This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lake Titicaca Under Siege

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Welcome to Lake Titicaca

Sitting in Cuzco Mika and I come up with our recent, always fluid master plan. First we had planned to only go as far south as Machu Picchu. But we have now decided that the Salt Desert in Bolivia will be our turn around point. A good way to get to Bolivia from Cuzco is to go to Puno (6 hrs) which sits on Lake Titicaca and then cross the border by land or by boat visiting the Bolivian side of the lake if you like. In theory this well-traversed route should be pretty straight-forward and is an easy way to get where we are going. But then wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “how empty is theory in the presence of fact."

A boat tour on Lake Titicaca
Sitting at an altitude of 3,811 meters (12,500 ft.) Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake and a big tourist destination in its own right. The town of Puno is pretty uninteresting and people only come here to see the lake or as their first or last stop when crossing the Peru-Bolivia border (depending on direction). Just outside of Puno there are some cool looking funerary ruins which we do not make it see for reasons which will be explained below.
Lake Titicaca at sunset
On the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca are a few inhabited islands which people can visit and stay the night. Mika and I decide to skip the tour and buy transportation straight to Amantani. We will find our homestay there. Somehow we get put on a tour by the boat company anyway. As we have seen in Thailand, Bali and other frequently visited places worldwide, honesty and integrity are not always a priorities over the greed/need/lust for tourism money. This time, at least, it does not work out so badly and we really enjoy our unplanned tour. 
Lake Titicaca by day from Taquile island

An Uros Float

A floating island of Uros
The first stop is to the floating islands of Uros about thirty minutes from Puno.The islands here are quite interesting. They are man-made out of chunks of floating soil tied together and then every fifteen days a fresh batch of cut reeds is thrown on top to create a soft, yet stable surface. A long time ago the Aymara people escaped to here to avoid having to mingle with the encroaching Incas.
The island edge
Uros is actually composed of many small, separate islands making a narrow oval in the water. Each island is its own community with about eight small huts and their own president. As our boat passes these islands ladies in bright, almost fluorescent clothing are waving trying to get our boat to dock on their plot of floating soil. Now rumor has it that the people from Uros do not actually live on the island anymore - they live in Puno and commute to work before the first tourist boats arrive. This may be partially, but not completely true. There is a floating school for floating island children. If nobody actually lives here (and the school is abandoned), then I liken this tour to visiting Pioneer Village or Medieval World - a fun glimpse into what life was like back when people lived on a floating block of dirt.
Visit to a floating island
The boat docks and we are greeted warmly by our hosts with handshakes. Taking photos of our hosts is very welcomed here. Our guide gives us a short presentation about life on a floating island and we all get to snack on fresh reeds plucked from Lake Titicaca. We then visit inside a thatched home of one of the hosts and then soon comes the hard sell - it's handicrafts time! Everyone is selling touristy goods and the fact that we might spend some money is probably the real reason that we are so welcomed onto the islands and the natives are so inviting. We are then given a mini-concert by the three or four generations of ladies of our island.
Singing floating islanders
At the end of our stay we have the option for five soles (US $1.85) to take a short ride on a traditional boat to the main floating island. Only Mika and I and a German family are obliging knowing this money goes straight to the family and not skimmed by tour agency middlemen. On this reed boat kids sing songs for coins which they use to buy snacks at the island store. I guess even in Uros, potato chips will beat out chewing on lake reeds every time.
Gringos eating reeds
Made in Uros

An Amantani Homestay

Amantani island
We say goodbye to the reed eaters then chug along to our next stop, Amantani island for our homestay. Again there is something a bit fishy happening. We are told that there is a rotation for having homestay guests, but somehow us and a very nice French couple who also did not sign up for a tour end up with a guy who works with our boat company. Either way they are a nice family and it is a good visit. We eat strictly vegetarian food from things grown on the island like potatoes, quinoa and oca - a small tuber. There is not a lot of meat on this island. I see plenty of sheep but cannot recall seeing any pigs, cows or chickens. We are also told that Bolivians have plucked all the fish from the lake - so oca it is.

After lunch we leave the mother and grandmother to sort a large pile of their potato crop while the family’s eight year-old son (who by the way has never left Amantani) leads us up a large hill to the top of the island for 360 degree views and the sunset. There are a surprisingly large number of foreigners here considering that we hardly saw anyone in Puno. This hike must be everyone’s pre-dinner activity. After dinner we have a nice conversation with our host and the French couple then are told about the after-dinner activity. We will be going to a traditional party and must put on proper island attire. Women are given embroidered shirts and bright colored skirts while the men get ponchos and wool hats.
Amantani get up 
This is also a very planned tourist activity with several of these dress up parties happening every night around the island depending on the number of tourists. At our party is a live band and a large group of lively Peruvian tourists. The dancing is just holding hands and walk around in a circle slightly moving our feet and hips. Our eight-year old host is very cordial always asking if we want another round of this neverending hora. Though we are never quite sure if this boy is having fun dancing with us or is obligated to do it by his mother.
The Amantani Sextet
As we walk back from the party there is one incredible thing I notice about Amantani -- silence. This might just be the first village in all of Latin America where I cannot hear a radio playing too loudly. Also, there are no cars or motorbikes, no traffic noise at all unless you count bleating sheep. Even the lake, tonight calm and waveless, is not making any noise. If anyone is looking to get away from it all, this is your place.
An Amantani thoroughfare
After breakfast the next morning we get back on the boat to go to our final island. Taquile is somewhat like the Uros visit where the guide explains things about their culture with geography of Amantani. The people here are not as friendly as the other islands. They do not like photos and the children do not say “hola” when we pass. There is an abundance of satelite dishes and Mika surmises that tv makes people less amicable. It seems this island just wants us here to buy handicrafts at their very large store on the plaza and to eat in the over-priced restaurants which the guide will inevitably lead you to. For me, Taquile could easily be skipped and having more time to explore Amantani much more preferable.
Mika and our guide/host on Amantani

Puno Under Siege

As mentioned above, we have come to Puno to go to Bolivia. Only arriving in Puno do we learn that the border has been blockaded for about two weeks by Aymara peope, campesinos (people living in rural areas) who are protesting mining concessions that have been given to a Canadian company. They fear the enormous impact that the mines will have on their land, agriculture and water. They also know from past experience -- hmm let's see maybe back since the Spanish conquest -- that of all the riches extracted from Peru the indigenous rural communities see very little benefit. Blockading roads seems to be quite a normal activity in Bolivia and this part of Peru.

Fed up with the government not doing anything about their demands, the Aymara protesters decided to move their protest up north to Puno, the provincial capital in order to be heard. Thousands of Aymara men and women from rural areas converged on the city and camped out around town, but mostly in the main plaza. This is around the time that Mika and I arrived in Puno.
Puno's main plaza
The protesters seem quite organized considering that they could mobilize thousands of people to Puno without using Facebook or Twitter. The problem is that they did not consider things like garbage, food or toilets. During our week in Puno the town is slowly getting trashed and smells more and more like a porta potty every day. The protest also grew as all the roads surrounding Puno are blocked not just towards the border with Bolivia.  Local merchants fear looting and do not want protesters into their places of business. I think many citizens of Puno are sympathetic to the campesinos cause, but resent that they are the ones being held hostage.
"Viva the strike! Water yes, mine no"
Businesses in Puno put up signs like these to either show support
and/or to avoid damages to their property by protesters

Here is our week in Puno under seige:

Monday: We arrive to Puno late in the afternoon knowing absolutely nothing about the protests or that the border to Bolivia has been blocked for almost two weeks. There is a large march with thousands of campesinos making their way to the main plaza. At night the main plaza is completely full with protesters who I believe sleep there all night. Some vehicles were burned this night.

Tuesday: Puno's bus station is closed and there are no cars on the roads. We were on one of the last few buses to make it on Monday. We walk down to the pier, mostly all of the shops are closed. Boats to Lake Titicaca are running normally. This night we go to the plaza again to see what is happening. It is still completely occupied by the protesters.
The usually busy streets of Puno
Wednesday: We leave our hotel early and walk to the pier to take our boat to the islands. We pass many more protesters today than we did yesterday. They seem to be gathering in small groups to have breakfast and hash out the days protest plan.

While waiting on the boat to leave, we are all suddenly rushed inside the cabin. Our boat and the others waiting at the pier quickly scatter out onto the lake. We see a group of protesters rush the pier brandishing large sticks. Avoiding that confrontation we start our island tour and hope that things will be settled by the time we come back to Puno tomorrow.

Walking back to town
Thursday: As we are returning from the island tour our boat crew learns that the piers nearest to the city are now being blocked. Boats cannot come or leave. We dock at a pier well out of town and walk as a group twenty-five minutes to our hotels. Many people are out and about, but no vehicles. There is a lot of garbage on the sidewalks and large rocks on the streets (a common tactic of the blockaders). 

We make it safely back to our hotel and later head out for dinner. Now the atmosphere is much more tense than before. When groups of marchers come people quickly scatter indoors and lock their doors. We slip into a Chinese restaurant* which twice during dinner turns off the lights to give the impression that they are closed as some small, but aggressive bands of marchers pass.

Tonight turns quite dangerous. Two government buildings are looted with property stolen and many documents burned. A telephone booth is smashed and many bank windows are shattered. Having already declared that they will not confront the protesters, police presence is almost non-existent. By around 11:00 PM all protesters begin to clear out of the center of Puno. The vans parked in front of our hotel for days now pack up and leave. We are not sure if this is just to take a break from sleeping on the cold cement or if it is because of rumors circulating that the military is coming.
One of many broken bank windows
Friday: In the morning the protesters are almost completely gone from Puno's center and the plaza has been cleared out. We hear that they are blocking the roads on the outskirts of town. Garbage is finally being collected while people are giving their sidewalks a much needed scrubbing. Many people are walking around town enjoying the day off and surveying last night's damage. There is still an uncertainty in the air about what will happen tonight. People are getting cash from ATM's - some are empty - and stocking up on food for tonight. 
Extra, Extra!: People at a newsstand trying to get information about what is happening
This evening protesters have decided to ease up on Puno, at least for the weekend. We see cars on the road for the first time since Monday night. Mika and I go to the bus station and buy a ticket for Arequipa, Peru.

Saturday: Everything is running normally out of Puno, however, we receive conflicting reports about whether the road to Bolivia is open. But this does not matter for us because we have already chosen to do the round-about, yet sure, way to Bolivia via southern Peru and Chile. We missed some interesting sites around Puno, and we wish the Aymara well with their struggle, but gladly get on the bus out of Puno.
A Chinese restaurant with only one small security door open that can be quickly closed
* Chinese restaurant owners are indefatigable. I have eaten Chinese food on Christmas in the USA, during Ramadan in Malaysia and now at mass protests in Peru. Do they ever close?


  1. Holy Smokes Jeff! We have Puno scheduled on our trip to Peru. Should be there in three weeks. I bet it will be exciting.

  2. Your travels are so interesting! Thank you for the fabulous photos. This is one area I have wanted to visit for a long time.

  3. Gabriele,

    You'll definitely have a fun time on the islands, but I really hope all of the issues with the mining concessions are sorted out before you arrive. If it is as bad as when we were there you might not even be able to go though I think it will be settled by then.
    Enjoy eating reeds!

  4. Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for the kind comments. Yes, Peru has been quite interesting and I feel like we have barely seen any of it. Hopefully you'll make i here soon.