Saturday, May 10, 2014

Puno, Peru 9/21 - 9/24

Our first stop in South America was Puno, Peru at the edge of the highest navigable lake in the world and the floating islands.
Puno, Peru area and our travel map
Arrival at Juliaca Airport, now onto Puno.

Most travelers don't start their Peru vacations in Puno because of its high elevation. At 12,556 ft, most people have trouble adjusting to the quick rise in altitude. Since we've flown into high altitude regions from nearly sea level before, I knew our bodies could handle it - as long as we took the first 24 hours SUPER easy.
Not sure why Q is exhausted since I carried most of the luggage up to our hotel room at San Antonio Suites.

We spent the remainder of the day drinking plenty of fluids, walking around the small town and people watching. Thankfully, there's not much going on in town so we didn't feel like we were missing out on much. In the evening we caught a group of young men and women practicing a music and dance performance in front of the main church. We must have spent an hour watching the teenagers practice their performance.  We wound up our day at a touristic dinner and show at Balcones of Puno. The food wasn't anything to write home about. Although the dance performance was entertaining enough, we actually enjoyed watching the teenagers playing music and dance in front of the church a lot more.
Lunch overlooking the city square.
Checking out the local market.
Traditional dance rehearsal in front of the main church.

For our first full day we had planned to set out for a two day guided tour of Lake Titicaca through All Ways Travel. We decided to go beyond the typical day trip to the famous Floating Uro Islands and Isla Taquile by booking an overnight stay with a native family on Isla Amantani. A van picked us up from the hotel after breakfast. In the van, we bumped into one of Q's previous coworkers Dave who was also in the tour -- what are the odds? We stopped at a market to pick up gifts of fruits for our host families before boarding on a small private boat and set out for the Floating Uro Islands.
Best view from boat's roof deck - and the best place to get a wicked sunburn.

Our boat docked on a small floating island where only two families live to explain the island's structure (the islands are actually floating!) and allow us time to explore. The archipelago of Floating Islands is interesting but its amazement is offset by the numerous tourists scattered throughout the area and the insistent sales tactics of the locals selling wall hangings and blankets. Q and I aren't into buying trinkets and settled on purchasing a ride on the reed boats to another floating island. As precarious as it looked, the boats were super stable.
Tourists & Locals
I want a floating island.
Supporting the locals with the purchase of an experience.

From the floating islands, we set out to Isla Amantani where we meet our host families. Q and I really lucked out with our host family. They were so inviting and really tried to share as much about their lives and community with us despite the language barrier. They brought their dinning table into their humble kitchen to allow us to chat with them while watching them cook. It made us feel like truly honored guests.
You don't need a fancy kitchen to make delicious food.
Nor fancy cookware was needed.
Quinoa Soup - a new favorite.
A little R and R after cooking lunch.

After meeting our host family for lunch, we rejoined our tour group at the local school to read books and play soccer or volleyball with the local kids. As much as the everyone tried to keep up with the kids at sports, the thin air really worked to the kids' advantage. Together with our guide, we toured the island and learned about their history and current agricultural lifestyle. Over time, more and more the island is dependent on tourism rather than agriculture. This was apparent with out host families currently constructing more guest rooms and flushing toilets for guests.
Did I mention that our host family lives right next to the school yard?
Impressive reading skills, not only by the kids.

After returning to our host family for dinner, we prepared for the evening party, which takes place every evening for tourists. Our host mom dressed us up in traditional clothing and had her daughter escort us to the town hall for music and dancing. Lucky us, the town hall was basically across the soccer field in front of their house. Everyone from our tour group arrived dressed up with a member of their host family, along with several other tour groups following similar itineraries. The locals played lively music and got everyone up to dance. No fancy moves were busted out on the dance floor. Instead, we held hands and ran around the room like a crazy snake. As silly as it looked, it got everyone laughing and participating.
All dressed and ready to Party.
Dancing the night away.

The following morning Q and I came down from the guest room and joined our family for breakfast. The teenage son was the morning's master chef, cooking pancakes over the family wood fire stove. We bought a few hand made gifts from our host Mom before she brought us back to the dock where we would rejoin our tour group.
Breakfast soup, roasted quinoa and bread. The pancakes where so good we couldn't stop to take a picture of them.
The Home Shopping Network

Once reunited with our group, we set out for the last stop, Isla Taquile. The island is known for the knitting men and colorful traditional outfits. We toured the island as a group, walking up and down the hilly terrain - perfect last minute Inca Trail training. And not to toot our own horn but we handled the altitude well - we were able to hold conversations while hiking. Overall it was a mellow day with the occasional stop by our guide to explain the local culture and customs.
Checking out Isla Taquile
Morning commute
The real reason we travel - food.

Our boat ride back to the mainland was long. And although it was cold outside the boat, I still managed to get sunburned on the top of my hands. I completely forgot about how strong the sun's rays must have been at that elevation, especially with the lake's reflection.

Once back on the main land, we rechecked into our hotel, showered, and then met up with our friend Dave for dinner. We weren't going to settle for just any meal - we wanted Cuy, a Peruvian specialty of fried guinea pig. Each one of us ordered our own little guy to eat. Our conclusion: It's a once in life time dish and none of us plan on ordering it again. It's eatable but too fatty and too much work for what it's worth.
I don't usually eat meat, but when I do, it's a rodent.
Doesn't this make you salivate too?

The following morning we caught a shuttle bus back to the airport. Next stop: Cusco.

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