water from the vantage point of a watchtower.

 

Walking about on one of these islands is not unlike walking around on a very firm water-bed, and the sensation takes a bit of getting used to.

 

Any qualms that I may have about the safety of this floating bird’s nest, however, are quickly laid to rest by an explanation that uses 3-D miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The foundations of these islands are the root beds of totora reeds which have grown so far from shore that they detach from the lakebed and float along the surface like lily pads.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

 

 

The Uros corral enough of these floating beds to house a group of four or five families, trim them close to their roots, and corral them by lashing them to stakes driven into the lake bed.  Alternating layers of cut reeds are laid atop the floating root system, and structures are then built upon it.

The Uros value the totora reed not only for construction, but also as an essential part of diet and medicine.  The iodine-rich, white bottom of the reed is chewed or brewed – as with coca leaves – for relief from climate, hunger, and hangover. It also is wrapped around wounds to relieve pain.

Because the reeds are continuously decaying, the islanders have to re-create new island homes – as well as replace their catamarans – every few years.

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

 

 

 

 

There is no electricity here except for solar panels which now power electric lights and radios, and which have reduced the risk of fire.  Traditional cooking stoves, however, still remain a fire risk.

 

 

 

 

The lake is not only the islanders’ home, but their highway.  A grocery boat – a sort of floating convenience store – makes a stop at the island on its appointed rounds.

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The school "bus" arrives.

The school “bus” arrives.

 

 

 

 

A school boat drops by to take one of the island’s children to class.

On Sundays, worshipers travel by boat not only to the Catholic church, but also to services for the Seventh Day Adventists, who have been gaining acceptance in this part of Peru.

 

Uro women

Uro women

 

 

 

 

The Uro population now numbers only a few thousand, but the greatest threat to their way of life may not be their numbers, but negative environmental impact.

Introduction of non-native fish has driven species long fished by the Uros into endangerment or to extinction.

Uro woman with child

Uro woman with child

 

 

 

 

Global warming is shrinking Andes ice caps and altering mountain runoff.  A thinning ozone layer reduces the scant sun protection afforded by thin air and cloudless skies; it’s no surprise that skin cancer is epidemic here.

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

 

These threats have compelled the Uros to turn increasingly to tourism in order to preserve their distinctive settlements and culture.

There are no admission fees to these islands, so visitors’ purchase of handicrafts fashioned by Uro women are the only way that the families benefit from tourism.  Be forewarned that the Uros will adamantly refuse anything resembling a handout.

The launch awaits at a nearby floating island which serves as a sort of marina, affording the opportunity to make the trip there on one of the reed  catamarans, rowed – traditionally – by the women.  As we part at the end of the crossing, I grasp their hands in thanks.  They are small as a child’s, the skin a rich, warm brown.  Their palms and fingers are as dry and calloused as a farmhand’s.  They smile and nods as if the ferry ride was all in a day’s work.

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

It’s been an unforgettable experience, but the day is only half over.

From here the route continues further into the lake to Taquile, where yet another distinctive culture has evolved in island isolation.  It promises to be a great afternoon.  Click here to come along!

 

 

Andes by rail

Andes Explorer passenger car

Andes Explorer passenger car

Train travel affords an opportunity to see a side of the landscape not to be otherwise seen, and by that measure Peru Rail’s Andean Express is over the top.

The train covers the 240 miles between Cusco and Puno – the jump-off point for Lake Titicaca – at a leisurely pace which allows passengers plenty of time to soak up the scenery.

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

The train pulls out of the Cusco station at 8AM, and as it passes through the city, locals are eating breakfast under the canopies of sidewalk kitchens or making their way to work.

Children and adults alike wave at the train as it passes, evoking a childhood memory.

It’s no surprise that the Andean Explorer has been named one of the world’s Top 25 Trains.

It  serves up the day-long trip with a level of comfort and service that recalls the golden age of train travel.

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Armchairs and white tablecloths lend the feel of a drawing room to the passenger cars , and uniformed stewards seem ever-present.

Cocktails and high tea are served in a club car tacked onto the end of the train, but it’s the view from the car’s open-air gallery that’s truly intoxicating.

For those who are so inclined, a Happy Hour and made-in-Peru fashion show help to break up the trip.

 

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

The outskirts of Cusco dissolve into small villages where all manner of enterprises have been drawn to the rails.

In some places the tracks pass through the dowdy underside of towns and in others run alongside their main streets.

Wives work side by side with their husbands in every type of endeavor from tending fields to brick making.

The train passes through the Rio Urubamba canyon and continues climbing away from the river’s headwaters.

Behind us, mountains loom over river and villages tucked into lush, terraced valleys, and pare the sky into slivers.  Ahead of us, the landscape unfolds into a vast, arid altiplano – high plain – framed by mountains that ring the horizon as if propping up the endless sky.

Church at La Raya, Peru

Church at La Raya, Peru

 

 

Near the halfway point, the train begins to brake in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

 

A small church appears as we pull to a stop in front of a bazaar that stretches alongside the track for nearly the length of the train.

 

 

 

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

This is La Raya, and at more than 14,000 feet above sea level it’s the highest point on the route, and  the divide beyond which water no longer flows toward the Urubamba and Amazon, but instead toward the Pacific Ocean.  To the north are mostly Quechua-speaking peoples and to the south – and into Bolivia – the native tongue is Aymara.

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

 

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

As I step off the train and begin wandering among the artisans, Cusco’s 11,000 foot altitude suddenly feels like child’s play.

 

 

The stopover is brief, and it’s a bit like watching a speed-dating event as everyone tries to strike a deal.

 

 

The quality and variety of the work – mostly textiles – is good, and since only one train passes through each day, the vendors are highly motivated.

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

 

 

 

 

Beyond La Raya, the route passes through agricultural villages separated by grazing animals and the stubble of recently harvested fields.  Couples labor together on their land.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxis wait at crossings for the train to pass.

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

 

A bicyclist paces the train for a while before falling behind.

 

 

About an hour before its arrival, the train passes through Juliaca, home of the airport nearest to Lake Titicaca.  It’s about 10 blocks to the harbor from the Puno train station, and the hotel zone and central plaza are even closer.

Tomorrow begins with a boat trip to the floating Uros Islands.  Click here to come along!

 

Tip:  The view from seats on the west side of the train is significantly more interesting, particularly on the segment through the Urubamba canyon.

Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Machu Picchu is the first image which comes to mind at the mention of the word Perú, but any visitor who limits a tour of this incredibly diverse country to the iconic ruin will only scratch its surface.

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

In fact, the real dilemma in planning a tour of Perú is not what to leave in, but what to leave out.

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

Archeological sites in the Incas’ Sacred Valley which tell which the story of the Incas’ rise and fall are a tour essential, but a visitor could easily spend a month elsewhere without retracing any steps.

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Peru is large enough to stretch from the U.S.\Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Terrain ranging from Pacific beaches to mountain peaks and rain forests has spawned dozens of micro-climates that produce a staggering and often unique array of plant and animal life.

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Pre-Incan ruins sit side by side with west coast beaches on the northern Pacific coast. the NAZCA lines score the surface of the arid south, and dugouts ply the jungle headwaters of the Amazon

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

The Quechua language spoken by the descendants of the Inca is only one of a dozen languages spoken by nearly 100 indigenous tribes and clans, each with their own distinctive dress and customs.

 

 

 

This trip is planned for two weeks, so the itinerary narrows down to these destinations:

  • The Incas’ Sacred Valley, from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
  • Lake Titicaca, arriving via stunning views from the Andean Explorer train, with service that hearkens back to the golden days of rail travel.
  • Perú’s oceanfront capital Lima, brimming both with Spanish colonial charm and glittering high rises towering above gardens, promenades, and world-class restaurants.

The trip begins here!

 

Some tips on travel to Perú:

  • Security is outstanding.  The streets feel safe and police are rarely out of eyesight wherever tourists most often gather.
  • Wireless is widely available in cafes, restaurants, and hotels in areas most frequented by tourists.
  • Electricity is 220 volts, so an adapter for 110 volt appliances is a must unless you intend to turn them into a toasters.  Consider whether you’ll also need a 3-to-2 prong outlet adapter; most electrical outlets are ungrounded (2-prong).
  • Take altitude very seriously unless you want to spend a day of your vacation in a clinic.  Thin, dry mountain air means less oxygen, faster dehydration, and less protection from the sun.  Make the going easier with a hat, long-sleeved shirts, sun block and sunglasses, lip balm and skin moisturizer and water, water, water.  Consider also taking along an altitude medication such as Diamox.  The coca leaves and tea which are widely available in hotels reflect the centuries-old practice and learning of Andean peoples, and they know what they’re talking about.
  • Not every site is ADA compliant. Visitors with mobility issues can have a fulfilling experience, but many of the archeological and many cultural sites require a good walk or climb to be fully appreciated.
  • Use of shared transportation or a taxi for ground travel anywhere in Peru is highly recommended;  traffic both in the city and in the countryside is an organized chaos, the rules of which defy comprehension by the uninitiated.
  • And, of course, take your camera; the stunning landscape and picturesque people make it practically impossible to take a bad photo.