Titicaca- The Lake From Our Dreams

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Copacabana

From La Paz, we take the bus to Copacabana- a touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Again we look for cheap accommodation, but all the hostels are full with backpackers mainly from Chile, as apparently the schools and university in Chile are on vacation in February and everyone is visiting neighboring affordable Bolivia. In the backyards of some hostels, backpackers have even organized small camping sites, but this time we don’t have our tent, so we keep looking for a cheap room. We finally find one in a dirty suspicious hostel- two beds, next to the common toilets, which is a disaster, but we take it for the night ($10.00 is too much for such a shitty place but we have no other option). We spend the afternoon looking around town: the massive white cathedral, the busy market, the beach on the lake. We can’t believe we are finally here. Lake Titicaca- the lake with the funny name with snowcapped mountains on the horizon, the lake from our childhood geography lessons, the lake from our dreams- is right at our feet, sparkling blue, peaceful, enchanted.

Copacabana

Copacabana

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

With an average depth of 100 meters, reaching some 280 meters at the deepest parts, lake Titicaca is the deepest highest navigable lake in the world, with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters. It is the largest lake in South America located in the Andes Mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Five major river systems and more than twenty other smaller streams feed into Lake Titicaca, and it has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated.

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Isla del Sol

The next morning, we take the ferry to Isla del Sol (The Sun Island). It’s raining and the sky is covered with grey clouds, but as soon as we reach the Island, the sky clears and the sun illuminates the most beautiful landscape: steep green hills and rocky shores, yellow-sand beaches and tiny stone houses- a fairytale land floating in an immense calm lake of blue water.

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Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on the lake where, it was believed, the sun god was born. Instead of streets, there are narrow paths covered with flat rocks and mud winding between the houses of approximately 800 families, up and down the slopes. The main economic activities are fishing and farming using agricultural terraces on the hills, with tourism picking up speed. There are over 180 ruins on the island, with the main attraction- a sacrificial table, where human blood was offered to the Sun God in the times of the Incas.

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We hike to the sacrificial table and back (about 3 hours both directions) admiring the gentle white and purple flowers of the potatoes blooming on the hills, the tranquility of the land and the immensity of the lake, we eat avocado and egg sandwiches which two women are selling to tourist in front of their house, and we take the ferry back to Copacabana just in time to get on the evening bus to Puno- another city on the shores of the big lake, but on the Peruvian side of the border.

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Sacrificial Table

Sacrificial Table

Floating Uros Islands

We are back in Peru. In Puno, we find a new clean hostel- private shower with hot water, internet and two double beds for $10.00. We rest, and early in the morning we are off to the docks again. We find the ferry to the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile and once again we are exploring Lake Titicaca, this time from the Peruvian side.

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The boat ride is spectacular. We are navigating through channels among swampy waters covered with tall sharp grass sticking out of the shallow lake, birds panicking as the boat approaches, flapping wings, screaming and running in all directions on the lake’s surface. Flamingos fly overhead. After a few hours we reach the Floating Uros Islands- a group of some 40 artificial islands made of floating totora reeds.

Floating Uros Islands

Floating Uros Islands

The ancient Uros were the owners of the lake and water- people with black blood who did not feel the cold. They were the Sons of The Sun. In the times of the Inca invasions, the islanders would simply lift anchor and drift together with their homes to a safe corner of the lake. Yet, they were conquered and made slaves. Today, the remaining Uros people lost their languages but kept many of their traditional ways. They still build their boats and islands using bundles of dried totora reeds abundant in the shallows of the lake, adding solar panels for electricity. (Dry reeds are very flammable, and fire and diesel generators are not too practical anymore.) The dense roots of the plants keep growing after the construction of the islands and interweave to form a natural one-meter layer called Khili that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The lower layer of reeds rapidly rots away, so new reeds are added to the top every three months. The islands last about thirty years.

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The place has become a major tourist attraction losing much of its authenticity due to the fact that the few hundred remaining locals have become businessmen relying more and more on the tourist dollar, waiting for the next tourist boat to arrive, organizing tours, demonstrations and craft markets. Yet, it is still a unique place worth the visit.

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Isla Taquile

Next, we continue to Isla Taquile, where the festivities for the February carnival are still under way and we witness another festival.

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Taquile is a hilly island with an area of less than 6 square kilometers and was used as a prison during the Spanish Colony. In 1970 it became property of the Taquile people, who have inhabited the island ever since – around 2,200 people. The highest point of the island is 4,050 meters above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 m. Similarly to Isla del Sol in Bolivia, here are found some pre-Inca ruins, and agricultural terraces on the hillsides.

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With no cars and hotels, life on Taquile is still largely unchanged by modern civilization and tourism, and the place is truly authentic and wonderful. Everyone wears traditional clothes. “Taquile and Its Textile Art” were proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Here knitting is big part of the culture and is done by the men ONLY, starting at a very early age. The women make yarn and weave.

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Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, and restaurants to tourists. Ever since tourism started coming to Taquile in the seventies the taquleans have slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans. The Taquileans have thus developed alternative tourism models, including lodging for groups, cultural activities and local guides, who have recently completed a 2-year training program. Furthermore, the local Travel Agency Munay Taquile has been established to regain control over tourism. (from Wikipedia)

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This means, that your boat ride to the island and your guide will be locals from Taquile, and all the dollars you spend on your visit will go 100% straight to the local community- AWESOME! Here, we meet a local guy named Delfin, who can accommodate visitors in his home for an overnight visit and awesome local meals and provide a truly authentic experience, so if you are in the area- give him a call, he is a fine sweet and very reliable guy delfin18ani@hotmail.com

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Many people later asked us if we had to choose one destination: Copacabana in Bolivia with Isla del Sol or Puno with the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile, which one would it be. We always tell them, that these two destinations are very different and are both worth the visit.

Lake Titicaca

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Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.

We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…

There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.

a lama on the road

a lama on the road

We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.

Bolivia

Bolivia

We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.

The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.

First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.

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Train Cemetery

From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.

Lama chops with quinoa

Lama chops with quinoa

 

From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.

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Maya’s Bubba at Uyuni salt flats. He is coming everywhere with us since Maya was a baby

Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.

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We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.

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The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!

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From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.

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The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.

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We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.

Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery

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