Where the sun was born, we found the perfect trek to get used to high altitude and learn about an ancient civilisation before visiting their hometown.
The end of the world
Our bus is a bit late, but it matters not, we are not in a rush. After a while, our driver turns the engine on and hits the play button – loud music comes from the speakers, the sign that we were about to set off. The journey towards Copacabana – the Bolivian one that is – would take us next to majestic mountains towards and through a very peculiar water crossing.
Flanked by Lake Titicaca on one side and a beautiful cathedral on the other, Copacabana would feel like the end of the world if it wasn’t for the zillion accommodation options that crowd its main street – on the flip side though, here we found the cheapest accommodation in months.
After stocking up on our daily dose of avocados and fruit from the local market we headed to Lake Titicaca, politely declining the numerous offers for tours, meals and massages. Once at the waterfront, with a jug of freshly pressed orange juice and superb views of the lake, a feeling of calmness payed us a visit together with a beautiful sunset.
Feeling the altitude
A bumpy boat ride took us next morning to Isla del Sol, a couple of hours away from Copacabana. It is home to eight hundred families, whose traditional Andean lifestyle has remained relatively intact for generations.
Isla del Sol has been inhabited for almost four thousand years and was an important pilgrimage destination for the Incas. According to the legend, Viracocha – the bearded god who created the universe – emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun at this location.
There are no paved roads or motor vehicles here. To cross the island from north to south, some opt for renting a donkey. Others are happy with just getting to know them a little bit.
And so, we started the four hour trek towards the southern shores of the island. At nearly four thousand metres, with the waters of Lake Titicaca watching over us from both flanks, we struggled for the first time on this trip. The locals recommended Muña, a local plant, apparently as good as coca to deal with altitude sickness. After 30 minutes, we were chewing every single plant we found on the road, Muña or not. It was breathtaking, literally.
And beautiful and peaceful as well. We got to Yumuni in the very South of the island and found a place to have dinner. The promise of fresh fish and the lack of electricity – even for the chef, who cooked a delicious meal helped with just a couple of candles – fitted just right with the island. The sunset was a nice touch.
It was our last night in Bolivia.
A final note on Bolivia
Half way through our first day in La Paz, we understood something that deep inside we already knew. Bolivia is way more than the famous Salt Flats and a few other so-called “must-do” attractions. Bolivia is every street and every corner of its lively cities and the daily struggle of one of the wealthiest countries in the world in natural resources who somehow is one of the poorest in South America.
For nine months we had travelled around the world and now it feels like we are running out of time. This country deserved more time, time to head to the jungle and to visit the more remote communities. We’ll find the time next time. That’s a promise.
Party time in Cuzco
We arrived in Cuzco in the middle of the night, but our hostel let us into our room and gave us a free upgrade. Thank you. Next morning, it was the people itself that wanted to say “welcome to our town”.
As it turned out, Cuzqueños don’t dress like that everyday nor they were waiting for us to arrive. We just happened to arrive on time for the festivities of Cristo de Torrechayoc. Dance, folklore, sun and plenty of colours.
What a great start. The food stalls at San Pedro market made sure we were well fed – a bit rougher than other markets, but for £1 they offer a plate full of rice, fried banana, french fries, avocado, salad and sausages. Cuzco is busy and crowded and you can’t take two steps without someone offering a massage or a tour. But it is full of history too, with cathedrals and inca sites one after the other.
Later in the afternoon we spent hours talking to a guy about politics in Peru. He was a firm supporter of Fujimori – the father – claiming that he would vote for him without hesitation, if it wasn’t because he is currently in jail after being sentenced to 25 years for human rights violations, bribery and embezzlement. He is also the only president in history to have resigned by fax – he did so from Japan. Oh well.
Enter the Incas
Following a quick word exchange, we got on the back seats. Our driver, a young lad from the area, had studied tourism and was keen to teach us about the story of Cuzco and the Incas. First stop, Moray. Historians believe that this was an Incas’ playground, where they would experiment with different crops at different altitudes.
He also told us a story about globalisation: a few years ago, when half the western world became vegetarian and demanded quinoa five times a week, farmers on this side of the Atlantic stopped cultivating potatoes or corn – the quinoa business was more profitable. The price of the quinoa rocketed up for a while, becoming so expensive in South America that people could not afford eating something they had enjoyed for thousands of years. We listened to this while admiring the contrast between the yellow crops and the blue sky, with the Andes in between.
When one thinks about pre-incas sites, it is rocks, pottery or weapons that come to mind. Not fields where salt has been harvested since ancient times.
The fields are owned by people of the nearby villages with each individual only allowed to own up to 50 terraces or so. Salty water coming from the mountain is directed into a complicated systems of streams and terraces, where it precipitates into crystals on the walls.
Back in town, it was time to get some rest and load up on carbs with a huge vegetarian dinner. We will need them in the days to come.
Managed, not without some negotiation, to book our Salkantay Trek. A five day hike through the Andes and the jungle before arriving at – yet another – special place.