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Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 11:33 PM by Gerick Bergsma

Long ago, the universe was born.  It encompassed three parts.  The celestial part, the subterranean part, and the earth, the interface between the celestial and underground.  From the depths of Lake Titicaca was born Inti, the sun, and his wife the moon.  Together they ruled the celestial part, watching over their children the stars, and looking down upon the Pachamama, the mother earth.  Viscocha, the white, bearded god in human form also rose from the sacred lake of the gray puma, to watch over the humans who inhabited the earth.  Inti bore another son, again born from the depths of Lake Titicaca, named Manco Capac, the first Inca.   Manco Capac, and his sister/wife Mama Oclo, rose out of the lake onto the Isla del Sol.  They were instructed to travel to the northwest, to found their kingdom.  They were to walk until they reached a place where they could sink their walking sticks into ground, and there build the capital of the Inca Empire.  They found a valley, rich in vegetation, where their sticks sank deep into the soil, and there they founded Qosqo (Cusco), the heart of what would become a powerful empire.


Over centuries, the Inca and his people conquered the surrounding regions, forming an expansive kingdom encompassing most of the Andes.  Then the Spanish arrived.  At first confused as emissaries from Viscocha, and taking advantage of a civil war between two half brothers fighting to become Inca, a small band of Spanish conquistadors were able to overcome the powerful kingdom of the Incas.  They decimated the city, building Catholic churches over Incan palaces and temples, and destroying many of the buildings to use the precisely carved rock for their own houses.  The once important city of Cusco became a sleepy colonial town, as it remained for several centuries more.


Then came the second conquest.  Armed with cameras and traveler’s cheques, tourists have descended upon Cusco with a vengeance.  With the relatively recently rediscovered ruins of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the reminders of Incan architecture in and around the city of itself, Cusco has again reclaimed its place of importance for the region.  I have reached the heart of South American tourism.  The beautiful colonial backdrop of Cusco is ground zero for most people's visits to South America, and as you walk through the cobbled walkways of the central Plaza, you are acutely aware of your position as a tourist surrounded by more history than may be comprehensible.  Gorgeous 16th century churches loom over small alleyways leading away from the square, each built on a different Incan temple or palace.  Precisely aligned Incan stonework wall the storefronts of the myriad of travel agents and restaurants catering to the tourists who have come to explore the longest inhabited city in the Americas, and the network of ruins scattered around it.


As the Spanish forever changed the face of Cusco, so have the tourists.  One can barely imagine the city without the multitude of foreign voices slaughtering local place names, or the eternal cry of a salesman proclaiming, "This poncho is handmade alpaca.  For you, amigo, a special price!"  It doesn't take long, however, to leave the claustrophobic tourist trap feeling behind and entire the awe of the city's splendor.  Once you get over the hassle of being asked if you want to purchase postcards (the same boy asked me eight times in one afternoon) or your shoes shined (my friend Matthew was asked 17 times in a matter of hours by various shoeshine boys), Cusco is a beautiful city with a tremendous amount to offer.


I began my tour of Cusco in my usual manner, by simply wandering about the city getting to know its streets and trying to figure out what was worth seeing.  During my walk, I wandered past a small museum, and decided to stop in.  The museum, built under the ruins of an Incan bath that now is the basement for a large church, was not terribly impressive, but I acquired a Cusco Tourist Ticket, that allowed me entrance into a number of nearby ruins and churches.  I wandered around a bit more, and made plans to walk to some of the nearby ruins the next day.


The next day, I spent the morning trying to find a bus that would take me to Tambomachay, a ruin about 8 kilometers out of Cusco.  Once I found the bus, and arrived at the ruins, I started the walk back, with visits to four Incan sites along the way.  Tambomachay is an Incan bath, with running water still trickling into its pools.  Beautifully set in a green valley along the river that supplied the water, it was fun climbing the hills, and following trails to Pukapukara, the next ruin.  Along the way, the trail led through several small communities, where two little girls tried to sell me pages ripped out of a newspaper, and where I saw several people digging mud and hand packing it into the adobe bricks that would become the newest building in the community.  The trail descended through a sparse forest to Pukapukara, a well preserved Incan homestead on a small hill alongside the road to Cusco.  I wandered about the ruin for a while, enjoying the quiet solemnity of the site.  The beautiful sunny morning began to cloud over, so I hurried down the road to Q'enqo, the next site on the road to Cusco.  Along the way, I met three Scottish girls who had become lost and were also headed to Q'enqo.  We travelled together to the site, an impressive rock, with several walkways and seating areas carved inside.  A large school group visiting the site made this a rather noisy visit, and while climbing atop the rock, it began to hail on us.  A bit cold and wet, the Scots and I walked on to Sacsayhuaman, the largest and most famous of the ruins near Cusco.  The Incas believed that Cusco was in the shape of a Puma, and Sacsayhuaman was envisioned to be the puma's head.  Huge zigzag walls represent the teeth, and proved to be imposing embattlements when the Spanish and Incas fought one of the bloodiest battles of the conquest here.  While only about 20% of the fortress remains, it is still an impressive site, high on a hill overlooking Cusco.  We walked about for a while, admiring the impressive stonework and magnificent views of the city, then descended down the steep path into the city.  We had lunch, and then I spent much of the afternoon translating as they attempted to change the date of their flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney (they were heading around the world), so that they could spend some extra time in South America.  Afterwards, we visited the Cathedral, where the highlight was a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and his disciples were feasting on Cuy.  I stand with holy vindication in my decision to eat rodents!  That night I met Matthew, Lucy, and Gwen, who had just arrived in town, and we made plans to look for a group to head to the Inca Trail with the following evening.


The next day I took an excursion to Pisac, a town about an hour away from Cusco by the same bus that I took to the ruins the previous day.  Pisac is an enchanting town with a vibrant little market and a friendly population.  As soon as I arrived, I discovered a bakery where I enjoyed delicious empanadas fresh out of a giant clay oven, and wandered through the market for a short while looking at the colorful array of souvenirs presented.  I had arrived at Pisac, however, to visit the ruins with the same name.  Starting by the nearly fallen church by the square, I climbed an extremely steep trail up the mountain to the ruins high above the village.  The hike was about an hour and a half straight up, with spectacular views of the town and the lush vegetation of the Sacred Valley, following the River Urobamba far below.  Incan terraces covered all the hillsides, and the mountains formed a breathtaking backdrop to the beautifully winding valley.  The ruins were magnificent, the best that I have visited yet.  With all respect to Machu Picchu, which is also a magnificent site, I think the fact that I had the ruins completely to myself for most of the day made my visit to Pisac the most enjoyable of any of the ruins I have been to.  The ruins are spread over a large spur reaching from the mountains towards the town.  From the town, all that can be seen are the watch towers located on the first peak of the spur.  A large number of stone houses are located along the flanks of the first peak, and the major religious site of the ruins is located between the first and the second peaks.  A narrow trail leads from the religious center to another residential area behind the third peak, after which a large agricultural area spreads along the hillside to the last of the communities composing the ruins.  Across a small valley from the third peak, the cliffs are riddled with Incan tombs, and baths tap water from the stream separating the tombs from the residential area.  The whole spread of ruins was magnificently set, and I spent the entire day wandering and exploring the various parts of the ruins.  A road that leads to the ruins allows tourists who wish to take a tour bus access to the ruins, and the central religious portion is heavily crowded, but the rest of the ruins I had completely to myself.  I climbed a ladder that had been left by some workers onto the top of the highest ruins on the third peak, and from there was able to climb to the top of the third peak.  From there, I was able to follow the summit ridge to the tops of all three peaks where there were some magnificent views of the entire valley and the layout of all the ruins.  When I reached the top of the highest peak, overlooking the religious center, I had to follow a very steep and narrow trail back down.  It ended with a staircase that seemed to end in a cliff.  As I precariously stood on the last step, a very narrow cave descended at a 90 degree angle to the staircase to a rock face I had to descend.  As I barely fit sideways into the cave, it was a rather interesting descent back to the main part of the ruins.


I returned down to the town of Pisac, and caught a bus back to Cusco.  I met up with Matthew, Lucy and Gwen and we found a company with a group starting the trek to Machu Picchu in two days.  I spent the next day hiking back up to Sacsayhuaman to take some pictures and enjoy the ruins a bit more, and wandering about Cusco buying supplies that I would need for the Inca Trail.


The hostel in which I was staying is located on a pedestrian street leading to the main plaza.  The street is full of restaurants, and each evening as the dining hour approaches, menu wielding touters line up to assault the casual pedestrian with descriptions of their restaurants specials and the free food and drink you can expect with their excellent service.  After spending several days in Cusco, I had become adept at running the restaurant gauntlet, and with minimal eye contact, I could maneuver past most of the throng.  The night before I left for the Inca Trail, I stopped to watch a couple of foreigners try to manage the onslaught of menu pushers, and had to laugh as two girls, each representing Mexican restaurants, one on either side of my hostel, got into an argument over them.  After the foreigners continued on, I commented to one of the girls, "It's a war on this street."


She chuckled, and then, realizing I had walked by without looking at her menu, asked if I wanted to eat at her restaurant.  This, of course, was followed by the requisite, "Where are you from."  When I responded that I was American, she responded with disbelief, demanding to know where I was really from.  My transformation continues.


At times I really feel as though I am losing my American identity, or perhaps I am simply gaining an international one.  Who is Gerick Bergsma?  Who is (to steal a phrase from one of my favorite movies) this international man of mystery?  It was one thing to trick a Peruvian to think that I might be a local.  It is quite another to be unable to convince an American that I, too, am an American.  But that is exactly what happened on day two of the four day trek along the Inca Trail.  True to the trail's form, the tourists outnumbered the locals, and as I trudged up the narrow trail, some of the members of my group and I found ourselves behind a couple of Americans.  Hearing a familiar accent, I thought I might start into some friendly conversation.  I climbed beside one of them and asked, "Where are you from?"


"The United States," she disinterestedly replied.


"Really?, So am I, " I responded, hoping for some sort of compatricial amiability.


"Doesn't sound like it," came the cynical reply.


A little put off, and not quite understanding the coldness I was recieving, I attempted one last attempt at conversation, "So what part are you from?"


"Colorado," the one word answer seemed intent on letting me know that she was still not buying the 'I am an American, too' story.


Mustering up my best West Coast US accent, I said, "Wow, well I'm from Seattle."  With that she looked my way, but I pushed ahead, leaving her puffing her American self up the rest of the trail.


As many of you who have travelled with me know (particularly those who have been with me to English speaking countries), I like to try to adopt the local accent.  Being that I have been hanging out with a lot of European, and particularly English, tourists lately, I have begun to utilize my English vocabulary and accent.  Coupled with the frequency with which I am switching between English and Spanish, I can begin to understand how at first I might not be seen as an American.  Still, to try to have to convince someone I was American is something new entirely.


At least to the rest of my group, I was THE American (although the three dutch along seemed to like my declaration of "Ich ben Fris!" after I told them my last name, to which they jokingly replied, "Kinet," which apperently means, "that goes," in dutch and "that does not go," in Fris, go figure).  The five English, Mathew, Lucy, Gwen, Alan and Sara; three Dutch, Stan, Jeanette and Phillip; two Swedes, Jeanette and Sofia; and the Italian, Carlitos, that joined me were great.  We all bonded immediately, and along with our guide Julio, had a great time hiking the ancient trail to Machu Picchu.


The first day of the trail, we hiked along the Rio Urubamba, following the sacred valley for a couple of hours.  Reaching a set of ruins, we then ascended to a small town.  Climbing a about an hour above the town, we reached our first camp site, from which we could see the menacing height of Dead Woman's Pass, our goal for the next day.  We chatted into the night in our dining tent, and I quickly established myself as the group naturalist, with my excitement as first several scarab beetles and then a giant moth (Saturnidae? Similar but smaller than Columbid moths we get in the Northwest) flew into our tent.  Carlitos, my tent mate, and I settled into a much too short night's rest listening to a Japanese broadcast on his shortwave radio.


Day two was definitely the most trying, but also yielded some of the most spectacular views.  Our first task of the day was to ascend nearly 2000 meters to the top of Dead Woman's Pass, at an altitude of 4,200 meters.  The long climb followed a narrow path, filled with other hikers.  We started the climb walking through beautiful forest.  We had apparently come during the pupating period of one particular moth species, as they rained from the trees, and covered the low vegetation, drying their wings before filling the air with their yellow and black flutterings.  There were also several species of hummingbirds, some a beautiful copper color, others the more traditional green with black and vibrantly colored throat patches.  I even caught sight of one bringing a bit of moss to its nest.  As we continued to climb, we exited the forest into the scrub of the high altitude.  The wind whipped up the slope, and several Caracaras glided on the updrafts.  Despite it being the beginning of the rainy season, we were blessed with beautifully sunny weather, and the breeze was quite refreshing as we trudged our way to the top of the first pass.  We rested atop the first pass, and then sharply dropped into the valley on the otherside.  We dropped into another green valley, where we ate lunch, and then, as most of the other groups pitched their tents for the night, we proceeded up the next pass (3,900m).  This pass was steeper, climbing hundreds of Incan steps, although much shorter.  We paused for a while at some ruins we passed along the way, and then continued up past some beautiful alpine lakes to the second summit.  We again rested atop the summit, where I saw some birds that looked very similar to Mountain Bluebirds.  We dropped again, past more beautiful lakes back into the dense cloud forest.  We camped alongside a small creek, near another set of ruins.  After a quick and cold, bath in the stream, I went to my incense filled tent (Carlitos was practicing Yoga), and rested a bit before the evening meal.  That night, I asked Julio if we could go to the ruins, and he excitedly agreed.  He had never been to the ruins at night, and after he blew his whistle, "to wake the gods," and whispered a short prayer, we climbed up.  When we arrived at the top, the ruins were shrouded in fog, providing a rather surreal setting as Julio recounted us several Incan legends.  The lone candle he had lit wavered and flickered, oddly shadowing his face in the misty night.  After a while, the clouds blew off, and the sky was filled with twinkling stars.  The Pliades was just rising, and Jupiter glowed brightly in the Eastern sky, and the crescent moon just setting over the distant mountains.  We wandered about the ruins in the star lit night, and marveled at the heavenly array of light.


Since we had hiked farther than most groups on day two, we were allowed to sleep in on day three.  We woke to another beautiful sunny day, with the cloud forest stretching to the mountains far in the distance.  Our first task, following breakfast, was to climb back to the ruins for a proper daylight tour.  Not quite as mystical as they had seemed the night before, the ruins were much easier to navigate by daylight, with magnificent views of the valley before us.  The rest of the day was spent hiking through the cloud forest towards the last camp site.  We walked for hours through the spectacularly vibrant forest.  We saw several species of orchids, tree ferns, and trees beautifully covered in moss.  A short ways into the hike, Sofia and I, who were leading the group, encountered a tarantula in the middle of the path.  Back when we were in Trujillo, and again in Nazca, Matthew had admitted to me that he was horribly afraid of tarantulas, and that if he encountered one he would immediately leave Peru.  I, of course, caught it, and took it for him to see.  I will mention at this point that, despite how obvious it is on a specimen of this size, making the labidognath-orthognath distinction is much easier in lab than with a live spider.  Matthew was duly impressed, but I am pleased to say that he did not rapidly depart the country.  We continued the hike, passing a couple of rescue workers carrying a stretcher in the opposite direction, dropping down to the final camp site.


Unlike the previous nights, where we had had private camp sites and felt wonderfully secluded, everyone camps in the same place on the last night so that they can reach the sungate by dawn.  There is even a bar there, and after the magical solitude of the previous nights, the camp site seemed oppressively crowded.  Despite the crowds, we took a short afternoon excursion to some ruins next to the bar.  Remarkably, they were deserted.  We spent hours climbing the empty site.  None of the other groups seemed to know the ruins were there.  The jungle encroached upon the site, and there were birds everywhere.  Wrens guarded the ceremonial baths, and swallows nested in the rockwork.  A flock of parrots flew noisily overhead (Michael, I caught sight of a bit of color, they might have been Red-Lored Amazons!).  That night we ate our dinner in the bar, and Sofia and Jeanette taught me a Swedish drinking song.  In exchange, I taught them the real words to La Bamba, a truly international exchange.   Despite the crowds, the parade of moths continued, with a visit from a beautiful Sphingidae.


Day four, we were up bright and early to reach our ultimate goal, Machu Picchu.  Up before dawn, we shared our last breakfast before the two hour hike to Intipuntu, the sun gate.  The walk was gorgeous, through the lush cloud forest, listening to the early morning chorus of tropical birds.   We walked briskly, trying to overtake as many of the throngs of hikers that now cluttered the trail.  We arrived at the sun gate, and sat to await the sunrise over the sacred city of Machu Picchu.  Perched atop the ancient ruins, we greeted the rising sun, and were treated with a glorious view of fog.  The ruins were completely clouded over, and we could see nothing but the increasingly bright silver-grey mist that enshrouded the city.  Every cloud may have a silver lining, but his one's kept us from viewing the city from the sungate.


After vainly waiting for the cloud to lift, we descended the last part of the trail towards the city.  As we reached the watch tower, the most famous view of the city, the clouds finally lifted, and we were afforded a few minutes with a glorious view of the city with Huina Picchu in the background.  As we watched, the clouds reenveloped the city, and while most of us waited, hoping for it to clear again, Julio and Carlitos went ahead to acquire our tickets.  A minute later, Julio came running back yelling, "Gerick, come and look at a snake!"  I, the ever valiant naturalist, bolted down the mountain to look, with most of the group following behind.  When I arrived, Carlitos had pinned the small snake with his walking stick.  The stick obscured the snake's head, so I picked it up to get a better view.  As some of the other trekkers started taking pictures of the insane zoologist, the snake opened its mouth, and I got my first view of some lovely hinged fangs!  I quickly decided that the grass was a far better place for this viper than my hands, and as I mentally reprimanded myself for my haste in picking it up before assessing the risk, the rest of the group seemed rather impressed that I would pick up a venomous snake.


The rest of my visit to Machu Picchu was not quite so life threatening.  The fog finally lifted as we entered the city, and we enjoyed lovely weather as we toured the complex.  The site is spectacular, with an amazing amount of marvelous stonework preserved through the centuries.  The backdrop of mountains adds to the mystical feeling of the site, with steep slopes dropping to the River Urobamba far below.  After our tour of the complex, several of us decided to climb Huina Picchu, the mountain behind the city.  It was an hour's climb straight up, but after the hike we had just completed, it seemed rather short.  The views were spectacular, with some of the best views of the city's layout far below.  We sat atop the boulder strewn summit, and marveled at the mountains surrounding us.  Swifts and swallows darted over the rocky precipice, and I even heard and saw the whistling dive of a falcon attempting to catch a swallow in midair.  We finally descended, and then continued down the steep path to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu, and the site of the train station back.


Aguas Calientes is a beautifully set town, with cliffs rising on all sides, and verdant forest surrounding the town and filling the river valley.  Flocks of parrots squawked high in the trees as we walked into town, and the rushing river alongside gave the town the feel of a village somewhere in the Amazon.  The streets were lined with vendors, and the town is centered on the rail line, its only connection with the civilized world.  Although I never visited the hot springs for which the town is named, its vibrant air was a stark change from the serenity we encountered along most of the trail.  We ate dinner as Julio purchased our tickets for the train ride back to Cusco.  Rail Peru has recently enacted a rule stating that foreigners can no longer use the local train, but instead must use the "tourist Train."  The practical translation of this is that instead of the 10 sol local rate (about $3), tourists were forced to pay the $50 tourist rate.  Of course there was a lot of protest, so Rail Peru added the "economical" Backpacker class to its tourist trains, meaning that we now pay the low, low rate of only $25.  The practical translation of this is that backpackers are now paying eight times as much for a seat on the local train that everyone else pays only $3 for.  There is little one can do against governmentally subsidized robbery, so I paid my $25, just being glad that I was assured a seat, and a restful ride back to Cusco.


Too soon, it was time to depart, and I clutched my ticket as I fought the living mass that surged towards the train at the rail station.  Most of the group was located in car C, but I had been given a ticket in a different car, so I departed the group in search of my seat.  I located my car, and climbed aboard.  My ticket was for seat 69, so I made my way to the back of the car.  I was a little surprised, though, when the seats ended at number 60.  I walked to the front of the car and back again to be sure I had not made some sort of mistake, but there was no seat 69.  I called the conductor, who directed me to a man on the station platform, who directed me to the station manager, who was hurrying about yelling into his handheld radio.  I, and the other eight people without a seat in my car, ran about searching each of the other cars for vacant seats.  Unfortunately, the train was completely full.  So much for my $25 guaranteed seat and my restful trip back to Cusco.  Somewhat frustrated, and not wanting the train to leave without me, I asked if I could stand in the car where the rest of my friends rode.  The station manager agreed, and I climbed onto their car to find that two of them were also without seats.  In a gesture of defiance (and to a certain degree exhaustion) Carlitos and I climbed onto the luggage racks and laid there for the trip back to Cusco.


Any illusions I had of a restful trip back from Machu Picchu (that had not been shattered by the fact that I was now curled up atop of a metal luggage rack) was soon destroyed by a school group that shared the car we were riding in.  It started with about three of them singing a popular Cumbia, and soon grew into most of the car shouting their favorite songs.  Carlitos and I soon joined as the percussion section, pounding on the metal racks we sat upon, and with a little cajoling, I convinced a girl from the school group to dance with a reluctant Phillip.  At about that time, the conductor came through the car, and kicked Carlitos and I off of our comfortable metal racks, so we joined the dancing and singing.  The group, after entertaining us with their songs, demanded that we sing for them, so Sofia, Jeanette, Phillip and I sang the Swedish drinking song that Sofia and Jeanette had taught us.  We quickly became the celebrities of the train car, and everyone wanted to take pictures with us.  I asked the group to sing us the Peruvian national anthem, which they gladly sang, after which they wanted to hear our national anthems.  Sarah and Alan sang "God Save the Queen," and Jeanette and Sofia sang the Swedish national anthem.  As the sole American on the train, I gave a soulful solo of the "Star Spangled Banner," which apparently went over very well, because the Peruvians immediately wanted a translation of what it meant.  The Europeans aboard were also quite impressed, as they all complimented my singing, and one old lady even pulled me aside later as I stopped for a drink of water, and said that I had a very good voice.  This, of course, only prompted more singing, with me leading lively versions of "I Will Survive" (I would like to thank Sylvia, Joy, Jody and the rest of the late-night China Pearl FHL gang without whose drunken renditions I would have never learned the words) and "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie" (Robin, what can I say other than, I had my chance, and I made those people dance, although nobody knew more than the first verse!  You taught me too well).  The Peruvians, not to be outdone, serenaded us with a couple of popular salsas and cumbias, and we all joined together for an international ensemble of "La Bamba."  I don't know if any of you have ever tried to dance in the aisle of a moving train, but I think I bruised my hips a bit.  Carlitos became the dance star when he learned to dance "El Pollito" (the chicken), which, when I tried to dance it, only caused me to fall on top of several of the Peruvians (who seemed to rather enjoy being sat upon by an American).  The train party made the trip go by extremely quickly, and I don't think I have shaken as many hands as I did as I tried to get off the train.


The next day, I slept in LATE.  I think I finally got up around one in the afternoon or so.  I spent the rest of the day lazing around, and that evening, most of the group that I'd done the trail with met at a bar.  It was a rather entertaining evening watching Sofia and Jeanette get drunk, and start to sing more of their drinking songs (it must be really fun in a Swedish bar).  Meanwhile, Phillip and Sarah seemed to be getting increasingly close, and Matthew and Lucy were their merry selves.  Carlitos had brought a female friend along that he had met, so later that evening, Carlitos and his friend, Alan, Sarah, Jeanette, Sofia and I went to a disco.  True to my form, I pooped out quickly (despite my sleep in, I was still quite sleepy), but not after Phillip and Sarah disappeared to their corner, Carlitos and Friend disappeared to another corner, and Jeanette and Sofia had been surrounded by foreigner loving Peruvians.  The following morning I awoke to find Jeanette and Sofia (who were staying in the same hostel) both terribly sick, Sofia with a terrible stomach condition and Jeanette with a fever and sore throat.  I spent much of the day running to the pharmacy and collecting fruits and juices with which to nurse them back to health.  While running around I ran into Darren and Claire (my friends from Pisco, Nazca, Arequipa and Colca Canyon) who had just arrived from their jaunt around Lake Titicaca, so that night they, Matthew, Lucy, Phillip and Carlitos got together one final time before my early departure the next morning for Puno.


Another bit of a bus ride, and I found myself in Puno.  Puno is a quaint town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, but my main goal was to get out on the lake, so I immediately made arrangements for a boat ride to some of the nearby islands.  The next morning, I was off with a boatful of people headed to the islands of the Uros, Amantani and Tequile.  After motoring for about an hour, we arrived at the islands of the Uros, the famed floating reed islands.  The Uros people, wishing to separate themselves from the Incas and the Collas Indians, began a floating existence, building islands out of the Tortora reeds that they also used to build boats.  The spongy island are little more than large reed platforms, and the residents have certainly capitalized on their popularity with tourists.  Each of the islands boasts an impressive array of handicrafts for sale, and for only $1 you can get aboard one of the large reed boats and get a quick ride to another island.  A bit different from the single person caballitos I rode in Huachaco, we fit about 16 passengers aboard one of the monstrous reed boats to travel to one of the neighboring islands.


After our stop, we continued to the seldom visited island of Amantani.   It is actually one of the larger island in the lake, and boasts the highest point on Lake Titicaca, at 4,200 meters.  The island is absolutely gorgeous, and reminded me of the Greek Isles; a dry golden-brown landscape, replete with goats, surrounded by the most beautiful blue waters comparable only to the crystal waters of the Adriatic or the Aegean.  The only difference is that at this altitude, we would be looking down upon the gods of Mt. Olympus.  We got off at one of the eight small communities on the island, and were met by a host of locals.  Those of us who wanted to spend the night were paired with a local family who would host us for the night.  I shared my family with Lek, a visitor from Singapore, and we climbed to the house where we were to stay.  The family cooked us a filling lunch of rice, french fries and fried eggs (the three staples of Peru, once you are past Cuy and Ceviche), and then we hiked up to the temple of the Pachatata (father earth) to watch the sunset.  The hike up was wonderful.  At this point, I would like to ask any of my geophysicist or geologist friends to entertain me with theories about the origins of Lake Titicaca.  As I hiked up, the rock definitely appeared to me to be volcanic in origin, consistent with most of my knowledge of the area.  In fact, our guide had been telling us that the lake had been formed by a number of volcanic events.  At the same time, however, my hosts showed me (in fact gave me one, after I showed so much interest) several trilobite fossils that he'd found on the island.  It strikes me that at 4,000+ meters it would take an awful lot of uplift for marine fossils to get up here, and with the amount of volcanism that is evident, it amazes me that the fossils would survive.  Can anyone elucidate for me?


Anyways, the sunset was beautiful, and as darkness fell, we returned back to town for dinner.  After dinner, the town put on a bit of a tourist spectacle.  An Andean band played while colorfully dressed locals encouraged tourists to dance the only dance that they seem to dance to Andean music.  I watched and listened for about an hour, before retreating outside to enjoy the starry night.  Orion, one of the few constellations I recognize in the southern skies, loomed brightly overhead, and a distant electrical storm lit the mountain tops far to the east.  A couple of shooting stars and a slow moving satelite completed the celestial light show.


Then it was today.  I rose early this morning, ate an extremely filling breakfast, and caught a morning boat to the island of Taquile.  Plying the beautiful blue waters from Amantani to Taquile only reinforced the feelings of being on the Greek Islands, and we soon found ourselves on the equally gorgeous island of Taquile.  From the port, we climbed a steep path with wonderful views of the lake to a small town, where we watched locals making handicrafts.  I swear, every single person on this island was weaving!  We ate lunch in town, and then descended an even steeper path to another harbor where we boarded boats back to Puno.  One last night here in Peru, and with luck, tomorrow I will be on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.