Peru and Machu Picchu have been on the top of my bucket list for a while now, so what better way to mark a milestone birthday than a two week getaway to explore Inca territory with a friend. We left Montreal Monday afternoon, and with a 2hr layover in Toronto landed in Peru around 1:45am on Tuesday morning. Zonked, we spent the night at the airport hotel before flying out late Tuesday morning for Inca territory. We landed in Juliaca then took a one hour tasi transfer to Puno, a decent sized city located on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigatible lake in the world. We spent Tuesday afternoon wandering the town. By 3pm I was starving, so we ducked into a very local cafe (we were the only gringos in the place and no one spoke English) and ordered a savoury vegetable soup with lots of quinoa. We wandered around some more before ducking into a touristy restaurant for Pisco Sours (the Peruvian cocktail) and then headed for an early (6:30pm) dinner at a local touristy, but delicious restaurant. We had the local vegetable soup, quinoa Caprese salad and then two local specialties: guinea pig and alpaca steak. I wish I could report good things about the guinea pig, but it was mostly skin, with barely a bite worth of meat in the entire dish. The alpaca steak, on the other hand was like very tender beef steak, only very lean meat – I’d order this again.

We got back to the hotel by 8pm and practically fell into bed. The altitude definitely took its toll; we both felt a buzz all afternoon walking around and were spent by 8pm. All for the best, as our wake up time the next morning was 5:45am!

So, early morning this morning, but breakfast was delcious – they even have a gluten free table option at the buffet..I could get used to five star hotels – such a departure from my regular travel style:) Today was a day spent on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigatible lake in the world. We boarded the tour boat (faster than most as it has a boat motor, whereas most others are equipped with car motors our guide told us proudly) around 7am and were out on the lake by 7:20am. First stop, the floating villages. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as the floating villages in Cambodia were essentially houses built on tall stilts.

Conversely, the floating villages in Puno Peru are just that: floating on the water. As was explained by our guide when we stepped off the boat onto what looked like a pile of old reeds, we had actually stepped onto a small floating island. The locals, the Uros people, dressed in traditional clothing (which was not for tourists, but what they actually wear, as we saw it in Puno on the streets as well the previous evening) explained the process of creating floating islands further. First, shortly after the rainy season the roots of the reeds (found all over the lake) start to float, due to the oxygen fed to the roots by the reeds. The villagers then cut the reed roots (which are about 1m thick) into pieces of about 10m by 2m and haul them by motor boat back to the village or wherever they want their new island. About 10-20 pieces of these floating root systems are tied together, and after about five months, the roots intermingle to form one large floating island. The reeds are cut off just above the roots, and about every 15-20 days fresh cut reeds are spread down on the island. After about 5 years of this process, the island we visited had about 2 meters of dried reeds layered upon the original 1m of reed roots. We were actually floating on the lake and as you can imagine, the reed floor moved with the waves as boats passed by – such a unique experience. Up to 15 families can live on each island, with the entire village consisting of dozens if not a hundred or more of these little community islands in the middle of the lake.

After this introduction and explanation, they divided our tour group into pairs or families, each led by one of the members of the community to see into their homes. We were led by a nice woman named Janet. She showed us inside her home (houses are built up on even higher piles of reeds to prevent dampness and rheumatism in the rainy season) and then insisted we dress up in traditional clothing. It was a little uncomfortable but made for a great photo-op. Afterward she (as did each of the women of the island) showed us her handmade knicknacks and pressured us to buy something. We were torn: we are only two days into out journey and didn’t want to lug anything around for two weeks but feeling very guilty for not buying something after Janet’s hospitality. In the end, I broke down and bought a little noisemaker for my nephews. My sister will love me for this!;)

Next we boarded a traditional double reed-made canoe and were oared by the islanders to the village main island. (Double canoe made out of reeds – of course).

After a small break at the main village we boarded our speed tour boat and set off for the second biggest natural island in the lake, Taquile Island. There we climbed up the steep path (made all the more difficult with the altitude effect on our bodies) passing the locals along the way to the main square. A bit about Taquile Island. It is beautiful in its own way, with terraced agricultural plots completely covering the island. In the 1970s the locals claimed the island for themselves from the Spanish, with the help of the Peruvian goverment. At the time there were only six main local families, so the island was divided into six equal divisions of land. Since then, with multiple generations to inherit the land, the plots have become much smaller but most of the traditions have remained the same. The most obvious one is the way the dress, Men and women display their relationship status through their clothing. Men on the island knit their own hats: red with designs if they are married, half red and half white at the top if they are single. Women wear brightly coloured skirts; if they are single and dark coloured skirts and small tattered pompoms if they are married.

A single man wears white on the top of his knitted hat. A married woman dresses in dark colours.

We spent about two hours walking the well built path up and over the island and had a mid afternoon lunch on the other side: quinoa and vegetable soup to start and grilled trout for the main course. To finish we had mint and coca tea, which we’ve been drinking a lot of here since it helps with altitude sickness (it opens up the alveoli in the lungs, allowing us to absorb more oxygen per breath).

At the end of the island tour we got back on the tour boat for a 90min ride back to Puno. We had a short nap then headed down for cocktails (more Pisco Sours) in the hotel bar before having the most delicious alpaca steaks for dinner here at the hotel. It is now past 9:30pm and again we are exhausted. Off to bed and rest for our day long hike tomorrow!