A Taste of Titicaca
I've finally reached Lake Titicaca, but I seem to have forgotten any of the fun Titicaca jokes that I've heard over the years.
Puno is a forgettable port town used by travelers to prepare for the border crossing into Bolivia, as well as visit Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world (not to mention South America's biggest lake and largest lake in the world above 2,000 meters). I'm over 3,800 meters above sea level (over 12,500 feet), and I can really feel the altitude here—the air is noticeable thinner. I bet this would be a good place to train for a marathon.
Titicaca's Floating Islands
Las Islas Flotantes Los Uros, the floating islands of the Uros, are one of the most bizarre sights I've come across in recent memory. Imagine an entire community living—floating—on independent, decomposing masses of reeds, and you've got the floating islands.
The islands are built using many layers of the buoyant totora reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca, offshore from Puno. The islands' reeds are constantly replenished from the top as they rot away; the ground is always soft and springy.
Some reeds are chopped up like mulch, others are laid down intact. More than once I stepped through reed pulp and felt my foot immerse in water. Tiny 'outhouse' islands are near the main islands for the population to relieve themselves. The waste is dried in the sun to avoid polluting the water.
It would seem the Uros began their floating existence several centuries ago, in an effort to isolate themselves from aggressive local populations (such as the Incas). Several hundred people still reside on these odd, floating, tourist attractions.
I honestly can't imagine living full-time on rotting raft of plants—crazy to think about.
Good Things to Know About The Islands
Don't bother with the S$2 (US$0.60) ticket de ingreso (entry ticket for the conservation and maintenance of the islands), it's not checked for/ needed (and is possibly a scam). You'll probably end up paying about S$10 (US$3) from the dock for the 2-hour trip into the reeds. Wear sandals instead of shoes, as you're likely to walk through plenty of soggy spots.
An Interesting Artifact
Docked here in Puno is another interesting sight, the Yavari. The description in my guidebook sums up the scene fairly well:
The Yavari Museum is an iron-hulled boat built in England in 1862 in no less than 2,766 pieces that were shipped to Chile, transported to Peru by train, then hauled by mule over the Andes to Puno (taking a mere six years), where it was reassembled and finally launched on Lake Titicaca in 1870. Due to the shortage of coal, the engines were often powered by dried llama dung. After over a century of service, the Yavari was beached, but is once again afloat and open to the public as an example of one of the oldest seaworthy iron-hulled boats in the world.
…A lot of effort for a boat.
I've decided to hop off the typical backpacker trail and head south into Chile, instead of jumping the neighboring border with Bolivia and heading over to La Paz (what I'm told is the highest capital city in the world). Parts of Bolivia have been experiencing some increased chaos (revolution?) and aggressive military policing recently—two things I think I'd rather avoid. Besides, I hear La Paz is a cold city that isn't much to write home about, save for the views of snowcapped mountains.
Tonight I'm going to bus south and jump the Peruvian border with Chile. Chile, like Brazil, is an expensive South American country, and my only business there is with the beaches—I'd like get rid of the jacket and pants and sun myself by the Pacific Ocean one last time (as I'm not sure how long it will actually be before I see it again).
From the coast I'll move northeast though Chile's heavily mined, mineral-rich mountains (past the world's largest open-pit copper mine), across the border into Bolivia to visit the famous salt plains (again, the world's largest), and then south into the delicious Argentinean wine country. I should be walking through vineyards with a smile on my face by late October/ early November.