Thursday, September 24, 2009

Puno & Lake Titicaca

We arrived in Puno on our frigid night bus from Cusco just in time to see (but not appreciate) the sunrise over the smooth surface of the sleeping lake. We took a motorized rickshaw into the center of town, found a hostel through sheer dumb luck, and hit the sack until a more civilized hour (like 9:30-ish).

Puno, located at an impressive 3,850 meters (2.3 miles) above sea level, doesn't have much in the way of entertainment. Its biggest draw is Lake Titicaca (pronounced Tethicalka by the locals). It is the world's highest navigable lake, and the view is stunning if the observer has woken up enough to enjoy it. Puno does serve as an important point of embarkation for many popular excursions, though. The cathedral was worth looking into, but it really only takes about 20 minutes to see the whole thing. If you find that you're spending a day or two in Puno, try to book a home stay on some of the more remote islands of the lake; missing that experience is one of my few real regrets about this trip. I've also heard rave reviews of La Isla del Sol and La Isla de la Luna, but we didn't get to see those either.

Brice and I took a short tour out to Las Islas Flotantes, and spent our day seeing the remnants of the Uros culture up close. The Uros are a pre-Incan civilization who were pushed off of their lands surrounding the Lake and forced to take refuge on the lake itself. To cope, they built islands out of the lake's thick reeds and peat. The islands floated freely for much of their history, but now all 42 are anchored and remain mostly stationary. Any tour company in Puno will sell you a voyage out to the Uros islands, so don't be afraid to haggle or ask them to include transportation to the docks in their fee.

Our excursion began with a bus that took us to the Puno port, thick with lime-green aglae. After a troubadour collected a few coins from us, we began our 30-minute boating trip out to the islands. In fact, I think this troubadour may have been our first and best encounter with the famed Peruvian panpipe flute. He really was the best performer we heard on our trip, even though they all play some variation of the same 2 songs (Guantanamera and Flight of the Condor). Along the way, our guide explained much of the area's history and lore. Traditionally, the people of the Uros islands eat the mallowy core of the lake reeds, fish, and water fowl. They speak a variant of the Aymara language, and - nowadays, at least - tourism is their main industry.

The Uros sustain their islands by constantly drying and adding new layers of totora reeds. Really, the totora is the life-blood of their culture. Without it, they would not have shelter, food, clothing, or transportation. I was amazed by the ingenuity displayed in their many uses for the reeds, even if the examples we saw were geared more towards souvenir shopping than survival. (But really, it's still one-and-the-same for these people; they could not continue to live as they do now without the tourists, but the tourists have warped them into a depressingly superficial facsimile of their former selves. For instance, we were sent away with a somewhat disturbing combination of Twingle Twigle Libble Star and hula dancing, topped off with a round of "hasta la vista baby!") They gave a really interesting demonstration of the peat-cutting and reed stacking process, even allowing us to try a bite of the reeds. It wasn't very flavorful, but I would go so far as to say the textures were quite enjoyable. It was kind of like eating soft sugar cane, minus the sweetness.

Our island hosts took us on a quick trip on one of their traditional reed canoes. They packed about 20 tourists onto that thing; it was actually pretty impressive.

After leaving the lake behind, we returned to Puno and found a decent, albeit impossibly cheap, lunch at the mercado central. The rest of our day passed in a blur, wandering aimlessly in the streets of Puno and wishing we had planned something - anything - interesting to do in the evening. We decided, after about 2 hours of lallygagging, to start making dinner plans. 'Pick the restaurant' was another of those games we could drag out for as long as needed, and we played it often. Since Puno was so much cheaper than Cuzco, we decided to try one of Peru's most iconic (but over-priced) foods: guinea pig, or cuy.

Cuy al horno (whole roast guinea pig) is traditionally served at feasts and carnivals, but the more remote villagers still cultivate them as a major dietary staple since they're both relatively simple maintain and a very cost-efficient protein source. We hoped to try cuy al horno in a small restaurant we found in our wandering, but after a very long wait it finally became clear that they didn't have any of the menu items we were interested it so we paid for our drinks and left. We opted to try for a nicer establishment the second time, and we actually had a pretty decent dinner. Brice ordered a pizza, I ordered an Andean nouveau cuisine take on the old classic, and we split the portions between us.

Instead of cuy al horno, I got deep-fried guinea pig legs, the head, and a salad of boiled potatoes. For the record, guinea pig has the texture of turkey and the flavor of limey sea food. If it hadn't been for the crispy skin, there wouldn't have been more than 2 or 3 mouthfuls apiece. As it was, we were hard-pressed to pick out the small bones, especially arond the rib cage. But still, it was definitely a learning experience for us. I mean, you can't go to Peru and not eat the food, right? Right.

The next morning, we were up bright and early for our Odyssey into Bolivia. I'm not going to get into it right now, but let me prepare you for that post with our motto about Bolivia: When it comes to Bolivia, things could be worse; after all, "a woman could cut off your penis while you're asleep and toss it out the window of a moving car" (Fight Club, 1999).


Brice said...

My biggest regret would have been staying overnight on those islands, so I'll let you keep that one.

Also, you forgot the disgusting Sangria. And the schoolgirls. Really, you leave out all the good parts.

Ray Yaegle said...

I left out that huge bottle of champagne we downed, too. Oops.