Text and photos by Buzzy Gordon
At dusk, the Andean Explorer train crawls into Puno, barely easing past the stalls of the open–air market that straddle the tracks by inches. The 10–hour trip has taken up virtually all the day's daylight hours; but thanks to the enthusiastic entertainers — and the bilingual staff's friendly and attentive service throughout — just getting to Lake Titicaca is really half the fun.
Fortunately, there are lakeside hotels awaiting disembarking passengers that live up to the Andean Explorer's standards of luxury. The impressive, alabaster Libertador Puno Hotel is just a short cab ride from the train station; the more remote, all–inclusive Titilaka resort will dispatch a driver to pick up guests from the depot.
Regardless of choice of lodging, you will want to experience what the Lake Titicaca region has to offer. The more adventuresome may opt for recreation on the water, such as kayaking, or hiking with a local naturalist. Shoppers and souvenir hunters will find the Puno artisan market a treasure trove of altiplano handicrafts, at prices that can be bargained down to as good as they get. (The Andean Explorer makes a brief stop at a small trainside market, where the merchandise is more expensive than in Cuzco or Puno.)
© Hotel Titilaka
The biggest attraction by far, however, remains the floating islands inhabited by the Uros Indians. Hundreds of these tiny islands bob on the mostly placid surface of Lake Titicaca, each typically home to several generations of one family. As the population grows, the community gets together to harvest some of the lake's giant reeds and build new islands, one at a time. These totora reeds are to the Uros what the buffalo was to native Americans: an ubiquitous source of shelter, food and even transport, as the raw material is used to construct majestic boats.
Much of the islanders' livelihoods depends on tourism, so half–day visits are practically down to a science. Each guide has his particular favorite island outpost to visit, generally consisting of a warm welcome by the matriarch and patriarch; an explanation, with scale models, of the mechanics of creating a new island, as well as of the dynamics of day–to–day life. These include the challenges of cooking in unusual conditions; a peek inside one of the one–room homes; a display of Uru handicrafts, offered for sale; and a "mini–cruise" on the clan's pride and joy: a large, double decker reed boat, which also serves as the "clubhouse" for family gatherings. (There is an extra charge for the boat ride, which visitors are expected to take; negotiating this fee is acceptable practice.)
No trip to Lake Titicaca is complete without experiencing the counterpart of sunset: sunrise over the water, as it gradually shimmers to life. A great way to start a new day in a fascinating part of the world.
If you go:
The Andean Explorer runs four times a week from April to October, and three times a week from November to March. Check the website for special offers.
Tip: When flying to Cuzco, or anywhere else in the country, be aware that Avianca is the only airline offering business class service on domestic routes in Peru. While none of the flights is very long, planes between Lima and Cuzco tend to be very crowded in coach — so business is the only way to guarantee a truly comfortable flight.
Text and Photos by Buzzy Gordon except where indicated.