This is a tough travel journal entry to write because, although we loved our time on a floating island of Lake Titicaca, our time in the area ended very badly.
We flew from Lima to Juliaca (near Lake Titicaca) last Tuesday morning. We arrived at the small airport in Juliaca and met the driver that our host, Carlos from Uros Lake Titicaca Lodge, had sent to pick us up. It took about 45 minutes of driving to get us into the city of Puno, on the lake. There, at Carlos’ instruction, the driver waited while we grabbed lunch from a cafe in town. The food at La Receta was delicious and hearty and the service was friendly. Daisy was still recovering from being ill, so she ordered a potato soup. I had a pesto chicken panini, Mic ordered a veggie burger, and Jon ordered a hummus plate. As usual, we drank limonadas and Coca Cola with our lunch. We wanted to walk to the train station to print our rail tickets for Saturday, but we did not know how far it was and we didn’t want to keep the driver waiting too long. So, after lunch, we walked back to the waiting driver. We quickly realized that the altitude (12,560 feet) would have an effect on us. When we got to the shuttle, we all felt out of breath and headachy and eager to get to our lodging.
The driver took us to a small boat launch area just outside of town. There, our host, Carlos, was waiting for us in his small motor boat. Carlos was quiet, but kind, and he spoke fairly good English. He told us a little about the area as we rode through reeds and past floating islands to the lodge where his family hosts guests.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of stepping onto a small island formed completely of thick layers of reeds. The ground was spongy and sloped. There were several small buildings around the perimeter and a small garden and walkways in the center.
Our room was in the first structure adjacent to where Carlos docked the boat, and we climbed a short ladder to open the door. Inside were two full beds covered in colorful woven blankets and pillows. The opposite wall was all windows looking out over the lake. There was also a small sink in a corner next to an enclosed bathroom which held a pit style toilet and a shower. Carlos explained that the toilet was used for compost and we would simply cover our business with a few scoopfuls of sandy dirt conveniently located right next to the toilet. Not my favorite part of the lodge, but we could all handle it.
The patio overlooking the lake was lovely, though the sloped angle of the whole structure made me envision us sliding right off the reeds into the water! We were all so tired that we just periodically napped for a couple hours. The napping was interspersed with moments of sitting out on our little patio and admiring the view. Though Daisy had not been feeling great, she became quite lively when we pointed out the little kitten on the patio. For the rest of our stay, she was almost obsessed with that cat.
A homemade dinner was served in a communal dining area around 8:00 at night. For less than $7 each, we all enjoyed the quinoa and vegetable soup, chicken, rice, and fried potatoes. Jon and the girls drank tons of tea with sugar, and we all just sat and absorbed the unique experience of being on the rustic floating island.
Even after our napping, we were ready for bed pretty early. Our host brought us hot water bottles for our beds, and this became one of our favorite parts of every evening. Snuggling up under piles of blankets each night with a hot water bottle warming our feet, while the water lapped outside, lightening flashed in a distance, and rain fell on the roof was absolutely awesome!
On Wednesday, our host arranged for us to join a tour of Tequile Island. The day turned out to be beautiful and sunny. After breakfast in the common dining room, Carlos took us in his boat to meet a larger tour boat out on the lake. We hopped on and enjoyed a comfortable, hourlong boat ride out to the island. There, the residents maintain beautiful small farming communities and adhere to long-standing traditions. The men of the island are world-class weavers who start learning their craft at the age of six. The colorful clothing was beautiful to see. As part of the tour, the people of the island demonstrated their weaving process and skills, played traditional music, demonstrated dances, and prepared a delicious meal of soup, grilled trout, rice, vegetables, and potatoes. Afterwards, we had an opportunity to purchase some of their handmade items; Mic chose a sun hat while Daisy selected a bracelet. The scenic hike down to our waiting boat was lovely. We truly cherish our experience on Tequile Island.
Back at the floating island lodge, we relaxed on the patio and admired the sunset. Daisy made friends with a young girl from Mexico who had arrived with her parents the previous evening. They spent the afternoon and twilight hours chasing down the kitten to play with him. When they were forced to use flashlights to see outside, we called her in to get ready for dinner. The shower was barely hot, so we took quick ones! We ate chicken and pasta on our second night and, again, too much tea with sugar was consumed! Back in our room, there were cheers of excitement when the hot water bottles were delivered.
Thursday, we got a late start to the day, and ventured into Puno for the afternoon. We couldn’t afford another full tour experience, but Carlos set up a driver to take us into the countryside to explore the nearby Sillustani ruins. The driver took us into Puno where we were able to buy a few lunch and snack items at a supermarket and get some cash from the ATM. From there, he drove us about an hour away, through a small town adjacent to the archeological site. At the site, he waited while we ate our picnic lunch made from items assembled at the market, and then explored on our own. There was a street lined with vendors and cafes that led up to the hillside ruins. Unfortunately, without a guide, we were not to clear on what we were looking at. The landscape and stone structures seemed to be primarily sites for tombs, but the English translations explaining each site were so confusing that we really didn’t learn anything. We just appreciated the structures and the beautiful landscape around us!
After leaving the ruins, the driver stopped in the small town, at the home and shop of a local family, to let us view some crafts, sample some potatoes and cheese, and take some pictures with llamas and alpacas. Then, we returned to the dock in Puno. There Carlos was waiting to take us back to the island.
Dinner that night was a noisy affair, as there were two groups of traveling backpackers staying the night. One group was from England and the other from Australia. We sat with the university students from Australia and enjoyed a lively conversation. Along with the usual soup, we were served a beef and sautéed vegetable dish for dinner.
In the morning, the group from England was already gone by the time we sat down for breakfast with the Australian students. We talked travel and education and then bid them farewell as they caught their boat ride back to Puno. When Carlos returned, he took us on a reed boat tour of the immediate vicinity; he taught us a bit about the Uros Islands as he paddled us around to view some of the neighboring islands. We checked in with the students in Ojai, and gave them a tour of the lodge, before heading into Puno.
We had one more night at the lodge, so our plan was to pick up our train tickets for the next morning, grab some lunch, and get some cash to pay Carlos for our stay. When we got to the train station, ready as requested with our passports and the credit card we’d used to purchase the tickets, it was closed for lunch. We decided to explore a bit and look for a place to eat while we waited for them to reopen at 3:00. We didn’t get very far. We stopped at a fruit stand to buy a dragon fruit, we stopped at Cafe Mercedes to purchase a couple of pastries, and then we had our stuff stolen.
Having our backpack, with passports, licenses, debit cards, credit card, and our family’s personal belongings stolen is one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Trying to stay calm once we realized it was gone was challenging, but necessary with both girls getting emotional. Then, seeing on the security video from the cafe that it had been taken from a chair while we stood a few feet away ordering our pastries, was infuriating. Dealing with the tourism police, who spoke no English and felt that a turtle’s pace was appropriate, was frustrating. Realizing that we had not had the opportunity to print our train tickets and therefore might not be able to board our train to Cusco in the morning was heartbreaking.
Through four and a half hours of dealing with the police, calming our girls (and Jon), and desperately trying to access the cash we needed in order to pay Carlos, I didn’t break down and cry. But, I was pretty certain I would lose it completely if we weren’t able to board our train to Cusco. Cusco had become the promised land. Our ten-hour train ride was expected to be one of the highlights of our trip. We had an apartment already reserved for ten nights which was to be our base camp for exploring the region and visiting Machu Picchu. If we missed that train and became trapped in Puno, I knew I would probably break down!
It started to rain heavily as we left the police station, police report in hand. All of our raincoats had been in the backpack. We caught a cab back to the dock. We had been able to use Mickie’s debit card, and increase her limits with Wells Fargo, to access enough cash to pay Carlos. He picked us up at the dock around 6:30 p.m. for our last night on his island. We were wet, angry, anxious, and hungry, since we still hadn’t eaten a meal. Carlos’ calming presence, a warm fish dinner on the island, and a bottle of wine helped me get through the night. We chatted with a couple of sympathetic new lodgers from Switzerland, and sharing travel horror stories, and laughter, also helped.
Back in our room we packed up, set our alarms, and tried to sleep. 5:00 came early and we got out the door and on Carlos’ boat by 6:00, hoping to be allowed on the 7:30 a.m. train to Cusco, even without any documents. It was a stressful morning, and we didn’t fully relax until the train started moving out of the station with us on it!