the top of the world

At Machu Picchu we were at about 9,000 feet in elevation. Back in Cusco we were staying at closer to 11,000 feet. We said goodbye to John, Lisa, and Gilmer, and hung out for a few more days. After that, we got an overnight bus (we seem to take a lot of those, probably because they mean we save paying for accommodations for a night) to reach the city of Puno at about 12,500 feet in elevation. This is the last stop in Peru before the Bolivian border. It seemed like the top of the world.

We spent two days in Puno. The first day we went to the Bolivian consulate to try to get Bolivian visas. Well, the guy didn’t have the paperwork for American applicants, so instead we got a list of what we would need to get our visas at the border. Then we walked around the city getting passport photos taken and copies made of our passports, yellow fever vaccination cards, and proof of adequate funds for travel. Then we napped (turns out we don’t sleep so well on overnight buses, especially when the bus is climbing and making switchbacks the whole time).

The next day we decided to take a hike, even though we hadn’t heard of any good hikes around town. We stood in the city center, chose the peak that looked like it had the sweetest view, and started walking toward it. It has a Jesus statue on top- it must have a good view! Of course, the problem with hiking up to peaks when you’re already at 12,500 feet in elevation is that there is little air to breathe when you get winded. On top of that, in Peru people drive around crappy cars that don’t even seem to come close to burning the gasoline completely. So in the little air that there is already to breathe, there seems to be high concentrations of carbon monoxide and other pollutants that make it even harder to breathe. We took a lot of breaks on the way up. But, as we expected, the view was well worth all the work.

Puno was our first exposure to every 6th grader’s favorite lake: the amazing Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is listed as not only the “highest commercially navigable lake in the world”, it is also the “largest lake in South America” (by water volume). From our view of it on the high hill behind Puno, we could certainly tell that it was high, but we couldn’t really gauge its size as we could really only see one of the lake’s large bays. We started to understand its size, however, when we saw only a tiny fraction of its length on our 3+ hour drive to the border.

At the border we used exactly NONE of the photocopies we’d made. Hell, they didn’t even look at the originals of our proof of adequate funds or yellow fever vaccination cards. All we had to have was our passports and $135 US in cold, hard cash (VERY STEEP considering that we hardly planned to spend that much our whole time in the country). Oh, and we filled out some paperwork- that was it.

We knew we were in Bolivia real quick. In taking a micro from the border post to the town of Copacabana we found our US dollars to be worth even more (things in Bolivia are CHEAP) and that we were even taller than the average person (by almost 2 feet now). All the ladies wearing authentic Bolivian dress (complete with strange bowler hats) and carrying giant loads on their backs in patterned blankets tied around their necks sealed the deal.

Once in Copacabana it didn’t take long to find other telling signs of Bolivia: even more treacherous tap water, most bathrooms being without soap, toilet paper, toilet seats, or running water, giant markets filled with every part of every animal you can imagine hanging up for sale and covered with flies, and all sort of new foods- most of which are sold on street corners, dirt cheap. We got involved with the street food quite a bit, tasting almost everything we came across. We found full meals (rice, fried potatoes, a fried egg and salad) for under fifty US cents (~3-4 Bolivianos) and interesting desserts and other treats for even less.

Just after we got to town we checked out some local markets, booked a place to stay ($3.50 per person per night about) and hiked up to the town’s Jesus statue (they’ve all got them in these parts it seems) for a nice view of the sunset. We spent one night in Copacabana before heading to one of the islands in Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol. We hadn’t planned on making it to the island, but had heard too many good things about it from fellow travelers to pass it up. We were VERY glad we made the trip because that’s when we really saw how MASSIVE the lake is.

It was a 2.5 hour boat ride to the far end of the island. There we got off and started hiking. We made it up to a sizable peak before long, and it was lake as far as the eye could see on all sides. It was perfect- no other tourists, no traffic, no nothing but us, the island, some sunshine, and the lake. Lots of lake- beautiful, vast, blue, lake. We sat for a while and tried to take it all in. Then we hiked on, along the ridge that is the spine of the island. At one point we passed a nice looking beach down at the water front and we couldn’t pass up a chance to swim in the world’s highest lake, right below some Inca ruins. Although the water was quite shallow for some distance off the beach, our swim didn’t last long because the water was freezing cold. But of course it was worth it.

We hiked the rest of the way along the ridge of the island and ended up in the village of Yumani where we lodged for less than $3 US per person per night with an amazing view of snow-capped Andes Mountains across the lake (we couldn’t get over how cheap everything was). We got some famous Lake Titicaca trout pizza and a bit of wine (which goes a LONG way at that altitude) for some other crazy cheap price, and were happy to kick it in our room with a view.

The next day we took the boat back to Copacabana and spent some more time walking around town and eating whatever street food we came across. We weren’t out late though because as soon as the sun goes down at such a high altitude it gets COLD, FAST and we sent a lot of our warm clothes home with John (probably a mistake but we thought Patagonia was going to be the coldest part of our trip- oops).

We weren’t traveling as just 2 for very long. The next day we got on a bus for the (economic) capital of Bolivia which is La Paz. This was another bus ride where we got a taste of the size of Lake Titicaca. The bus seemed to follow the edge of the lake for hours on end. We even had to take a ferry across it at one point, so we still didn’t even see all of it. In La Paz we had a date to meet Gina- a fellow Northern Californian that we met in Buenos Aires. It worked out nicely that she was planning to travel around Bolivia about the same time we were. Once we got in and made it to our hostel we found her there waiting for us to start our Bolivian adventures together.

More to come soon.

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