Off the beaten track locations have always been an interest of mine while traveling the globe. I have found myself in remote locations including Siwa Oasis in Egypt, the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, and in the Peruvian Andes at 16,000 feet above sea level. Traveling to locations such as these, I feel feeds that primal instinctual desire to move and explore. It stirs up feelings that are unexplainable, and the journeys can be long; but to exclaim to one’s self “Oh my God, I made it!”, is exhilarating.
On this momentous occasion of two days, it became an experience of physical endurance of the high altitude, and frigid weather. Almost knocking myself out, and losing my shit while facing one of my fears. Immersing myself in different cultures, and just being in the moment.
I was traveling with a couple of friends and my cousin, we were spending an overnight at a local family’s home on Lake Titicaca, Peru. This was defiantly off the beaten track since only 40,000 visitors per year come to stay on the lake. To get here, we had traveled by bus for a week from Lima, while visiting several cities along the way.
Once in Puno, which is a city along the lake, we spent the night there in order to leave in the morning for Lake Titicaca. It was already cold and damp in Puno, and I was already anticipating the climate of staying on a small island on the lake. So I decided to pack and wear layers, but that still did not prepare me.
We were picked up the following morning with a few other adventurers to cruise along the lake and visit three different islands, and to do a homestay with a family on one of those islands. All the islands were remote and unique to each other, it gave us an opportunity to see how people have lived for centuries along the lake. It was fascinating.
When exploring off the beaten track locations, it is far from being glamorous and the traveling to get there can be long and uncomfortable. You cannot just appear in these locations with a blink of an eye, you have to really want to explore these locations and prepare for the long haul.
For those who have done it before, you know the drill and can appreciate it for what it is. I have spoken to many who ask about these types of trips and once I got into details, it sounded to them like I was making it up. They often gave me an obscure look followed by a “Neverminded” or “That’s not for me”. Two different mind sets, off the beaten track is not for everyone, and to each their own.
The first time I heard about Lake Titicaca I was in grade school and was highly amused by its name for obvious reasons. Amused as I was back then, Lake Titicaca is one serious location. It is known as the “highest navigable lake” in the world, at 12,507 feet surface elevation. It is a large and deep freshwater lake located in the Andes, bordering Bolivia and Peru. There are various micro-climates on the lake and even on the islands themselves, so be sure to come prepared if you plan on visiting the area.
The first island we stepped onto was the manmade Uros islands, which were completely made of reeds. When approaching the island, it felt surreal and seemed magical. The floating islands were constructed with layers of reeds, had small reed homes, elaborate double decker reed boats and locals dressed in bright colored clothing. It was unlike anything I had ever laid my eyes on.
The Uros culture is one of Peru’s oldest and for generations the Uros have built their homes, boats and islands from the totora plant. There are about 120 self-fashioned floating islands and they were originally built as a defensive. If danger arose, they could move their islands and homes to another location.
The Uros sustain themselves mostly on fishing, hunting birds, as well as the eggs that are collected. We got to see the tiny little local fishes that were collected as part of their diet, and to sit inside one of their reed houses. It was rather dark inside the reed house, but you could still see the details in craftmanship of the house building.
Today, the Uros main source of income is tourism, so obviously modern technology and conveniences are part of their lifestyle. On the island, we had stepped into their tourist shop, which was also made of reeds, and purchased packaged snacks that you would find at a convenience store. My friend legitimately walked out with a full box of individually sold Oreo cookie packages. I was taken back by her purchase and asked, “What the hell? You bought them out of Oreos?” Her response, “Yep! Want one?”
I am not sure how long it took us to get to the next island, and I feel it was around two hours more or less. The sun was out but it was cold, it was freaking cold, but all the while many of us stayed on deck to take in the remarkable views of Lake Titicaca.
It took a long journey to get here from the United States. We had arrived in Lima with an additional week of travel to the lake, and we knew this was a once in a life time experience for us. So we took advantage of every moment.
There are 41 islands on Lake Titicaca and to this day, I cannot recall the name of the one that we stayed on. I do know that it was rather populated with modest homes and its own micro-climate. It was also beautiful with paved stone walkways and marvelous views of Lake Titicaca, especially in the early morning.
Our homestay was very memorable and we stayed inside a simple two story house, with a detached bathroom. Our room was on the second floor with the door and staircase on the outside. The door into our room was a pain because the height was shorter than I was, and on a good day I am only 5’4″. One time I was coming in, I walked right into the top ledge and almost knocked myself out. I think the frontal lobe bashing lead me to questionable decisions for the rest of the remainder of the trip, besides hurting like hell .
When it came to our meals, we were offered two but only ate one of them. We were not even hungry for the first meal, which was tragic because what I was able to eat was quite tasty. I am sure the lack of hunger came from me drinking a weeks worth of coca leaf tea, and eating several packages of Oreos.
We were offered a tasty traditional meal that was homecooked by our hostess over a primative stove, while she was sitting on a stool. I sat at the dining table and absorbed the atmosphere. I could see her from a distance bundled up while preparing our chicken and quinoa soup, with a plate of various potaotes and fried local cheese. From what I was able to eat, I thought the flavors simple, hearty and natural. I enjoyed it!
This island is where we stayed the night, and to this day I can still feel how bitter cold the climate was. It was the first time I understood what the term “bone chilling” meant, because I literally felt it in my bones. Plus our clothing were wet because while exploring the island it started to rain, which quickly became a full blown lightening storm. Remember my comment on the island having its own micro-climate?
I took it a step further and got muddy because I tried to take a short cut in the dark, and climbed over a muddy hill to get to my friends. I blame that ridiculous decision on the door sill head injury. So I was muddy and wet, while my friends were just wet. Amazing.
It was too cold for clothes to dry, so I layered everything I brought which was only the next day’s clothes. I really did not have much to work with here. The room was extremely frigid and there were not enough alpaca blankets to keep any of us warm.
This became a topic of funny conversation the following day with the others who were staying at different homes. We all spoke of how cold it was and how many blankets we had to layer. I joked in saying that when I kept layering the blankets, it got so heavy that I felt as if a bear was on top of me, which made my body sore. Although, it really was not a joke. The other alternative of freezing was just not an alternative.
In the early morning after realizing that I survived the night, I decided to take a morning stroll by myself. I only needed to put on my shoes because I was wearing to bed everything that I brought including my jacket, two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, my hat and gloves. I survived.
The quiet walk by myself totally revived me and was grateful that I did it on this particular morning. The island was quiet, peaceful and the sun was rising over Lake Titicaca. Life was glorious again!
This is where I pretty much lost my shit, on Taquile island. I was very excited to visit this island and learn about its culture. Having a picture while standing underneath the stone arch on this island in the middle of Lake Titicaca is a traveler’s badge of honor. There are only about 40,000 visitors to this island per year, so having a photo at the arch can be quite rare. I did get a photo with unbrushed hair, I forgot my brush back in Puno, but I made it to the stone arch. Oh my God, I made it!
The climb up, although slight was a bit of a struggle. The air was very thin because of the lake’s high altitude and the sun was unbearably bright. It was a remarkable trek though along the stone paths, hugging the hillsides, with the azure waters of Titicaca in view.
I was walking with a new girl that I had met the day before on the boat and we became fast friends. She became a significant reason I was able to get off the island, while I was loosing my shit on the way back to the boat. More later.
Once we go to the top and to the center of the main village on Taquile Island, we gathered with our group for lunch and to learn more of the people on the island. The inhabitants of the island base their society on community collectivism with crop rotations, fishing, terraced farming and potato cultivation. The majority of their religion is Catholic, merged with Andean religion and there is also a population of Seventh-day Adventist on the island.
Lunch was delicious and I was unexpectedly hungry. It might have been the frigid cold night that burned off calories, fat cells and a weeks worth of coca leaf tea. The freshly caught fish was incredible, served with starchy potatoes, rice and vegetables. I annihilated it.
This is where I lost my it and grateful I had someone to walk me through my ordeal of getting off the island. I knew that we were starting from one side of the island and were to be picked up on the other side of the island. I made the silly assumption that the other side of the island mirrored the side that we started from, with a stone pathway. I was wrong, so wrong.
The way back was walking down a series of winding uneven 500 stone steps to my death, down a steep hill. I was terrified and screamed in perfect silence. Although, I have read now that visitors are LED up the stairs, rather than down the stairs. I think this makes it much easier and safer for all visitors, especially with the effects of higher altitude. I guess I came during the wrong years, oh well.
So, I have a slight phobia of moving myself downhill in an open natural environment- skiing, climbing down rocks, hiking down any slope, Lake Taquile. I have to wear a baseball cap when I hike because it acts like horse blinders, that is why in blog photos you may see me wearing a hat in nature. To look up without a hat I become very overwhelmed and my legs begin to shake. Luckily, I had my cap with me and threw it on then slowly made it down, with the helpful coaxing of my new friend.
There were times that I seriously considered sliding down on my bottom step by step, and times I wanted to seriously cry. I thought maybe my new friend could go down to the boat and tell them to pick me up where we had started. I wanted to hold onto something but there was nothing to hold onto. I was quietly loosing it but step by step, down 500 steps, I made it back down.
For most people, this would not be a big deal and I have gotten a lot better since this trip. It is something as a traveler that I am needing to overcome, we all have our moments and our fears. This was mine.
Once we made it back to the boat, obviously being the last ones, I needed to sit down. I needed a moment. It did not take me long to reel it back in and let that experience go. I just made mental note that I made it back down in an upright position, without crying or turning an ankle. It was another badge of honor, a personal one.
I sat for awhile and watched a couple of my friends pass out inside the boat, all bundled up and keeping warm. I knew that was not for me, knowing that this would be my last hours on Lake Titicaca. I found my way to the bow of the boat, found a place to sit and let the moment take me.
We seemed to have traveled back to Puno rather quickly, faster than expected. I feel that is the case with any adventure though, how time seems to speed up in the end because you want the moment to keep going. We made it back to Puno, all in tact and warmer than the day before, with a few new friends.
It was not until I wrote this piece and how I felt about this off the beaten track trip to Lake Titicaca, and how it played a solid part of my travel lifestyle. Writing is a phenomenal way to process life events, and I finally got to process it. This was a lot to process in a two day adventure. In hindsight, it was so worth the cold, the dampness, the high altitude and even the 500 steps of death.
So, after Lake Titicaca we said our goodbyes to our new friends, and were back on the road. We were on our way our next adventure – Machu Picchu!
Live your life by a compass, not a clock…– Stephen Covey
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