From Cusco to Puno, the point of departure for Lake Titicaca, was a seven hour coach trip back up into the altiplano, the familiar shortness of breath returning as we climbed higher. Shanty towns on the outskirts of Cusco soon gave way to enclosed villages and productive fields. The tranquility of Julianca and Puno seemed light years from the slightly raffish tourist appeal of Cusco.
Once off the coach it took a choppy boat ride across Lake Titicaca and a climb of 500 steps to reach the top of Taquile Island where the local guide explained the complex clothing codes of the people around us and the traditionally co-operative social organisation on the island. Then we were off by boat to Amantini Island, where we spent the night billeted with a local family. We were a group of gringos bearing the locals gifts of bread, candles, rice, fruit, pens and notepads – all things hard to come by there. I gave away the notepads and pens my brother had left in an envelope at the hotel in Cusco which I had been carrying around waiting for an opportunity to distribute ever since. The altitude made the climb to a cosy room in our hostess’s house a bit challenging. Local families on the island host travellers to allow them to experience traditional life – right down to the cleanest drop toilet I have seen and smelt in my life – with the income earned allowing more married men to remain with their families rather than moving to Arequipa or Lima to search for work: guests with a purpose.
A football game was played between the tour group and a group of kids from the island. The altitude was so high none of the gringos could breathe but the kids were laughing at us so hard our team almost won anyway. This was followed by a beautiful sunset, a cold but clear night, and a dance with the local community. It was an extremely informal affair. The situation was reversed from the football, in that it was mostly women from each group participating in the dance and therefore our turn to become breathless in the thin air. It was also slightly manic, inspired by the whooping local music that seemed to shout joy into the starry skies. The next day we all trudged up the hill to Pachatata, an ancient ceremonial site still used by the islanders to honour their universal gods. The site also provided views across the island and the lake, which appeared so large as to be a universe in itself. The Bolivian shore was visible from this point and Lima seemed another world away. At lunch time we tried some of the local delicacies – a special kind of clay, potatoes dipped into algae with milk and ten year-old reconstituted potato in a soup, a carryover from Inca times when food was stored communally as an insurance against famine induced by drought, warfare or simple crop failure. Half the tour group wouldn’t even smell any of this food, but I ate the clay and the potato soup, both of which were actually quite good.
From Amantini Island the tour proper was essentially over. We completed a border crossing even more complex than customs and quarantine in Australia to get into Bolivia – get your exit stamp for Peru, walk across the dusty border, get your entry stamp into Bolivia, then meet the bus, then change buses in Copacabana, then drive to the narrow crossing of Lake Titicaca, get a boat across whilst the bus is punted across separately, get back on the bus and drive to La Paz.
What an extraordinary place La Paz was! The centre of the city lay in a bowl surrounded by hills, where streets and then the inevitable shanty towns straggled. From my hotel window I could see the distant mountains, over 6000 metres at the highest point. The word vibrant scarcely describes the atmosphere in the streets we walked along. They were crowded with people, with market places selling an astonishing array of goods and foods, with cars and collectivos and buses and shoe-shiners. The city seemed more Western and sophisticated than most of Peru and the difference was both astonishing and strangely comforting at the same time, as though I was making a transition between the realities of the often uneasy combination of modern and traditional life for many Peruvians and Bolivians and the entirely modern life I was about to return to.
The fact that one of the tour members, relaxing after weeks of attentiveness to the security of our money and other valuables, had the front pocket of her trousers carefully slit and the cash removed, serves to underline the somewhat precarious balance we had all adapted to over the twenty one days of the tour.
So this then was where the tour really ended and the mother of all hangovers began. But that is another story …