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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Puma Punku. The Greatest Mystery of All Times

Our visit to Puma Punku is dedicated to our son Viktor, who is a great supporter of the Ancient Aliens theory

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La Paz

Bolivia’s capital La Paz is not the “crowded dirty and poor place up in the middle of nowhere” we expected it to be. To our surprise, we found a bustling modern city with tall buildings, traffic jams and busy people, like everywhere else. We check-in in a nice clean new hostel ‘La Perla Negra’ (The Black Pearl) near the bus terminal in the center of the city, no noise after 9:00 p.m., with stunning view from the upper terrace, where Ivo and Maya can play unlimited billiards and foosball. It’s $20.00 per night for the three of us, breakfast included. We love the place and recommend it.

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia, view from the hostel

It’s raining and it’s cold most of the time- it’s rainy season, so our options for exploring the town and its surroundings are limited. Plus, Ivo has terrible altitude sickness with high fever (La Paz stands at 4000m above sea level) and we skip the famous Camino de la Muerte bike ride, leaving it for the next time we are around.

But we decide to check out another Valle de la Luna taking a bus to the outskirts of La Paz and hitchhiking back through some surprisingly rich area with multi-million dollar villas, which we didn’t expect to see in Bolivia at all.

Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is situated about 10 kilometers from downtown La Paz. Tall spikes formed by erosion in the clay mountain cover a large area overlooking the capital.

Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna

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We spend three days in La Paz: watching the carnival, walking around the market, and riding the Teleferico- a cable lift used as public transportation, like bus and metro in other cities, with affordable rates and spectacular view, passing directly over rooftops and backyards of people’s homes.

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Puma Punku

Not far from La Paz is a famous archeological site we don’t want to miss- Puma Punku. It is worth paying it a short visit while in the area, especially for those fascinated by ancient civilizations and their mysteries. Puma Punku is considered the greatest mystery of all times.

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A small mini-bus with a few other tourists and a few locals takes us 72 km west of La Paz to the town of Tiahuanaco, a typical Bolivian town with dirt roads and houses made of red clay bricks among the naked brown hills and green pastures of the Bolivian dry highlands. Named after an important pre-Inca civilization, the ancient ruins of Tiahuanaco and the Puma Punku site represent one of the oldest and highest urban cities ever built- the main headquarters of a powerful empire, as well as a sacred center of the Andean region, where the indigenous people went on pilgrimage to worship the Gods.

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The Tiwanaku community grew to 20,000 people between 600 and 800 AD but disappeared completely around AD 950 as a result of climate change and a great drought in the Titicaca basin. Rediscovered in 1546 the local descendants of the Tiwanaku people told the conquistadors that tall giants built this place, as the people of that time didn’t have the technology to transport and shape such large monoliths and complex interlocking granite stones with perfect sharp edges and unknown purpose, which to us look like parts of a complex machinery.

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The Puma Punku ruins are one of four structures in the ancient city of Tiahuanaco. The others three are The Akapana Pyramid, the Kalasasaya Platform, and the Subterranean Temple.

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The mystery remains today. Who built these structures? What are they? How were they built? And to what purpose?

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These are probably the oldest and strangest ruins on the face of the Earth. The stones in Puma Punku are made up of giant granite and diorite, some hundreds of tons brought in from over 10 miles away, and the only thing that could have cut them is diamond, which means that the people who built this place did not use traditional stone cutting techniques of the ancient times. But they didn’t use diamond either. Even today it would be hard to cut such giant heavy interlocking blocks with the precision and sharpness achieved in Puma Punku many centuries ago.

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So who did all this? One possibility is that a cataclysmic event such as a great flood wiped out the ancient peoples and their advanced technology (whatever it might have been) along with any records they may have kept. Another theory supported by the tale of ‘the tall giants’ suggests that only aliens visiting our planet could have done it.

We still don’t know…

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Heroes of The Pacific Ocean

Heroes of The Pacific Ocean

Crossing the Pacific Ocean between the Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas on a tiny sailing yacht- close to 3000 nautical miles; a month without land – is an epic adventure and a great achievement for any cruising family with limited navigational knowledge and little sailing experience, but it is NOT EXACTLY an act of heroism. Not heroes but dreamers and adventurers; not brave but daring, curious, and a little insane are those who have done it, and they are many. We salute you!

In May of 2016, we- Ivo, Mira and 12-year-old Maya, sailed across the vastest interrupted stretch of water on Earth aboard our 38-foot Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana. It took us 23 days and nights of nothing-but-sea; 23 days and nights suspended in space and time, alone in the blue watery desert of the Pacific Ocean. But we were not alone, and this story is not about us. This story has much more protagonists than the three of us- many true heroes to whom we are forever grateful.

During the long passage, the Auto Pilot, the Solar Installation and Watermaker, all the Electronics, and the Sails, became crew members with individual souls and personalities. We grew very fond of them, each day more and more. They are “the good guys” of this story.

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The Auto-Pilot steered the boat on course day and night – a trusty invisible helmsman magically turning the wheel, relentlessly adjusting the course, mile upon mile, non-stop for over 500 hours, allowing us to rest and relax and just be lazy most of the time. What would we do without him? We later heard that a couple of boats crossing around the same time like us lost their auto-pilots and the crew had to constantly hand-steer for a month. What a disaster!

Aboard with us were also the Solar Panels (a total of 1500 Watts) filing the electricity bank consisting of Lithium Batteries with enough electrical power for the GPS, Auto-Pilot and all other boat electronics to run non-stop, for the fridge and the Watermaker, as well as all lights, our TV and computers. We never had to turn on the engines to produce electricity- we had plenty. By 10 a.m. we were already maxed-up and all systems worked perfectly. The Watermaker produced water for a couple of hours every second day to make sure our 800 l water tanks are half-full (we didn’t keep them full to reduce weight on the front) with us taking daily freshwater showers, washing dishes and clothes. We missed for nothing. We felt spoiled.

Our Sails are the original ones- as old as the boat, made 16 years ago. 16 years of gentle winds and sudden squalls. Every morning, we would inspect the Sails with tenderness and admiration- faded patched-up old rags on one of their final epic journeys. They should have been retired and replaced long time ago, but sails are expensive and we couldn’t afford it. Ripped in many places and mended many times, the Sails look like a complicated abstract art installation with small and large squares and rectangles patched up all over, which we sawed on ourselves with the SailRite sawing machine every time a hole opened up. We worried, especially for the Jib. We thought that he will not survive the long one-month passage, but he did! Wounded in many places and literally “out of shape”, our veteran of a jib gave the best of himself and once again performed selflessly, like a brave hero, till the end. He got ripped in two placed during a violent gale that hit us with 35-40 knots sustained for one hour in the middle of the passage, but we fixed him again and kept going. Besides the old Mainsail and Jib, we have a small underside second-hand used Spinnaker, which too served us well on this passage, and no other sails.

The Auto-Pilot, Solar Installation, Electronics, Watermaker, and the Sails were the soldiers of a small army unit called Fata Morgana- “a vision” or “a mirage”- and she fought well. Fata Morgana never let us down. Even in that gale, when we couldn’t take it anymore, she took it. Heavy and overloaded, filled with domestic stuff and provisions, Fat Fata was our comfortable safe home and vehicle during our longest non-stop passage. We love her dearly and are extremely proud with her. Well done, Fata!

And we haven’t forgotten a few other heroes- the IridiumGo satellite system and the people behind it. In the beginning of this trip, for the first couple of weeks, the satellite system glitched and we couldn’t send messages or access internet. We could only receive messages and download the weather forecast. Then, Ivo reset the system and suddenly the Sat started working properly again, just in time. The next day, when the bad weather hit, we were able to update our status and send our exact position to a couple of friends on land, in case of search and rescue. It is a great comfort to know that if the boat capsizes and you find yourself shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean (which is something I inevitably imagine during strong winds and huge waves), help will find us, thanks to this new technology of communication; thanks to Mel Ebstein and Kristina Barakova- Albu (Krisha)- both good friends and experienced sailors based in Australia. Miles away, they were constantly with us during the entire passage, sending weather up-dates and forecast, advising and cheering us up, monitoring our position and progress. Mel could somehow find our exact position using Marine Traffic even when we couldn’t send him messages and he would send us very detailed weather up-dates as well as some world-news. And thanks to Krisha we could up-date our Facebook page, so that all our friends and followers could read about our progress and status. Guys, you cannot imagine how much your help and support meant to us, especially in those scary times. Thank you Mel and Krisha, you are our true heroes!

As for the three of us, we did good too. Ivo didn’t sleep for 23 day and nights, staying in the cockpit and keeping an eye on the boat, like those birds who sleep with half their brain at a time and one eye open, while the other eye keeps watch. He kept the boat steady during the squalls and took good care of all systems, making sure everything is ship-shape. My heroic acts were mainly performed in the galley, where I had to deal with 100 pounds of potatoes, 20 expired cake mixes, 120 eggs, and four tunas and dorados. Maya did school almost every day and finished the dreaded math manual with 23 tests at the end- one for each day of the passage. She worked hard on her upcoming book- short-stories about the fish and the sea, and never even once complained of being bored. But most importantly, she was really brave during the gale and never got scared. She even tried to cheer us up, telling us that nothing bad will happen. A brave little sailor, so proud with her!

 

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Our Pacific Ocean Passage was A Piece of Cake

Our Pacific Ocean Passage was A Piece of Cake

Later, I told Maya that our Pacific Ocean Passage was “a piece of cake”. One of those fresh delicious vanilla cakes frosted with fluffy cream and glazed strawberries- the one you like so much, only this particular piece had a big fat dead cockroach in the middle. Imagine that you are in a pastry shop and you order a piece of strawberry and vanilla cake, but it comes with one condition: you have to eat the whole huge piece. You can’t just have half a slice and say that’s it, I am full. You got to eat the entire big piece of cake, and everything in it, and chew slowly.

We enjoyed the first half of the passage so much. We savored it with delight. Fresh trades 12-18 knots from southeast carrying us on a broad reach, gentle seas, blue sparkling skies, an occasional tuna or a dorado on the hook, calm starry nights, the boat comfortably running with 6-7 knots directly towards destination. From Isabela Island in the Galapagos to Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia, the distance is almost 3000 nautical miles; it should take us not more than a month. And this is the perfect time of the year- the beginning of May, when the winds are constant and light and nothing bad can happen.

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It was the perfect sail until we got to the middle. The middle of the vastest ocean on Earth, the middle of our longest non-stop passage. And there, a thousand miles from any land, unexpected, unwanted and unpredicted- the big fat dead cockroach in the form of a gale. Remember the deal? You have to swallow the entire thing.

It started with a couple of days of stronger winds 20 to 28 knots, shifting from southeast and northeast, the seas rising  with 4-meter swell, confused square waves, clouds gathering, the boat changing direction, surfing down the huge waves, rocking and rolling. “This is not what we ordered!”, we complained, but there is no going back, no refunds. Day and night and another day and another night, exhausted, we ride the big seas. Then, on the fourteenth day of the passage, at 05:00 a.m. in the morning, 1000 NM to destination, the jib and mainsail fully reefed, a massive gale descends upon us from dark heavy skies- rain and furious winds. Suddenly, 35-40 kt winds sustained for half an hour. With already 4-meter waves and the reefed main up, the boat starts surfing like mad and the autopilot cannot take it. Ivo is hand-steering now, the wind behind us. The sound of an immense profound silence filled with the deaf howling of one hundred invisible powerful dragons. We furl the jib but the waves are huge and sharp, and our speed is very fast to try and heave to (turn the boat towards the wind) in order to drop the main. I am afraid our 38-fooot Leopard catamaran will overturn. A few times, surfing down a giant wave, I think the boat will not make it. I imagine the worst. I remember people telling us to get a sea anchor or a drogue in case of such situation, or at least to have a car tire on a long rope, which when deployed from the stern of the boat will act as a drogue. It will slow down and stabilize the boat, and will prevent uncontrolled surfing. We have none of these.

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The wind drops to 30-35 kts for another half an hour and we manage to heave to and take down the mainsail. Now, with just a bit of the jib sticking out we are safe and ride out the rest of the storm. We chew and we swallow the cockroach Bear Grills style- we survive.

More squalls hit us after this with winds up to 30 kts and much shorter duration, but this time we are prepared and everything is under control. We reef early and we tie to our longest ropes the two large and very sturdy plastic beer crates we bought in Galapagos- now empty- and we use them as drogues during the squalls. They perform famously. The boat is steady, the speed slower, we don’t surf anymore.

The weather finally calms down. The next morning, Maya wakes up and looks at the blue skies. “No storms!”, she smiles.

900 NM to destination, winds 10-15 kts from east, 1-meter swell, boat speed 5-6 kts. We sleep, we fiddle with the spinnaker, we fix the hole that opened up in the jib, we make fresh bread and muffins, we resume fishing, we wash the salt off the boat, we read books, we watch films in the evening. It’s back to normal, the way it should be this time of the year in this part of the ocean. We arrived in Fatu Hiva after 23 days at sea, most of which were perfectly beautiful. Yet, the bitter taste of the nasty surprise in the middle remains at the back of the tongue.

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