OK, now we’ve made it to Lake Titicaca. You’d never know it from Puno, but besides having such a fun name Titicaca has a lot going for it besides just forming part of the border between Peru and Bolivia. For one thing, it’s huge, about 3,100 square miles in surface area (about one-third the size of Lake Erie, to give that some context), making it the 18th largest lake in the world by surface area. Measured by water volume, though, Titicaca is the 15th biggest lake and in fact has about twice as much volume as Lake Erie. So yeah, it’s big, and deep.And it’s high, too. In fact at 12,500 feet above sea level it’s usually described as the highest navigable lake in the world. Now, “navigable” can mean a lot of things, but basically the 20 or so lakes that are higher are much smaller and shallower; if there are boats on them they’re just little fishing boats as opposed to commercial vehicles.
We wanted to get to know the lake a little and when we read on TripAdvisor about Isla Suasi, an island in the northwest corner of the lake that has just one hotel on it, we figured we’d hit the spot. One hotel and a couple of out buildings, some hiking trails, a couple small herds of alpacas and vicuñas, and that’s all. All on about 110 acres. Every so often I like to get really away from it all, and this certainly fits the bill.
To add to the isolation, the first and third days we were here we were the only guests. It’s kind of low season, though the weather has been just about perfect, sunny and low 60s. On our second day a group of 12 Italians and one Australian came, spent the evening, and left again late the next morning. Then Mark & I had it to ourselves again. Sweet!
What do you do out on an island like this? Not much. We both read a bunch, played some games on our iPads. Didn’t surf the web, since there was effectively no Internet out here. Sure as hell didn’t watch TV; I only noticed shortly before we left that there are no TVs. One night we were sitting in a public space in front of a beautiful fireplace and realized again we were the only guests in the hotel. So we got our portable stereo speakers, put them on top of the fireplace, and listened to fun music while sipping scotch and rum. That’s a good life!
Mostly we just enjoyed the quiet and beauty. We were surprised how Mediterranean it looks: the gorgeous flowers, the brilliant blue water, the sky and the clouds. There was an easy 15-minute hike up to the high point on the island where you were supposed to watch the sunset, but by evening every day it had clouded over. No problem; we still got to go out and watch the alpacas and vicuñas go about their business.
I was ambitious enough to go out a couple times on their kayaks, once just exploring a bit and then later circumnavigating the island. All beautiful. And then there was the big challenge: do you swim? At 12,500 feet the water is pretty cold, but somehow I couldn’t not swim so after my second kayak trip I went in for maybe five, maybe even 10 minutes. The water is beautifully clear but definitely cold. I grew up right near Lake Superior and I won’t say Titicaca was colder, but it was on par. I wonder if or when I’ll ever swim at a higher altitude.
The last part of our Isla Suasi journey was the three-hour boat ride back. It was a pretty nice affair; a comfortable boat with just the two of us, the driver, and a guide. No pretense of any safety demonstration or expectation that you’ll wear a life jacket, even when you’re up on top of the boat for the views and the sun. On the way back to Puno we stopped at Isla Taquile, an island with strong old traditions, beautiful handicrafts, and terraced fields dating back to the Incas. Of course we don’t buy handicrafts (or anything else except soap and toothpaste, which they weren’t selling), but it was still fun to learn a little about the people and see their remarkably isolated and unique lifestyles. We’d have loved to have hiked around the island, but that’s not the way these arranged tours work.
And then we stopped one more time at the floating islands near Puno. This experience was a little better than the first one since our guide could explain things to us a little more clearly. She explained how of course people in such a small setting and with such daunting physical challenges – building and maintaining floating islands out of reeds – have to work together. But what happens if people don’t work together? I mean, not everyone has such a cooperative bent, right?“Well,” she explained pointing at two houses close together on one of these tiny islands. “Imagine if the people in this house can’t get along with the people in that house. First, they would just turn their house in another direction so they don’t have to see the people they don’t like. But if things get worse, if say one family won’t participate in the community projects that need to be done, or if a family is just too disruptive, the rest of the community has a final resort. They just saw off the part of the island the offending family lives on and shove them away. ‘There, now you’re your own island and you have to take care of it yourself.'”
Sounds like a pretty great way to deal with unruly neighbors, eh?
So that’s pretty much the end of Peru for us. After spending a night back in Puno, we’ll take a bus on into Bolivia. It was a great month exploring southern Peru!