From Baja to the Land of Fire #14: Lima, Part III

13: Lima, Part III

Puno-Isla Amantani-Puno-La Paz-Uyuni-Villa Mar-San Juan-Potosi-La Paz-Arequipa-Lima

14 April 2002
On Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock we were in our seats of the train to Puno. The German girls and the Norwegian couple from the Inca trail were also on the train with us.

Cuzco is on the edge of the great Altiplano, a great, mostly flat, plain in the Andes between the mountains at an altitude between 3500-4500 meters. The Altiplano extends from Peru to the southern part of Bolivia for hundreds of kilometers. This is amazing when you know that many of the mountains in Europe and North America barely get this high.

The train took us onto the Altiplano, where we reached a high for the day of 4300m. We saw the snow of the high peaks in the lonely distance around the green-brown plains filled with small clay-build villages, flocks of llamas, alpacas, sheep, donkeys and small lakes. This picture would remain with us for most of the next two weeks.

We arrived in Puno around 6 in the evening, checked in at hotel Uros before going for diner with the others from the trail. Puno lies on the shores of Lago Titicaca, the sacred lake of the Incas and the highest navigable lake in the world. From here we booked a 2-day tour of the lake, together with Andrea and Katarina, starting the next morning.

Under guidance of our English-speaking guide Eduardo, the boat with our group of 20+ people left the harbor for the floating islands, the first and main attraction. I thought it was disappointing as many of the floating islands were barely floating on two meters of weed and straw, practically reaching the bottom. And many of the houses were on stilts. Still, we weren’t allowed on or near most of the islands, so there could be some real floating islands out there, somewhere.

The real attraction for us came next. After a four hour boat ride we reached Isla Amantani. Here we were dropped off and in pairs (my brother and me) were taken by someone to our host family where we would eat and sleep for the night. This felt really authentic and I enjoyed it a lot, even though the contact with our host family consisted mainly out of smiling and nodding to each other. The accommodation was reasonable, with a clear view of the lake and beds covered in the heaviest blankets I have ever felt. The food, cooked in a small house separate from their living quarters on a wooden fire, was delicious, consisting of a soup with potatoes, sweet potatoes and quinoa, the Inca rice.

Later in the afternoon we were taken on a tour to the highest point of the island from where we had a cold but fantastic view of the large blue lake, seeing the mountains of Bolivia in the distance. After this we had a session with an Inca shaman who gave us an opportunity to get our deepest wish fulfilled. And even being a great skeptic myself, I made my wish.

After dinner we were taken by our host families, who had dressed us up in typical local clothing, the men wearing ponchos (can you say “Clint Eastwood”?) and the women wearing colorful blouses and skirts, to a fiesta with live local music and dance. We walked through the dark, since there was no electricity, and the rain.

This was very interesting as it seemed the local people looked like they were enjoying themselves as well, and we had to participate in the strange and energetic dancing. At an altitude of 4000+m, this was not as easy as you might think.

Early the next morning, after a hearty breakfast, a member of the host family took us to the harbor where we jumped in the boat for the ride to the neighboring Isla Taquile, the more popular island, for a short visit and lunch. After this there was the five-hour trip back to Puno which we spent with the German girls, Ina and Linda, two Dutch-speaking girls from Belgium and Holland but living in Spain and a funny American (funny in the sense that he had a great dry humor). We had fun on the top deck, in the sun entertaining ourselves with stories and a lot of ad hoc joking.

We left Puno the next morning on a bus heading to La Paz, Bolivia. Ina and Linda were also on the bus, together with a Dutch couple we had met on the highest pass on the Inca trail the week before.

La Paz also lies on the Altiplano and is spread out in a spectacular way in a valley surrounded by mountains and one huge dominating mountain (or was it a volcano?), Illimani, in particular.

This was not our destination though, and late the next morning we joined up with Ina and Linda for the 5-hour bus ride to Oruro. From here we took the 7 o’clock evening train to Uyuni, our destination, where we arrived at 3 in the morning.

After several hours of sleep we went to face the huge multitude of travel agencies, which you have in all the tourist places and have to learn to deal with.

This is also one of the very few ways for women in Latin America to make a living, besides running a tienda, a place or small shop which sells basic foods and drinks. We try to book only at agencies which are apparently are run by women, just to support this. I don’t know if it really helps, but any way. It is also my experience that women tend to take better care of you, even after you have actually booked and paid! At one agency we booked a 3-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni. One hour later we were sitting with our driver Eduardo, our cook/guide Felicia, an American brother and sister who were traveling with a Bolivian mother and daughter, in a big and loaded Toyota Landcruiser, on our way to strange and distant lands.

We were traveling the usual route clockwise, instead of the more regular counter-clockwise. This is good because the last day (our first day) is a long and boring ride, especially after seeing all the other stuff like the Salar itself, first.

Just outside of town we made a first stop at the train cemetery. Here several ancient rusting steam locomotives and wagons had been laid to rest. Very surreal, especially with all the garbage spread around the area.

For several hours we drove through deserts and wastelands. In the distance we could see ‘floating’ mountains, the illusion of light and heat making the mountains appear to float. Just at sunset we arrived in Villa Mar, a tiny village in a small canyon, where llamas where just being herded together for the night. It soon became very cold, ,as it usually does in the desert, and more so at 4000+ meters.

At 3 o’clock in the morning we awakened (yes, 3-O-clock) and a couple of minutes later we were in our Landcruiser, dozing and on our way to see some geysers. Eduardo was driving very vast, and we were told we wanted to be at the geysers at sunrise. And so, a couple of hours later we arrived at the geysers, which lay near the top of a mountain at 4800m in a very red-brown landscape strewn with big rocks. Huge eerie white clouds were escaping from holes in the earth and making a loud hissing sound. There was a lot of rumbling noise from the boiling grey mud pools all around the area. And then… the first rays of the sun lit up everything in the typical red-orange hues. It was all beautiful to see and almost a mystical experience to walk around and through the clouds.

Soon we were on our way to the hot springs where Felicia would prepare the breakfast (scrambled eggs, bread, jam, butter, coffee). The hot springs were small and shallow so hardly anyone took a dip. In the distance we could see the first of many flamingos we would see that day.

After breakfast we visited Lago Blanco and Lago Verde, two quiet mountain lakes reflecting the blue sky and surrounding mountaintops and volcanoes. A place for contemplation, although this might be difficult with the 50 or so Landcruisers parked there during the summer season, so we were told. Now there were no more than 8 trucks.

The rest of the long day we drove through deserts, crossed small rivers, saw many flocks of flamingos, passed through mountain ranges, saw Chile in the distance behind an active volcano, canyons, rock deserts and all the other landscapes you expect to see on the moon. I felt I was driving through a nature documentary and couldn’t close my eyes for a second, like the others were doing.