We didn't stay long in Lima. The next morning, we flew to Juliaca, which is a small and poor town not far from Puno, where our hotel was. The terrain was very dry and brown, since this was late September and the end of their dry winter season. The first sight of the huge Titicaca Lake was breathtaking, though, with the contrast of clear blue water against brown hills.
We were greeted with coca tea in teabag or leaf form. This is a common aid for counteracting altitude sickness. Everyone was eager to try it because no one wanted to miss out on anything because of feeling bad. Nevertheless, even with some prescription medicine for wimps like me, most everyone could feel some effects of the 12,500 foot altitude. Some did indeed get quite sick from it. Even stalwart Larry admitted to some lightheadedness and uneasiness. We rested that afternoon and took it easy and drank more tea. Our hotel was simple but quite adequate and the staff were very pleasant, helpful and conginial. We found this to be the case everywhere we stayed. The hotels were much better construction than surrounding buildings and the staff were always dressed in coats and ties. Peru has recognized the economic advantage of tourism.
Bright and early at 6:30 the next morning, we boarded a bus to the lake where we set out for the Uros Islands.
These are man-made floating islands made entirely of the totora reeds which grow in the lake. We were told that when the water level rises, clumps of the roots break loose and float. These clumps are then cut into blocks and tied together. Then dry reeds are laid over the top to create an island that can be anchored at a suitable location. Some of the approximately twenty islands are large; others are small. Lake Titicaca covers 3,200 square miles (reaching 50 miles wide by 120 miles long) and lies partly in Bolivia as well as Peru. The floating islands are found only in the Puno Bay area. Their houses and fishing boats are also made of the reeds, much as they have been since Inca times. I was invited inside one of their houses, which is primarily for sleeping since the weather allows for most activity outdoors. One concession to modern times is the use of solar panels and the advent of the TV set. Selling handcrafts to tourists is a way to maintain their traditional way of life.
I loved their intricately made boats and leaped at the opportunity to travel to another one of the islands in the reed boat. Boating was actually smoother than walking on the spongy reed islands. This was indeed a unique island visit!
From the Uros, we traveled on to another much larger, natural island an hour farther into the lake. Taquile Island is famous for its hand made textiles. 85 percent of the population belongs to a co-op that sells goods in the central square. Independent merchants set up shop on the side of the path that leads to the top of the hill where we ate lunch. The boat left us on one side of the island and picked us up on the other side. Some people (wisely) stayed on the boat. The rest of us trekked up the hill, some more slowly than others! The only thing that kept me going was the fact that turning back was useless since the boat had moved to the other side. One member of our group had a GPS altimeter which read 13,000 at the peak. No wonder I was out of breath!
It's downright humorous to see the tourists huffing and puffing while the locals walk barefoot over the stones or work their terraced fields in the highlands of Peru. Acclimation is amazing.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. The Yaravi Ship Museum allows you to see the iron ship that was built in Great Britain in the 1860's and transported over the Andes mountains from the Pacific coast in 2,766 pieces. It took six years to transport it to the lake and another couple years to put it together. It was the first steam powered ship on the lake and its current owners hope to have it navigating once again. Perhaps you will be able to sail on the Yaravi, one of the world's oldest ships, if you visit Lake Titicaca in the future.