Thursday, May 2, 2013

Peru...Bolivia...Incas...Aymara...Puno...and Copacabana

Puno, Peru and Copacabana, Bolivia have one major thing in common.  The both sit on the shores of the world's highest elevation navigable lake--Lake Titicaca.  And this is somewhere that you should come if you want a vacation full of culture.

Puno, Peru is a huge stopping point on a trip through Peru, across Lake Titicaca, and on to Bolivia.  The area here has been home to many indigenous and foreign imports over the years.  The modern era brings a unique mix of old and new in the Christians who go to mass and worship God.  These local people also look to the Virgin of Candeleria, the local patron saint, and each year they hold a festival in February to honor her.  During the Feast of the Virgin of Candeleria, the locals compete fiercely in the Dance of the Devil.  To win a dance contest is a great victory during the festival.
The local people here have around 300 native dances, and they spend a lot of time dancing throughout the year.  Elaborate costumes and masks are the norm only during the feast, but dancing is an all the time thing.

The Lake Titicaca area is noted for it's Incan ruins.  Legend has it that Manco Capac and Mama Ocilo, who were brother and sister, rose from the Lake, sent by their father, the Sun God, to form the base of the Inca's culture.  There are several Islands and other locations along the shores of the lake where the ruins of the famous Inca Empire can be seen.
Lake Titicaca is a high altitude Lake, sitting 12,725 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.  At one point, people believed that it was an old volcano crater, but it's actually a run-off and river fed gem.  It's a place that is shrouded in legend, including the tales that there was gold at the bottom of the lake, because that's where the locals hid it from the Conquistadors.  Whatever the story, the natural source of water and food has made it home to many many civilizations over the eras.
There have been Inca here, Spaniards, Tiahuanaco, Uros, Aymara, and of course the Andean natives that still inhabit the area today.

There are many beautiful buildings to see in the area, and many churches.  Catholicism is the name of the game these days, and there are churches evidenced to that all around the area.  There are also markets in the area where you can buy some of the most coveted handicrafts in all of South America.  The descendants of the local ethnic groups make some of the best handicrafts around.
Copacabana, Bolivia isn't quite as bustling as Puno, but there is plenty to see and do there as well.  Also, some of the islands that you will want to go and see, are closer to there than Puno.  Let's face it, if you've gone this deep into the bush in either one of these countries, it's because you wanted to go there.  This isn't what happens when I go to NYC for the day and decide to walk the Brooklyn Bridge instead of keep an appointment for lunch.  Getting to these towns isn't easy.  You have to take a questionable train, a small plane with a lot of luck, or a bus that still leaves a lot to be desired.  This is a destination that you will not end up seeing.  You will have to plan and work at it to get there.
And oh, the things you will see when you do get there.  The views are magnificent.  The culture is amazing, the llamas and alpacas are cute and the wool makes great woolens.  Then there are the islands, which brings me to my main point as to why anyone would come here for a vacation.  I mean, you can buy a bowler hat anywhere, you don't have to get it in South America.  The islands of Lake Titicaca are exceptional.  There are around 30 of them at any given time.  Does that sound like a number that can change, which makes no sense, because it's a lake?

Well, not all of the islands on Lake Titicaca are real islands.  Some of them are man made.  It may look like dried grass, but there are islands out there which are constructed of reeds.  That's right, Bull Rushes.  Uros, Taquile, and Amantani are probably the best known of the islands in the lake.  Taquile and Amantani are islands that you can stay with a family on and really get the idea of their lifestyles.
Then there's Uros Islands which are man made of reeds.  These places are amazing.  They will take you there in their boats, called Totora Rafts, that are entirely made of reeds.  Their houses are made of reeds.  Their islands are made of reeds.  It's an unbelievable achievement.  Each island lasts for about 30 years, and it decomposes from the bottom since it sits on the water.  The people who live there add
 Totora(reeds) to the islands every few months to keep them strong, as the bottom or water side decays.  Some of the people who live in these areas never leave them.  They are born and die right there in the lake.

These people have churches, schools, as well as homes built right on the islands that they built.  They are a self sustaining people who don't crave attention.  The modern era has caused them to accept tourism into their lives, but they still don't like to have their picture taken.  Respect their lifestyles, and they will respect yours.  They will also show you their lifestyle.  There are a few things to be prepared for.  First, there aren't many modern amenities.  These are a basic people.  Second, the islands are always rotting.  They smell a little weird.  But anything that might be of a little inconvenience, is easily overlooked since the experience is so amazing.

So, amazing cultures, fabulous scenery, Inca history, and above all, the chance to see how life is on a man made island.  Take a leap, I would say take a tour just to be safe, and enjoy something truly different.  Step back in time and leap to another world.  Learn of legend and Conquistadors.  You will always be glad you did.


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