Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

The Majestic Lago Titicaca

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Gorgeous views from Isla del Sol

I feel very remiss in not writing about Lake Titicaca* earlier (*as we were instructed – to be pronounced ‘kar-kar’ not ‘ka-ka’ which sounds pretty unpleasant in Spanish!). We’ve just been enjoying ourselves too much:).

First the factual bits: Lago Titicaca sits at an elevation of 3812m and is famous for being the ‘highest navigable lake’ in the world and the largest lake in South America at 8300 sq km. It’s shores straddle both Peru and Bolivia and it’s the ancestral land of ancient and prevailing Andean cultures including the Quechuas, Aymaras, Uros, Pajaces and Puquinas. In Andean folklore, Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun.

After a few weeks travelling through the Peruvian mountains and cordillera, riding along the glistening shoreline of Lake Titicaca was also a very welcome change of scenery. The views just kept getting more beautiful the further south we rode and the Bolivian side of the lake was definitely our favourite (so my advice is to read this post from the bottom up!).

We were riding this route for about a week so please excuse this rather long post…

The Uros Floating Islands

After our visit to Colca Canyon we hopped onto a tourist boat from Puno to visit a couple of islands on the lake. First stop was the Uros Floating Islands. After leaving the chaos and pollution of Puno behind, and reaching the blue of the lake, you first start to see the totora reeds cropping up next to the boat in the shallows. The Uros people use these reeds to build their islands. Each island takes a year to make, first by tying together clumps of reed roots to form the base of the island, then criss-crossing many layers of cut reads over the top. The surface of the islands are soft and springy to walk on and the reeds are regularly replenished as those beneath begin to rot.

The Uros islands are fascinating to see, but the reality is that they are now heavily commercialised for tourism and far busier than I remember them being 10 years ago. Being a tourist myself though I really can’t complain, and it’s also no surprise, given making a livelihood on the floating islands is otherwise so hard, with fishing being the only real alternative option.  Pollution of the lake and declining water levels (due to decreasing rainfalls) that jeopardise some of the floating islands are also issues they are struggling with. The Uros people have organised themselves well though, and charge a small ‘tax’ to enter the islands, then share the income and tourist traffic between themselves so each island takes it in turns to host visitors (and have an opportunity to sell their reed-based wares).

‘Kamisaraki’, meaning ‘how are you’ in Aymara.

 

Taquile Island

Next stop was Taquile island, a ‘land-based’ island further out into the lake. A little quieter and the views were absolutely stunning. ‘Taquileños’ run their island based on community collectivism, and on the Inca moral code ‘ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla’ (Quechua for ‘do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy’).  This means that people are not employed to earn an income, but rather support each other in undertaking work for the benefit of the whole community.
There is plenty of agriculture on Taquile but the main thing they are famous for is textiles, to the extent it is protected as a UNESCO world heritage subject and regarded as the best quality to be found in Peru. Knitting is exclusively performed by the men, beginning at 8 years of age (we were told they wouldn’t be able to get married if they couldn’t knit), and women spin and dye the wool. Men knit traditional ‘chuyo’ hats that many of the locals wear and women weave ‘chumpis’, wide belts that they all wear. When a woman is to be married, she cuts off her beautiful long her for the one and only time, and weaves it into the belt of her husband-to-be.

Like the Uros islands, the Taquileños have also introduced a small tax for tourists to enter the island. You’ve got to applaud their initiative really, as each community ensures they get some of the benefits of tourism and it doesn’t all get sucked up by agencies back in Puno. As we’ve been learning throughout our ride, the indigenous communities across both Peru and Bolivia are pretty organised and will fight hard for their rights. One story we were told back in Cusco, is that the authorities there started taking water from a lake of a local community. Cusco started taking more water than had been agreed and in unsustainable amounts, so the community leaders complained. The authorities ignored them to their peril. One morning, residents of Cusco woke up to see all the large water pipes leading down from the lake had been dug up overnight and strewn across the hillside in a show of defiance. There are plenty of examples like this and you have to admire the ingenuity – these communities really aren’t to be messed with!


The island is divided into six sub-communities or sectors for crop-rotation purposes, each sector separated by one of these gates:

A Taquileño knitting, wearing his chuyo hat and chumpi belt. The Taquileña is spinning wool she’s died purple using local natural herbs and minerals.

Trout!

We’ve been feeding ourselves up on ‘la trucha’ as we ride round the lake. Trout isn’t actually native to the lake, but was introduced from the U.S. in the 1930s as Peruvian and Bolivian officials reached out for help to expand the economic potential of the lake. Unfortunately this advice turned out to be the death knell for most of the native fish as the trout hoovered up all the food. Now it’s the main offering of nearly every road-side restaurant and we’ve certainly eaten our fair share.

Fresh trout fried in a small cafe by the lake. The huge fish hides plenty more potato and rice carbs underneath.

Riding into Bolivia

The further south we rode the more beautiful the views and the more peaceful the roads. Often the scenery reminded me of cycling in the Croatian islands. We had a really stunning ride down one peninsula with sweeping deep azul views of the lake to either side of us. Really quite something.

Views from our hotel room in Copacabana:



Isla del Sol

We made a second boat trip to Isla del Sol (fabled birthplace of the sun) from Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake. Some short walks to the top of the island this gave us the most amazing views, and a perfect way to finish off our ride round the lake.

We weren’t able to do the classic north-to-south hike due to the path being blockaded because of a dispute between the local communities (the story goes something like…  one community built where they shouldn’t have, encroaching on sacred land of their neighbours, so their neighbours promptly blew the building up. The first community have now blocked the path and refuse to let tourists through until they are repaid for the damage. As I said – you don’t want to mess with these guys!).

But no fear, we made up for it by going for a gourmet dinner at the quirky ‘Las Veras’ restaurant up on the hillside on the edge of a eucalyptus tree forest. With no electricity, we were warned that dinner could take an hour or so to arrive and may be quite a romantic affair. Knowing that we’d be in it for the long haul, we watched another stupendous sunset and conquered a couple of Guardian Quick Crosswords to pass the time (geek-alert:). Three hours later we stumbled out into the star-lit night with some deliciously juicy trout (baked in white wine and dressed with the local muña herb) in our bellies. Mmmm.

Sunset from Isla del Sol


Views of the Bolivian Cordillera and swirls in the water as the wind blows across the lake


The bay below


Las Veras restaurant up on the hillside


Candlelit dinner for two:)

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