Titicaca and the Two Faces of Cusco

It was a close call catching the bus to Titicaca (pronounced “tee-tee-ka-ka”) on that nutty morning in La Paz.  We did, however make it, thanks to our stellar taxi driver.  Amid one of the hundred traffic jams our bus sat in that morning, a local on the sidewalk rushed to the bus, opened the underneath baggage storage and grabbed a bag.  Our bus driver immediately parked the bus, got out and rescued the stolen luggage.  Five minutes later, in a less hectic spot, he pulled over and asked everyone who had bags underneath, to go and check to make sure everything was there.  Of course, we had stowed both of our packs.  I proceeded to check for both of us.

The verdict – it was Dale’s bag that the would-be thief tried to make off with.  The driver told me that the man was opening it as he grabbed it back from him.  I double- checked; the zipper was closed, all seemed ok.  I reported back to Dale on the bus, that it was, indeed his bag, but that everything looked ok.  Other than that little glitch, the ride was easy.  The buzz of the city fell away behind us as we turned our backs to the mountains and maintained our elevation en route to Copacabana (Bolivia’s town on Lake Titicaca).  As we drew closer and closer, our bus weaving up and down and around the edge of the Andes, every so often we’d emerge from a valley or trees to catch a momentary glimpse of the deep azure waters of one of the world’s largest and deepest high-altitude lakes.  After an hour, we arrived at the water’s edge and were asked to disembark the bus.  We watched from our passenger boat as our bus drove onto a small barge-like motorboat to make the crossing.

Our bus making the lake crossing

Fed by five major river streams, sitting at a surface altitude of 3800m, with an average depth of 134m and max depth of 284m, containing 41 islands, Titicaca is a must-do for anyone travelling through this part of the world.  Since the lake sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia, it’s a convenient, relaxed stop-off point between the busy cities of La Paz and Cusco.  This was our plan exactly.  Take a few days to admire the lake’s beauty, visit an island or two and continue on to Cusco.

Cobacabana

Our midafternoon arrival in Copacabana was a bit chaotic.  We gathered our luggage, and Dale immediately opened his bag to double-check the contents.  We had had a conversation on the bus about what he had in that bag that could be valuable… the one thing we were concerned about was “the shave kit” – not because of the shaving gear, but because that’s where our extra money was hidden – and it was the last thing packed into the top of the bag.   After opening his pack, his heart sank and his body language told me the shave kit was, indeed not there.  Brutal, what a terrible feeling.  Anger, distrust, betrayal, invasion and regret…. Just a few of the feelings that come over you when something like this happens.  And this was the second time for us, had we not learned from the incident in Brazil?  After a few minutes of feeling like crap, and complaining to the bus company that they should have locks on their storage, I decided to double check Dale’s day pack.   Ah Ha!  Strange enough – there was the shave kit.  For some reason, he had kept it with him, on the bus where it belonged.  And for some reason, he was convinced it was in his large pack.  It’s unfortunate that accusation was our immediate response.  I guess it is like “they” say… once bitten, twice shy.  We let it go, counted our blessings and began the hunt for somewhere to stay.

It was slim pickin’s during one of the town’s frequent festivals, but after an hour of walking around, we found a bare bones spot not too far from the pier.

Having booked flight tickets home in less than a month, we started to be a little more conscious with where we spent our time.  Having only allotted only a few days in Titicaca, we immediately booked our bus ticket to Cusco for 2 days later, and our boat ticket to Isla Del Sol for the next morning.  We enjoyed the best vegetarian lasagna outside of our own kitchen and turned in for a good night rest.

Isla Del Sol (“island of the sun”) ended up being a well worth it journey into the lake.  The weather was perfect.  Even at the altitude, since we were that much closer to the sun, without shade, we were warm.  It felt good to have the sun’s rays sink into our skin.  There are no motorized vehicles on the island, so really the only way to see it is to walk.  So, we walked.  The boat dropped us off at the north end, where we could take a 6 hour trail walk to the southern end of the island and sleep for the night. The terrain was dry and dusty, taking us through agricultural lands and patches of ruins, with vistas across the lake into the Andes. There are nearly 200 ruins on the island, of which the most important we passed through on our hike.  “The Sacred Rock”, thought by the Incas to be the birthplace of the sun god, was just that – a rock.  But, a rock with an amazing view!

The Sacred Rock

Ruins on Isla Del Sol

Approaching Yumani

Enjoying the view – Titicaca

We made it to Yumani (the village at the south end of the island) with plenty of light left to find a room with a beautiful view of the lake and the Andes.  As the day came to a close, we enjoyed pizza as we admired the beauty of the sun setting over the far away mountains, and the lake changing from it’s deep blue to purple.  By now, sleeping at altitude was easy.

Sunset on Isla Del Sol

The next day, we boarded a morning boat back to Copacabana, for some souvenir shopping and a little people watching before our 6pm departure.  The people -watching was fantastic.  The festival had drawn Bolivian tourists from adjacent towns and islands to join the locals in dressing up in traditional attire, boasting with bright colors and pilgrim hats in double-fisted celebration of something or other.  We have never seen so many people unable to walk straight in one place.  I’m sure there were some big heads the next morning.

Thinking it was better to arrive in Cusco early in the morning, than very late at night we opted for the 6pm overnight bus across the border, into Peru, and on to Cusco.  Despite booking Cama seats (wider than normal seats, that recline to approx. 120 degrees), we didn’t sleep well.   Having been warned about the numerous muggings that take place after dark in Cusco, we opted to book a hostel ahead of time and take a taxi to the door.   Unfortunately, our taxi driver dropped us off at Samay Wasi I instead of Samay Wasi II.  Luckily, it was only a couple blocks away for us to walk.  We checked in at 5am, and fell into a coma sleep until the sunshine woke us up a few hours later.

When the light hovers over the city of Cusco, there is no hiding from the energy of this amazing 3800m high historical capital of the Inca Empire.  There are days when the altitude wins and you drag yourself up the many narrow cobble stairways to meander the city, and others when you feel like you’re floating – caught up in the buzz of tourism and knowing that one of the world’s most visited archeological sites is a stone’s throw away.  Really, Machu Picchu is almost 600km from Cusco.  But for most, a visit to Cusco is a necessary stop-off point on their much-anticipated tour through the Scared Valley, with the highlight being Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain”).   There is no road that connects Cusco to Machu Picchu, but there is a train.  That leaves two options to get there – walk, or take the over-priced jam-packed tourist train.  In all honesty, our visit to Cusco was for the purpose of arranging voyage to MP, however, we soon found, that if you spend some time, the city is much deeper than that.

Cusco from our room

This was our first point of arrival into Peru and it did not disappoint.  On the surface, appears the Cusco that most tourists see on their one or two night stop over before their tour begins.  This is the Cusco that’s buzzing with vendors selling handicrafts transported from every area in Peru, restaurants ranging from gourmet 5 star extravaganzas to mini café’s that boast a $4 three course Peruvian feast, and miles and miles of streets carved into the hills that take you up and away from the center. In this Cuzco, tourisms rules the roost.  A young girl dressed in traditional wear, with her pet alpaca, eyes deep-pocketed packaged tourists to extend her beautiful smile at and says, “Photo?”  They bite.  They also proceed to pay the asking price for souvenirs, stay in expensive hotels and eat at fancy restaurants.   This is a trip of a lifetime for some.  The place is also swarming with the long-term traveller/ backpacker… the category we fit into, looking for the best deal on accommodation, street food and the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu.

If you stay awhile, Cusco transforms before your eyes. The layers of cobblestone and mass tourism begin to peel away and you are exposed to a place that exemplifies character, culture and grit.  Underneath the surface, Cusco has a different story to tell.  Instead of classifying the woman on the street selling “handmade alpaca” sweaters and socks as just another local selling stuff – if you really observe, you will see that she’s not just on the street everyday selling stuff, she’s sitting there using a drop spindle to spin raw wool by hand, which her and her daughter then knit into colorful garment masterpieces, all with a smile on her face.  A sweater takes her a day.  She sells it for 60 BOB ($8.50).  The little café on the corner takes detailed care when they serve you their authentic Peruvian three course menu del dia (Menu of the day) for 10 BOB ($1.50), it’s so good that you “splurge” and order a fresh fruit smoothie to go with it.   The man you see everyday at your neighborhood “corner store” (really a small 6×6 room carrying everything from batteries to fresh fruit) to stock up on your supply of water, greets you with a smile. When you ask for his opinion on the wine he stalks, he proudly shows off a bottle of what the locals drink for 25 BOB ($3.75)…. And it’s not from Chile, or Argentina.  It’s Peruvian and it’s fantastic.

Steps back to our hostel in Cusco

You mix your thick, almost syrupy, morning coffee half with hot water for a result that’s smooth and bursting with flavor.   You laugh at all the tourists taking their picture against a wall built with a “famous” 18-sided stone.  You understand the importance of being discerning, though comparatively trustworthy, shopkeepers are still out to make a profit.  You shop around for the best price on the same item – which we did.  We lucked out, instead of paying nearly $30 for an extra camera battery, we paid $14.  Always remember, no matter how much you like something, no matter what the shopkeeper tells you about it being “one of a kind”, NEVER buy on your first visit and NEVER pay the asking price.  When taking a taxi, you agree on a price in advance and never get in a car lacking an official taxi sticker, or that looks like it’s been salvaged from the local junkyard.

Narrow streets of Cusco

Main plaza – Cusco

At night, though the shops stay open, the atmosphere changes.  You get used to things like crazy drivers zooming through the narrow alleys with no mind for pedestrians (there aren’t really any sidewalks).   You cross the street to avoid the chance you might become dinner for the jagged-toothed mutts on a stand-down with each other.   You adjust your daytime walking route home to ensure your path is well lit and populated; even if it means you go through the alley that doubles as the pit stop between bars and secretes a fresh smell of stale urine from the cracks between it’s stone wall rocks.  You ring the bell to alert the security at your hostel you have arrived and are not a threat, and make your way to your luxury-for-the-price room, and flop on the bed for a glorious night of high-altitude sleep.

You wake up to another beautiful sunny day in Cusco and smile as day by day you are captured in the arms of this enchanting place.  Then, you venture to the obvious and are completely overtaken by the glorious Machu Picchu.

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