Sunday, July 3, 2011

Peru – Puno, A big strikeout

We spent much more time in Cusco than we originally anticipated. One reason being our delayed start to the Salkantay Trek, the other pertains to the border crossing complication from Peru to Bolivia. Yes, they like to strike in South America and we encountered a rather lengthy one near Puno where miners blocked the border crossing for almost two months (with a minor reprieve during the National Election where they stopped striking for a few days in order to let everyone vote!).

The government finally gave in and the Canadian owners of the mines were kicked out of the country – conflict-resolution Peruvian style.
For us this means that the road blockages were lifted and that we could finally cross to Bolivia on the direct route via Puno and Lake Titicaca. The alternative would have been a 2 day detour via Chile.

The Peruvian highlands:beautiful,
yet hard to capture in a photo
So why do we call Puno a "strikeout"? poisoning, crappy weather, and nasty guesthouse personnel. This town clearly did not receive us very well. Well let's start from the beginning of the story. We arrive in Puno in the dark, after a stunningly beautiful bus ride through the high flatlands (altiplano) of the Peruvian Andes. The ride that was supposed to take 6 hours turned into 8 hours, thanks to a slow bus and a road construction site that idled us for 45 minutes... Bus travels in this part of the world are reliably unreliable :-)

Warming our freezing bodies
and eating warming soul food
We settle into the first "best" guesthouse as it is already late and freezing cold and after check-in head straight to a restaurant that has heating. Hotels with heating are as rare as punctual buses in Peru, despite having nightly temperatures below the freezing point.

The best tactic to find a restaurant that is warm inside is to go to a place with a large wood fired oven. Not surprisingly Pizza is THE food in Puno, and "Mafiosi Tarts" can be found at every corner... Why not? We haven't had Pizza since Utila Island in Honduras.

The reason why people come to Puno is not pizza though, also not to see the smashed bank windows (a leftover from the miners' protest that just ended)... No, tourists come here to see the famous floating islands of Uros and Lake Titicaca. We of course also need to see them as there is a bit of tourist blood flowing in our traveler's veins too.

We wait for a day before we can go to Uros as the weather is bad, really bad. Strike #1

The reason for our visit to Puno:
the famous Uros floating islands
Then the next day we are grounded by our stomachs that both have gone very sour from a Chicha Morada (non alcoholic drink made from blue corn) that we drank with our dinner the night before. And who ever says that eating at fine restaurants is the best way to avoid internal plumbing issues...Forget your theory. We are living (barely though) proof that food poisoning is easiest obtained at the fanciest restaurants.

So if you are in Puno the next time don't bother eating at Restaurant Mojsa unless you like a sleepless night with lots of bathroom visits. (Such a shame though as the food tasted great and was beautifully presented too.) Strike #2

To add insult to injury we also had to change our hotel. When we arrived, we were given a discounted price of 80 Sol with buffet breakfast (which was a roll and black coffee only!). Puno is lacking tourists during the high season because of the aggressiveness of the miner's protest, so hotels seem to be trying to lure in customers with great offers. The hotel was empty: only two rooms filled that night. But the next night, a big German tour group arrived so it seems that the unfriendly staff must have changed their mind and regretted offering us this price...or perhaps they did not like it that we didn't book a tour with them. If you like to learn more about that episode go to and search for "Hotel El Buho, Puno" to read our "charming" review. Strike #3

Welcoming committee:
The Matriarch
Luckily after 3 strikes, we were ready for a new inning. So dragging our depleted bodies, we shifted our hotel. After 2 nights in Puno, we don't have very good feelings so far. But our luck now changes; the Andean House hotel has a very friendly couple managing it – the complete opposite of El Buho. Today is spent in bed recuperating: our bodies shivering from the cold temperature and the fact that we have no energy left after the "food fight"! We really want to get out of here but there is one place that we want to visit after seeing numerous documentaries on TV.

Mama, can I go play with my friends
instead of selling things to tourists?
So on Day #3, we finally walk over to the Jetty to catch a motorboat over to visit the Uros floating islands. Don't bother booking a tour in town unless you enjoy paying double or want to have a tour in English. Simply go to the jetty, pay 10 Sol for the roundtrip boat ride and 5 Sol for the island's entrance fee and hop on the first boat that's waiting – they leave when full about every 20 mins. We were lucky and left right after we boarded. We were delighted that we were the only Gringos on board too. The other passengers were all Peruvian tourists... it's very nice to see that local people also travel to explore their own country.

The Uros islands are (to our surprise) individual little patches of floating islands that are not interconnected. The only mode of transport between the islands is by boat. Basically, every family has their own tiny island of barely 150 square meters (1600 sq ft). On this space they sleep, work, cook, raise chickens... and welcome tourists.

Explaining the construction
method of the floating islands
The boats from Puno visit the participating families in a rotation system. That way they all get their fair share of tourists to show around their islands and sell their souvenirs.

"See her Pom-Poms boys?
She's still available."
We are greeted by two women on their family's floating paddy as we disembark. Both wear traditional dresses and have huge Pom-Poms made of yarn woven into the ends of their braided pony-tails. The young woman's Pom-Poms are bright pink, the older ones in boring beige. We ask why the difference? The girls with the bright colors are still available. It makes sense that they "advertise" this so clearly, so that the boys from the neighboring islands can at least see from far away if it's worth the risk of swimming across the freezing water in hopes of catching one of the damsels!

Selling, Selling, Selling...
the only "industry" in Uros
The young girl explains to our group how they build the islands and how they cook. Then to prove that the islands are indeed floating she pulls up a bushel of reeds and exposes a hole. Before she lowers a string with a weights tied to its end to show us how deep it underneath, she asks each of us to guess its depth. (All the explanations are in Spanish – we both have a little pride that we understand at least 80% of what she said and can easily fill in the blanks.) Our guesses range from 4 to 12 meters: the science experiment reveals that there is 15 meters (49 ft) of water below our feet. Suddenly we become much more aware of our predicament...for when the ground sinks in by a few centimeters with every footstep, we are truly walking on water!

That's the Rolls Royce boat
We spend another 20 minutes or so on our host family's island all the while they are trying to sell souvenirs and rides on the traditional boat constructed entirely of reeds. The young woman explains that the boat we came on is a Toyota and their reed boat is the Mercedes (but we must remark that the neighbor's boat is then a Rolls Royce!) For just 20 Sol ($7.50) we could take a ride on it. "Mucho commercial" remarked one of the Peruvian tourists. We are happy to hear that they feel the same way as everybody in our group.

The Uros "Hilton"
So we board the Toyota to the next destination which is the island of restaurants with a single hotel (2 rooms) for overnight guests.Here they are selling drinks, trout lunch, and behold even more souvenirs. It's getting very commercial now and we can't just walk away, we are trapped "targets" here on the floating island that is less than 15 meters across.

A last souvenir photo
Our only diversion is spent climbing the little mirador and watching the salesmanship below of the locals. We also decided to board the limousine reed boat for a souvenir photo.
The return trip to Puno is accompanied by light snowfall. The earlier rain has now hardened! Yes, Strike #1 is still haunting us. We told you earlier that it's freezing cold here at 3830m (12565ft)!

Traveling with light
luggage today miss?
On the way back to town, we walk through the big Saturday market where everything is for sale from fresh juice, to fresh sheep's head for the popular local soup with the same name. We pass on both. There is even a street that is devoted to used items: a regular Salvation Army de Calle.
105 ways to cook a chicken
Although we can't feel our super chilled toes any longer, we keep walking through the busy market and must admit that we enjoy this (authentic versus contrived) as much, if not more, than the visit to Uros. Are we "bad" tourists, when made for Hollywood movie set scenes designed around tourism, make us wince?

Artisanal cheese for sale...
"Say cheese!" and smile for the camera
1001 recipes for eggs. Get your recipe book now.

Traditional last dinner,
probably  from
the chicken shop above.
Our days in Peru come to an end here in Puno. We book a bus for the next morning to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. We also exchange some Peruvian Soles for Bolivianos (the currency, not the people!) as we read that the only ATM is out of whack in Copacabana.
Then we go for our traditional last supper prior to entering a new country: Anybody remember what our traditional farewell dinner is? Exactly...fried chicken! Although we opt for the local variation called Pollo a Brassa, a slightly healthier rotisserie version.

We will be back in Peru after about a month in Bolivia; hence it's too early to make any final conclusion about Peru.
Hasta luego Perú!