Peru Day 8: Puno and Lake Titicaca

Continuing our trip down memory lane…

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Our morning started with a very nice hotel breakfast.  I really enjoy having full buffet breakfasts with high quality food.  So different than the typical American hotel breakfast where you are happy if there is a waffle maker.  The setting was also really nice with a beautiful view of Lake Titicaca, known as the world’s highest navigable lake.

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The boys were delighted by all the guinea pigs darting in and out of various holes.

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Everyone except James was having mild trouble with the altitude.  We had the boys on diamox that was prescribed by their pediatrician, and it seemed to mostly work.  John struggled with mild headaches and exhaustion, but little else.  Fortunately he didn’t seem to have any of the side effects that the medication can cause.  Jeremy was taking the natural supplements that had fewer side effects listed, but also had mixed reviews about the effectiveness.  Oh well.  We wandered the grounds a bit, then decided to head out for the day.

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One of the main recommendations the guide books seemed to have was to take a boat tour of the Uros Islands.  We thought it sounded fun and found a booking agency on Lima Street.  At only $10 per person, we figured there really wasn’t a big reason to shop around.  It included a 30 minute boat ride to Uros, which is a village of floating reed islands, followed by a ride on a reed boat, a tour of a couple of the islands, and a boat ride back to Puno.  Fun!

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The ride out to the islands was on a fairly large boat that alternated between open water and passageways through long reeds.  As we approached the island, a group of local people were waiting to greet us to their island.

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Typically there will be somewhere between 2 and 10 families that will live on any given island.  Some islands are open to guests, but other people just want to be left alone.  It’s a catch 22.  Without tourists, it is hard to survive, but with them, your family is always on display.

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On arrival, they said hello, sang us a song, then transferred us to a reed boat that the boys were delighted with.  We found a nice perch on top and enjoyed the ride, being somewhat surprised by the number of inhabited islands.

After our reed boat tour, we returned back to the first island, and were invited to wander around.  The ground was a bit soft, but it felt mostly sturdy and I only had a few fears of falling through to the water below.

They had everyone gather into a ring and our tour guide then explained the construction of the floating islands, the construction of the houses, and gave us some other interesting information about the island.  This particular island hosted 5 families and the houses were equipped with solar panels that gave them electricity for lights, computers, and more.  The island was made out of a 2 meter pile of reeds that were tied together with rope, then anchored to the bottom of the lake.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to move the location of your house each day?

After a general tour, one of the women took the four of us to see her home.  It was a bit awkward to go into a stranger’s one room house, but also fascinating.  Other than the bedding needing a good washing, the house was about what you would expect, even if in a very unusual setting.  Her son was a little younger than James and John, and while he had an amazing smile, he was also in need of a bath.

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The woman then took us over to a table that displayed local crafts.  Oh no, this is where we felt obligated to buy something.  Usually we minimize our souvenirs, but when we are on a tiny island, with a woman that is obviously very poor, and we are her only customer, we felt the need to not walk away empty handed.  Her rugs were all very nice, and she obviously wanted us to buy one of those, but we had no idea what we would do with it besides put it into a closet, which seemed silly to assuage our guilt with.  Luckily, James was enamored with a model of one of the reed boats, so that was easy.  We also had John pick something out and he settled for a ceramic cup that he had ambivalent feelings about.  Both were very inexpensive, and James really was delighted with his souvenir, but this shopping aspect of things is usually why we prefer to travel on our own, rather than with a tour company.

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Once all the other people had completed their purchases with whichever person pulled them aside, we got back on the first boat and went to the “hotel and restaurant” island.  This island was quite a bit bigger and not as well maintained.  There were definitely a few spots where it would be unwise to step.  I guess the smaller islands get less foot traffic and don’t wear out as quickly.  Luckily, most of those spots had wooden planks over them, but it was still a bit worrisome.  John almost fell into a fish pond when he got too close to the edge of the unsecured wooden planks and they started to tip him into the pond.  On the other hand, I guess this is one nice thing about a floating island.  You can put a net in the middle of it and can through any fish you caught in there until they are ready to be eaten.  It takes fresh fish to a whole new level.

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On our way back to Puno, we met a family that lives just one town away from us.  Small world.

Once we returned, we decided to wander around a market.  For just $2, you can get 20 pounds of potatoes, which is also the same price a 10 minute taxi ride cost to get from our hotel to Lima Street.  It puts the low wages into perspective.  Taxis are so cheap that you wonder how the driver can get by, but then you wonder how many meals his family can eat potatoes for from your ride.  There is a ton of horrifying poverty, but at least the basics are reasonably inexpensive.  One of our tour guides said that most people only eat meat 1 or 2 times per month.

At this point we decided to try a slightly lower end restaurant.  After ordering, we went to use the bathroom and decided that it was probably a mistake.  It was filthy and the men’s room was missing the lightbulb, which gave the choice of leaving the door open or using the women’s room.  When watching the staff prepare the boys some lemonade, we realized it was made with tap water, rather than bottled water, and we made the boys skip it.  The looks of longing were quite heartbreaking, but the thought of caring for two sick kids made me shudder.  I decided to try the Pisco Sour, a local specialty which does have raw egg whites, but I decided that the alcohol may purify them.  Maybe not.  And who knew whether the simple syrup was boiled first.  Oh well, a mom with stomach issues is better than kids with stomach issues.  The quinoa vegetable soup was simple, but good.  The meat was passable, but not great.  The grilled veggies and french fries were quite good.  The fruit for dessert was a slightly scary looking from a “washed in clean water perspective,” but we decided to avoid looking rude and chanced it.  We were glad we tried it, but also glad to return to the more expensive, but still reasonably priced, tourist restaurants.

After lunch we went back to rest and write in journals.  Jeremy had started to have more moderate altitude sickness, so rest seemed to be in order.

After resting, we decided to go back to Lima Street and visit the cathedral, which was nice, but didn’t have as much gold or elaborate decorations as some of the others.  On the other hand, it also didn’t have an entrance fee.  None of us were super hungry, also a symptom of altitude sickness, so we stopped at a small bakery and got a cheese empanada for me, and ice cream and carrot cake for the boys.  Later, the kids were still hungry, so we stopped coffee shop for cappuccinos and limeade.  The desserts looked super good, so we decided to indulge in those as well.  My blueberry cheese cake was delicious!  John was very happy with his chocolate torte, Jeremy enjoyed his lemon meringue pie, and James like his rice pudding.  All of this for only $15.

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We went back to the hotel and wandered around the gardens a bit, enjoying the view of the stars, then went back to the room to pack up.

Jeremy had a difficult night, as his altitude sickness was now getting worse – he noticed some decreased coordination, which is one of the not-good symptoms. The interesting thing is that he had no real issues at Cusco at 11,100 ft, but the altitude in Puno at 12,500 ft was just a bit much for him, compared to how he acclimated. It’s also possible that this would have been a non-issue if we had spent a few more days acclimating in Cusco, or if he had used diamox all along.

Fortunately, the higher end hotels all have oxygen tanks, so around midnight we went to the front desk to ask for help.  They said we could use them up to two times for 15-30 minutes without calling a doctor – which would only cost about $20-$50 for an English speaking doctor to come to your hotel, so we went to the first aid room and hooked Jeremy up.  It helped quite significantly.  We didn’t think a doctor would add any anything other than being able to put him on oxygen for the entire night, so we went back to our room.

One of the problems with Puno is that there’s no quick way to decrease altitude. We already had one of the first flights out of the morning booked, which is basically the main solution besides temporary oxygen. By bus, Cusco is a solid 10 hour ride, and not that much lower.  Besides, we also had no desire to be on those roads that late at night – maybe we would be risking our lives in a different way.  Keeping our flight appeared to be the best option, but I was worried.

We got up at 4:40am, and were at the door to the breakfast room when it opened at 5:00am.  By 5:40am, we were out the door with our tour guide.  He chatted the entire hour of the time to the airport.  It was fascinating to hear his thoughts on the Peru economy, his disappointment over government corruption, the prevalence of gold smuggling, and some details on the living conditions of the people.

We were a bit worried at the airport, as we waited to see if our flight would be delayed, but shortly after the plane took off, Jeremy started feeling a bit better. It is amazing to realize that airplane cabins are typically pressurized to 6,000-8,000 feet, which is significantly lower than the 12,500 ft that we were at.  I had a peaceful nap on the relatively short flight to Lima.

Our summary was that Lake Titicaca was definitely an interesting place to visit – we have very happy memories of visiting, and if we were to do it over again, we still would have come.  On the other hand, it is also a destination that we probably won’t return to, at least not anytime soon.  If you are thinking about coming here, seriously think about talking to your doctor about getting a prescription for diamox, or think about using the controversial local remedy for altitude sickness.  In our case, the “safe” natural supplements were completely ineffective once we got here, and it was too late for the diamox to be effective.  Then again, maybe the altitude sickness would have been completely out of control without them.  There is no way to know. Also keep in mind: Machu Picchu is at a much lower elevation than Lake Titicaca (8,000 ft vs 12,500 ft), so if you’re altitude-sensitive, it’s still very reasonable to see the Machu Picchu, but skip Puno.

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