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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Puno - Into Peru

19th - 21st June

Another night spent coughing and spluttering and we set off on the 9am bus for Puno, a short way across the border into Peru. Having sought the advice of Sheiba and Jose and their fluent Spanish, we decided against the cheaper method of taxi and two combi´s in favor of the cushy tourist bus. I think we were both slightly alarmed by the stories of others we´d met being held at gun point by border guards and robbed of everything they owned. Despite having stuffed surplus wads of cash and credit cards under inner soles of shoes and into underwear we breezed though Bolivia emigration and Peruvian immigration with barely a second glance from the officials.

The road to the border was surprisingly smooth and looked almost new. This would be a short trip to Puno we thought. But no, how wrong can one be?! Shortly across the border we experienced roadworks, Peru style. The road had been completely dug up and a very soft field of dirt took it´s place. Diggers and steamrollers were working at full force. At first glance we thought the bus would have to turn back, but the road was still open! We set off down the road, following one steam roller, and then had to stop to let another through the opposite way. Mayhem!! At one point we mounted a significant bank of earth at the side of the road to let another coach through and our coach started veering off the side of the bank towards the lake, just meters away. Sam swore very loudly, horrified by thoughts of being dunked in the icy lake, even Ady was mildly concerned! Thankfully our driver steered us back to safety and the rest of the journey passed uneventfully.

Puno is situated on the northwest shore of Lake Titicaca and is Peru´s folklore centre, with a rich tradition of music and dance. This certainly wasn´t the most attractive place we´d visited, but I guess it gave a sense of real Peru quite early into our visit. We found a room at the Don Tito Inn, which despite it´s chintzy-ness was pretty luxurious and erring on the hotel rather than hostel side of possible lodgings. We had a thick plush carpet, plump pillows, something resembling a quilt and most impressive of all, a shower lacking the famous South American trickle – anyone who has visited will have experienced these for sure. You know the one whereby you can have a normal pressure cold shower, or a hot trickle you have to "dance" under!

Our first Peruvian "almuerzo" (set lunch for peanuts price) set the standards for the rest of our stay. We ate a two course lunch for 2 Soles each– about 40pence! I won´t say it was the nicest meal of the trip so far but in terms of extending the longevity of our RTW trip it was worth eating!

Puno, like Copacabana is visited largely for it´s proximity to a number of islands. The Uros islands or the "floating islands" are probably the most well known. Others include Taquile, Amantani, Anapia and Yuspique. Again, overnight stays can be enjoyed on these islands, and again we toyed with the idea of doing as such. Unfortunately we had brought our vile flu germs to Peru with us and decided better against infecting the islands indigenous people (and nothing to do with the 6am start). We opted for a half day visit to the Uros islands, arranged easily through the harbor. We arrived a little later than advised but were shown onto a boat and told we would set sail shortly. An hour and thirty minutes later the boat was finally full and we set on our way. The floating islands are located in the mouth of Puno bay, and the entrance to Lake Titicaca proper. The route to the islands takes you through a channel of reeds, part of the national park and protected to preserve the wildlife that inhabits it. We saw a number of ducks and koots, both the red billed species found at home and a new blue billed variety we´d not seen before.

Reeds like the ones growing in the channel are used by the islanders of Uros in many ways. They eat them, make their boats from them, their houses, indeed the very foundations of the islands are made using the reeds. The base layer is a thick wad of earth from which the reeds grow. They then pile layer upon layer of loose dried reeds ontop of this to create a meter thick "mattress" which floats ontop of the water. When you walk on the islands you feel as though you are walking on a giant bouncy castle or water bed!

The islanders live from the lake by hunting and fishing, but supplement their income from tourism. Some of the islands most visited have literally become floating souvenir stands and each visitor is subjected to a fairly hard sell from the women living there (the men are typically out on the lake hunting). Some of the islands feature small restaurants and huts where you can spend the night. From the first island we visited we took a huge reed boat to the second island. Two women were at the oars slowing maneuvering this hulk of a thing. Ady had a go at the rowing and claimed it was bloody hard work and not as easy as it looked! See piccie!

Upon our return we had a delicious fish lunch, trucha and papas fritas – fish and chips Peru style! Again the trout was amazingly fresh having been caught earlier that day. We spent the afternoon exploring the Yavari – the oldest ship on Lake Titicaca and built in 1862 in England. It was shipped over to Peru in 600 individual pieces and carried by mule to the lake. The journey took six years! The boat is currently under restoration by a private owner who hopes to re-sail the boat on Lake Titicaca in the near future.

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