Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A long walk for a short drink of water.

Lake Titicaca (stop snickering, please) is the highest navigable lake in the world. In real language that means it’s the highest lake where you can get altitude sickness while riding in a boat. Tomorrow we were going to put this to the test as we took a boat out to Isla del Sol.

We spent the day just relaxing at the hostel before deciding to take another walk around town. I hadn’t realized just how many weekend tourists had been around the day before until I saw that everything was deserted around the small town. Down on the seashore it was a mass of empty paddleboats that looked almost creepy and boarded up cafes. There wasn’t anything to see. So we ended our sightseeing and went back to the hostel where we splurged on a tasty dinner at their restaurant. Adrian was particularly happy to see gravy and potatoes with his beef rather than rice and chicken. And I was happy to have a salad. Ah the joys of a foreign operated hostel you get tasty gringo food and directions on how to catch the boat that are understood without sign language. With the help of the desk we booked not just our boat tickets but our accommodation for the next three nights. Then we packed our small packs for our trip and went to bed.

Early the next morning we checked stashing our giant packs at the hostel and then headed down to the sea shore to catch our boat. There were half a dozen boats filling up with tourists and it took us a while to find the one we had boat tickets for. All the boats soon filled with gringos and then locals were let on to fill the spaces in between us. Most of the gringos scrambled up onto the roof of the boat but I was happy to sit down underneath out of the blazing sun. This high up and so close to the sun on the lake would make a sunburn an inevitability not a possibility up top. We had chosen seats at the back remembering that boat rides were always smother there. As we set off we realized that this was an unnecessary precaution as the boat literally crawled across the calm water. The weak waves managed to push the boat back and I’m pretty sure we could have swum faster than the boat.

The advantage of going that slow was that we got to take in all the sights as the boat followed the shore and then squeezed through a break in the rocks before turning directly towards the island. We passed the small ruins at the south end and continued chugging along until we hit the dock at Yumani where about a third of the passengers got off. The rest of us continued on to Challapampa at the north end, finally arriving there 2 hours after we left Copacabana which would have been in sight if the island wasn’t now in the way. And the island was daunting it was a giant rock that jutted out of lake in front of us. After our experience climbing up Calvary hill, I was suddenly very worried about our plan to hike up and across the island to get to our hostel in Yumani. He did his best to tell me it would be fine but I could tell he wasn’t convinced either.

Challapampa was even smaller than I imagined just a dozen homes and a few cafes and guesthouses. A guide met us and told us that he would take us to the museum and ruins for those who wanted to walk the 10+km to the south end he’d point us in the right direction. For those who didn’t he said the boat would leave the north end at 1:30 and from the south at 3:30pm. So technically we didn’t have to walk all the way to the hostel. However if we took the boat to Yumani, we had another daunting obstacle. In order to get to the town we’d have to climb the Incan (or 1000) steps. And I hate steps. Not a great choice either way. In the end we decided to see how far we could get before the boat left and how we felt.

The guide then led us up along the beach to the museum. Here we were told to pay 10Bs for access to the museum and the ruins and part of the path. An English couple who didn’t understand Spanish balked at the fee – saying they didn’t want to go to the museum they wanted to hike. I explained to them but they seemed annoyed at having to pay £1 to stomp across the sacred island. Yikes. There’s cheap and then there’s just rude. They humphed and scowled the entire time we were in the museum as the guide explained the significance of the island and the handful of artifacts on display. The Isla del Sol was considered the birthplace of the Incan empire, where the sun was born. But it was also the holy place of the pre-incan Tihuanacu empire. In 1968 Jacques Cousteau, discovered the remains of the Tihuanacan empire 30 metres underwater offshore. The tiny museum used to house the gold artifacts discovered by Cousteau but had been moved to La Paz –considering the display cases were flimsy glass ones I’m not surprised.

The guide then took us up to the holy rock pointing out the Tihuanacan’s sacred Puma (Titi) and the Incan’s sacred snake (Viracocha) (I think, as the tour was all done in Spanish). The guide instructed us to feel the rock which was believed to have sacred energy. We placed both hands on it but all we felt was the cold standing in the shade. I noticed the British couple had long since abandoned the group and continued up the path towards the South. I guess they preferred stomping across the land than stopping to learn about it. We passed by the sacred Incan table, well not too sacred because it was being used as a souvenir stand to our next stop the Incan ruins of Chincana. The guide told us his tour was done and pointed the direction of the path south. While the rest of the group scurried along obviously in a hurry to catch that 3:30 boat, Adrian and I explored the ruins and then steeled ourselves for the ascent up the hill. The guide had already taken us about halfway up the mountain and we’d been able to keep up but it was still a long way to go.

We began walking. We walked and stopped and walked and stopped, needing to catch our breath every 100 metres on our way up. With no one behind us, we weren’t rushed but it was still tough as we fought the effects of the altitude. We made it to the top of the crest of the hill and walked down. It was a nice break but it also meant we were going to have to walk back up again and that wasn’t something we were looking forward to. The sun was incredibly powerful up there and it bounced off the pale rocks and dirt. I thought of the two brits who rushed off to stomp around the island – they were probably going to be disappointed with the scenery as the island itself was dusty and carved up in dried up farming terraces that were hundreds if not centuries old. However the views, if you had time to enjoy them were spectacular. One side of the lake was Peru. On the other side, there was Bolivia with the snowy peaks of the Andes crystal clear on the horizon. As we took in the view, we also took the chance to reapply a thick layer of sunscreen. Then it was back to the hike. About an hour into the walk, we were happy to find a lone women selling drinks by the side of the path and purchased a pop as a treat and change from the water we were drinking. She really was in the middle of nowhere which meant that she had to cart her load of water, pop and snacks up here everyday. Oh and she had her infant son with her too. Amazing and yet I felt like such a wimp for huffing and puffing while carrying nothing.

And the walking didn’t get any easier for us on the way up the next hill. At the top it was slightly depressing to see another bigger hill we’d have to climb next. We decided to take a snack break in the ruins of a home near the path munching our apples and cookies while taking in the view and preparing ourselves for the next uphill slog. By now we were being passed by the next boat load of tourists who were probably a half hour or so behind us. But we didn’t care. Unlike everyone else (it seemed) we were actually staying on the island and in no rush to catch the 3:30 boat to Copacabana. Just when I thought we were making good progress, I consulted the map and realized we were only a quarter of the way. It wasn’t a pleasant discovery but rather than get bummed we used it as motivation to get moving. We walked down and then up the big hill in half the time we thought it would take. It felt like a victory particularly when we were greeted by a group of locals at the top. They congratulated us on making it halfway and then asked us for an entrance fee of 10Bs for this part of the island. I smiled and paid thinking of the cranky Brits who had probably not been pleased to hear this. But I thought it was a small price to pay for walking through these people’s backyards.

Just beyond the halfway point (photo above), we stopped for a rest and discovered that the rest of the path was a nice downhill one that even wound through a forest (yay, shade). Better yet, we could see Yumani just over the last hill. Woohoo we were almost there. In fact we were even closer than that because the place we were staying at was the first one approaching Yumani. So we trudged on and as we pulled up to the hostel, we were greeted by the manager, a little Aymari women who was standing out on the path trying to entice people to stay with her. The place overlooked the path and the Peruvian side of the lake. The room was basic – two beds and a wooden chair and even in the sun it was cold. Across the path was the shared bathroom a few more rooms and the dining room with its glass walls. It was only a few months old and things were still being built by hand but it was lovely.

We were happy to have survived the trek (and only 30 minutes more than suggested time of 3 hours) so Adrian and I celebrated with a beer overlooking the lake. We stayed out there until the sun began to set behind the clouds and the mountains. As soon as the sun was gone it got cold immediately and we headed inside to the dining area. We were the only people staying there which added to the empty feeling. But it was a good thing we were the only ones staying here because the woman only had one piece of chicken, pasta, or eggs for dinner, oh and soup. Adrian immediately asked for the chicken and a soup. Since I hate eggs, that left me with the pasta.

While we waited for the food, it became pitch black. I fumbled around for a light switch before calling out to the woman for some light. She was cooking in the dark kitchen and told me just a moment. It was another 20 minutes before she came out of the dining room depositing our food in front of us. Adrian dug in unimpressed and I started on my pasta soon discovering that carbonara here meant noodles with scrambled eggs and ham. Blech. We heard a generator start up and soon the lights came on. Now we could see what we were eating. All I could see was eggs – lots of egg. Too bad we weren’t staying closer to town so we could pop out to pick up something to eat. But town was far off along a narrow path that ran along side the mountain and it was now pitch. We finished off our meal the best we could and read by the light of the dining until it became too cold. Then we felt our way back to our room across the lawn. We fumbled in the dark up a couple of steps, across the path and then up a few more steps with our hands out in front of us. We got to the door and pulled out our lighters so Adrian could get the key in the door. No really it was that dark and that cold. There was no central heating so we immediately jumped under the covers fully clothed and hoped that we didn’t have to make a late night trips to the loo. Shivering we eventually both fell asleep. It had taken a long walk to get here; it was unfortunate that our destination wasn’t the reward we hoped it would be.

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