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Puno, Lake Titicaca, and the Bolivian Copacabana
by Robin Esrock
It made sense to catch an ecological taxi to the foot of the Condor Mountain. The altitude of 3800m was proving to be somewhat challenging for physical exertion, and a manpowered tricycle seemed just the ticket. Hopping into the front carriage, our rider/driver deftly navigated through the narrow, cobblestone streets of Puno, until I suddenly realized we had come to an abrupt halt. Turning around to see the cause, I saw that our rider/driver had also deftly navigated himself under the wheels of a car, that is, he had been run over. The car had to reverse over his leg to release him, but he did not seem too bothered until everyone began to make a right fuss. At this point, he was showered with cash, apologies, and an Esrock nod of sympathy. More embarrassed than injured, he bade us farewell and we promptly caught another human taxi, although this time, I insisted on driving.
After almost a week, Cusco had filled with familiar faces, places and an undeniable charm. But faces were moving on and there was no denying that the town?s blatant over-mining of its tourist resource was taking its toll. According to Incan legend, Cusco is the Naval of the World, and I felt like I had sucked the olive out of it. It was time to go south to the famous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, birthplace of the Inca, liquid divider of Peru and Bolivia. I arrived in Puno on the Peruvian side to find a bustling town with pedal taxis, handcraft markets and Internet kiosks. It was my two-week traveling anniversary, but the altitude didn?t care to celebrate and the only gift I got was the squirts. Call me the Running Man.
I had a day to kill in Puno, although it almost turned out to be a tricycle taxi rider. Still, after a steep, breathless climb to 4200m, I reached the Condor that overlooked the town, rewarded with spectacular, razor-sharp views. The light is famous at this altitude, clear and distinct, as if the lines in the clouds have been stenciled for emphasis. A young girl played with her chicks as her mother offered water, crisps and Chiclets to the tourists, who were fortunately non-existent. She killed one by mistake, but I stopped her tears with an impromptu chicken photo shoot. With all the lambs, cows and chickens running about, it is getting difficult to order dinner. Is it my fault they taste delicious? Proud of their organic farming, perhaps the only artificial ingredient added to the meat of South America is guilt.
Earlier that day I walked along the shores of Titicaca, noticing the water resemble pea soup. Although it was not too long ago you could drink the crystal clear waters of Titicaca, pollution has led to algae, trading drinking water for a toxic lime milkshake. "Especially on the Peruvian side," says Carlos, my Bolivian guide. I?m sure his Peruvian counterpart would say the opposite. Titicaca perfectly dissects the two countries, and both claim to have its heart. Sorry Peru, I hand the medal to Bolivia, but this is no reason to start a border war.
Puno would be my last stop in Peru. Checkout the website www.greentoadbus.com to find out how to get from Peru to Bolivia or to travel in the other direction! It was time to cash in the neuvo sols (3 to 1$US) for bolivianos (8 to 1$US), drive three hours to the border, and enter Bolivia - the landlocked country famous for its altitude, quinoa and political upheaval. A final note on Peru: From the beaches of Lima to the altitude buzz of the Andes, I felt like an honored guest. The food was superb, the locals friendly, the scenery breath-taking. I never felt threatened, never encountered the hearsay dangers that intimidate so many would-be visitors. Walking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu is simply an unforgettable, life-affirming experience. Ciao Peru. Hola Bolivia!
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl, and she probably never visited the real Copacabana, located on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca. It?s a small, picture-resque town with a distinctly bohemian, hippy traveler vibe. The first noticeable difference to Peru was the lack of street peddlers who seemed to plague Cusco and Puno. It?s not India, admittedly, but the hassle has a subtle way of spoiling the local experience. In Puno I finally relented to have my hiking boots polished, and the resulting photo of the nine-year-old boy speaks volumes.Yet here in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, I feel less like a moving target, and the topic has come up with several travelers. Besides the currency switch, the change of beer and the lack of Inca Cola signs, it feels like Peru and Altiplana Bolivia are first cousins, descendants of the same Sun God.
Although the Brazilians, and later Barry Manilow, took Copacabana and made it famous, the original lakeside Bolivian town has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years, and it from here that you depart for the Island of the Sun - the birthplace of Inca culture. Transturin operate two luxurious catamarans for tours to the Isla de Sol, and I quickly found myself drinking a cold beer, staring out at Titicaca?s immense horizon from the top deck. Jacques Cousteau discovered drowned ruins of ages past, the lake?s immense depth (over 400m), and a new, massive species of blind deep-water frog. For over 2000 years, Andean cultures have revered the sun-bleached, almost Mediterranean-like Sun Island The Incan deity, Viracocha, is believed to have begun creation from Titicaca, and the first Incan couple, the children of the sun, founded the Incan Empire on the Island of the Sun. It has been linked to Atlantis, ancient civilizations and is called "the womb of the world", the source of life.
From the deck of the modern catamaran, the water looked unnaturally pure, the sky deep-sea blue, and I got the feeling that Titicaca?s size and depth house many secrets yet to be discovered, Cousteau?s gigantic frog notwithstanding. An hour later, we arrived on the island for a fascinating tour encompassing the original Fountain of Youth, llamas, ancient priestly blessings, mummies, golden fertility idols, a huge traditional reed boat and wreaths of colourful, fragrant flowers. Transturin have created their own island complex, complete with museums, farmed terraces and animals, and it was more professional and informative than any of the museums I visited in Cusco. Sometimes, perhaps things are better left to the professionals. After an onboard buffet lunch, I napped on a small boat rowed by a father and son, dreamily disembarking on the north side of the island to walk amongst a maze of ruins at a breath-beating 4200m. A traditional ceremony involving burnt offerings to the gods was undertaken at the top of a mountain, and as the weathered priests personally doused my head, I felt like I was truly blessed to be experiencing a sacred tradition in one of the most exquisite vistas of the world. This is why I travel, and this is why you should too.
We spent the night on board the catamaran, treated to a delicious meal, traditional dancing, and iPod DJ as I got the pod to work with the pro PA theatre system. I satisfied most requests, except, with apologies to my father, John Denver. Our group was made up of all ages from all countries, and to my delight, with several Bolivianos too. I learnt the tango, draining bottles of good Bolivian red wine, watched lightning shoot across the dark, Andean sky. Bolivia, Patricia from La Paz tells me, is a beautiful, diverse country, encompassing the Andean highlands to the low Amazon basin. Its political woes are familiar to me from Peru, a constant tension between poor, indigenous populations and the Spanish descendants who control the political landscape. The military juntas that once made Bolivia famous for its death squads have given way to a civilian government, but just this week roadblocks and strikes threatened to cripple the country, forcing the president to resign, unsuccessfully. It has a wealth of natural resources, but its coca production has made it famous for its cocaine. I point out to Carlos the guide that the revered coca leaf, so central to Andean cultures, continues to have a massive impact on the modern world, albeit, in a different form. He agrees, with regret. Bolivians are proud of their country, quick to point out the differences with Peru, the value of the native Aymaran traditions as opposed to the Incan traditions, which absorbed them. But here is Barry Manilow, crooning, and I decide instantly to extend my stay in Copacabana.
At this moment, I am watching a storm move in from my hotel window, lightning pricking the dark horizon of the lake. Ollie from Cusco suggested the hotel La Cupula, which has a homely, funky ambiance, a delicious restaurant, and gorgeous views over the lake and beach. And hammocks, bless them. I heard Bolivia was cheap to travel, and it is. $10US affords me this amazing view with an apartment-sized hotel room. $5US a delicious dinner with a glass of wine. Charlotte, my exuberant traveling partner of the past two weeks has left for Buenos Aires, but a distinct energy impels me to want to stick around. Later this week I?ll take the three-hour bus ride to the highest capital city in the world, La Paz, ready to immerse myself in the wonders of Bolivia, never to forget my gonzo blessing on the Island of the Sun, at the top of the world.
Robin Esrock is a travel writer and presenter for travel TV show. You can read more of Robin?s take on the world at his website: www.moderngonzo.com. He is a good friend of www.greentoadbus.com, which will take you backpacking through Peru and Bolivia.