Another Puno View

PUNO, PERU: October 31-November 3

Leah: After an aesthetically pleasing but otherwise non-descript bus-ride from Cuzco, we skirted the azure blue waters of Lake Titicaca before descending into the lakeside city of Puno late on Halloween afternoon. We settled into our private room at the quirky Qoni Wasi hostel ($16, the same as they charged for 2 dorm beds!) and then hit the street to grab some groceries and see the sites. This was another locale I had visited with my sister on our Peru/Bolivia trip in 2008, but I found that I didn’t remember much about the city besides the omnipresent lake and was keen to explore. Of course the first thing we noticed were the kids in costume swarming the streets with little plastic orange pumpkins filled with candy. We knew that Halloween wasn’t quite the same outside the US (if it’s celebrated at all), so we were pleasantly surprised to see typical decorations (cobwebs, witches, spider webs) and munchkins on the prowl for high fructose-laden goodies, almost as it would have been back at home. Groceries secured, kids cooed over and darkness descending, we headed back to the hostel to tuck in, but not before stumbling upon a simply outrageous Chinese place—our taste buds rejoiced at the flavorful and veggie-laden dishes and we even had enough leftovers for a whole other meal.

Our first priority in Puno was securing Bolivian visas; as Americans we have the privilege of needing them (and paying $135 for the honor) when most other countries don’t; the paperwork required is a bit lengthy and we wanted to check in with the consulate to ensure we had everything needed. However, the consulate was closed due to holiday festivities (Day of the Dead and Puno Day), although we did run into Mary, a local tour agent who works with Intrepid Travel (the company Di and I have used on our world trips and can’t endorse enough). She was also hoping to speak to someone in the consulate regarding some of her passengers, so when we all realized that wasn’t going to happen, Mary took us back to her office and hooked us up with all sorts of info about the tours we could take in Puno, all well as confirmed the documents we’d need to process our visa at the border—she even knew my old tour guide, Norma!

Full of information and marveling at chance encounters, we set off on a stroll through the Day of the Dead markets, where vendors sold everything from elaborate and colorful flower arrangements, to tantawawas (intricate bread babies) and miniature bottles of beer and Inca Cola (bubble-gum flavored, neon-yellow hued Peruvian soda) for people to place on their familial altars inside their homes honoring those who have passed on. We snapped up a mini beer/soda combo because we just couldn’t resist—it even came with a tiny glass, serving tray and placemat! Of course street food sampling was also involved, from a plate with noodles and multiple types of potato smothered in beets, tomatoes and a creamy sauce, to orange soda doctored with fresh maracuya and served in a bolsita. Yum! We noshed away as we headed across town toward the pier, from which the boats depart for all points in Lake Titicaca. It was a cloudy, breezy and brisk day, so despite the views, the cold soon drove us back to our hostel. We only left in search of a cheap dinner (there were too many people cooking in the kitchen), which we soon found at a roadside hamburger cart—her patties were stuffed with veggies and spices and with a side of hot chocolate (in a bolsita!), dinner was served.

I mentioned earlier that Puno was in the midst of celebrating of the Dead and Puno Day (their independence day) the whole time we were there, which definitely made for a pulsating and vivacious energy that permeated the city. People were everywhere and traffic was often stopped-day and night- for the various parades, dancers and bands that wound their way through the city streets. Beer flowed, the street food vendors made a killing and we were extra careful with our pockets, as Mary had warned us that petty theft sky rocketed during weekends like this when swarms of outsiders with lithe fingers descend on the city looking for easy prey. But in general, we loved turning a corner and coming face to face with an entire marching band playing their brains out on their way to the central square, or hearing the fireworks as we cooked our meals in the hostel—we definitely picked the right time to hang in Puno.

Of course no trip to Puno would be complete without a trip onto Lake Titicaca to see some of the islands, so we took Mary up on one of her tour offers and rose early in the morning for our tour of Uros, aka The Floating Islands, and Isla Taquile. We learned from our guide that Puno is essentially the dividing line between the Amarya and Quechua cultures, with indigenous north of Puno to Cuzco speaking the Incan language of Quechua and groups south of Puno speaking Amayra. They’ve even held councils in the last few years to determine the spelling of words and places, instead of only using the versions used by the Spaniards (for example, the Spanish spelling of the lake is “Lago Titicaca”, while the indigenous version is “Lago Titikaka”.)

Steve: As Leah mentioned, our first stop 45 minutes from Puno were the floating islands of Uros. One of the goals of travelling is to see and experience how other people live on this little blue planet and this is a prime example of out of the ordinary (my ordinary of course). There are over forty islands made entirely of totora reeds upon which a whole subculture of indigenous Aymara people call home. Each island is over nine feet thick, with new layers constantly added every two weeks or so; each island also has a lifespan of about thirty to forty years after which a new island must be created for its host families. Each island has anywhere from two to six families and one leader; these leaders are in constant contact with the leaders of other islands and confer with each other on all matters that affect the islands as a whole. After getting a brief demonstration of how to build an island we were given a “tour” of the chief’s hut by none other than the true head honcho, his wife Erica. I put tour in quotations as their thatch hut—built with totora reeds of course—was one room with a bed, shelves and the ubiquitous television (many islands had solar power for TV, radio, etc.). She then proceeded to don Leah and another lady with some of her most colorful garments for a great photo op. As you can see, Leah could pass for a ValleyCrest foreman with her bright orange vest. I don’t know if the hat would pass OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards though.

Fashion show over, we cunningly dodged the sales pressure and guilt trips of buying overpriced handicrafts by opting for a ride on one of the family’s boats, made with…you guessed it…totora reeds. I forgot to mention that they even eat the root of the reeds, of which we were given a sample…think grassy, fibrous nothingness (Leah thinks they were slightly sweet). Twenty minutes out on the lake we were then met by our tour boat which reacquired us for the next stop on our tour, the island of Taquile. It took us well over two hours on the clear blue lake to reach this natural island which was honored in 1996 by UNESCO for its textiles. This island of only 2,000 residents retains many of its traditions as the people tend to spend most of their lives on the island and typically do not mix with foreigners (I overheard the tour guide telling someone that some people have mental problems due to the restricted gene pool). Another interesting tidbit is that the island has no dogs. There is no crime on the island (the Taquilenos live by the Incan moral code ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla (Quechua for "do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy")) and therefore the inhabitants do not have a need for dogs since they are seen as required only for protection.

Our tour of this island began with a scenic hike up to the town square. At this altitude it was quite apparent who was a local and who wasn’t, although this would not be hard otherwise since the local dress would be difficult to replicate. The women had much of the same colorful garments as seen on the mainland and Uros islands; the men however had some unique and highly significant articles of clothing. First, the men wore intricately woven belts that told their life stories in pictures; these parts of the belts were typically red which was in contrast with the other half of the belt, which was typically black and white. To our surprise we found out that it was really this seemingly nondescript black and white portion that actually held the most significance—woven in with the alpaca fabric was the hair of the woman they were betrothed to (as of press time, Leah was still not cutting her hair for me).

The second significant article of clothing was the men’s hats which are knitted by the men themselves. It should be noted in fact that pretty much every moment of every day the men on Taquile are knitting—knitting while talking, knitting while chewing coca leaves, knitting while…you get the picture. Their hats typically come in either red or red and white, with the former signifying that the man is married and the latter single. According to their tradition, when a man wants to become engaged to a woman she will take his hat—which resembles a ski cap—and fill the bottom with water from Lake Titicaca. If the hat is well made and holds water (for about at least 20 minutes) then the man is considered worthy and she will marry him. Thankfully I was not put to this test.

Our last evening in Puno meant that there was one more thing to do before leaving Peru; with a backdrop of traditional Peruvian music and dancing I enjoyed the culinary experience that would surely disgust vegetarians everywhere—cuy. For those that didn’t catch my Ecuador post, cuy is guinea pig. Even though it is typically served whole-roasted on a spit, my dish at the Balcones de Puno was served pre-cut and quite elegantly presented with an onion salsa and roasted gilt potatoes (no idea what that means per se, but they were quinoa-encrusted tater tots stuffed with cheese…I could have eaten a plate of just these). It wasn’t until halfway through my meal that I noticed the head was served as well—Leah realized that the poor little bucktoothed fella was staring right at her the whole time she was eating her pizza. Not to miss out on anything, I gave the brains a taste and it turns out they were one of the tastiest parts of this rodent delicacy (I may look totally white but we Mexicans probably eat funkier things than most cultures). For the price—we had found it being offered for twice as much in other places—I can’t say that I’ll have cuy again; it tasted a lot like chicken so why not just stick with chicken? Plus them little guinea pigs are kind of cute…

Upon walking back to our room for a final night at the chic Qoni Wasi, we of course passed through another round of lively street dancing and parades. I have to admit that while dancing is often looked upon as effeminate in the U.S., the moves these guys were putting on were quite tough. These weren’t back-up dancers to Lady Gaga but rather (probably) straight men in cowboy boots performing a well-choreographed ritual that spoke of toughness and masculinity. Think more of the All-Blacks haka than the street-fight-dancers in Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

The next morning we hopped a cab to take us to the bus terminal for the farewell leg of our Peru tour. Our friendly little cabby told us that during Puno’s Carnaval in February, this professed capital of Peruvian folklore drinks as much beer in one week as all of Lima in one year. That is quite the interesting factoid and after seeing Puno get down pretty much every night we were there I find this easy to believe. It is a lively place and I wouldn’t mind coming back through again one day. Plus if I ever need a dentist

CLICK HERE FOR PICTURES OF PUNO AND LAKE TITICACA.

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