Paddington in Peru: Puno, Lake Titicaca, Taquile Island
I meet my friend at a hotel near Lima airport. My bag stuffed full of M&S padded gilet and jacket, and a stuffed Paddington bear for Instagram.
PUNO - Friends in high places.
Arriving at Hotel Sonesta Posadas del Inca in Puno, walking up just one flight of stairs, I’m instantly breathless and my heart is racing. The views here are literally breathtaking – it’s because of the altitude. Puno is 12,555 ft high. I used to like getting high. Perhaps with hindsight, we should have flown to Cusco (11,154 ft) or Machu Picchu (7,972ft) first. Hindsight is a powerful thing (and higher altitude means less power).
Walking across the spongy grass as guinea pigs bounce across. Yellow butterflies flit around in pairs, landing on yellow dandelions. Two alpacas: Paulina and Valentine graze on the lawn. We sit in the gorgeous stand-alone conservatory in the sun, eat chicken, avocado sandwich and chips and drink a coca tea to aid altitude sickness.
The view over the lake is beautiful. I hear the sound of birdsong, and what sounds like a cricket with a football rattle (or is that the sprinkler?). We sit on the loungers drinking in the view and the tea, and catching the rays. A duck bobs up to the surface of the lake. Boats pass by in the distance.
We taxi to Avenida Floral to see the ‘Festival of the Crosses’ market. Women wear traditional attire with full skirts and bowler hats. Some carry hot-pink woven blankets around their shoulders carrying rosy-cheeked babies.
There are ‘lucky’ frogs, the smell of burning cedar wood, and miniature objects of everything. We love it! And can buy lots of tiny little trinkets to take home with us.
The trick with altitude sickness is to move really, really slowly. Easy to do in a busy market with people shuffling along. Making it our mission to buy the silliest hats we can find, we succeed with rainbow knit hats with earflaps (which we end up wearing a lot as it’s cold).
We buy an obligatory souvenir llama (or should that be an alpaca?)
Apparently, a llama is more prone to spitting and Peru’s national animal is actually a vicuña to confuse matters further.
We see a sign outside a restaurant offering flayed guinea pigs on the menu. I think I’ll pass.
LAKE TITICACA - Reed all about it
Up early to watch sunrise over the lake and feed the alpacas. Then feed us a big breakfast of fruit salad, coca tea, and French toast in the sunshine yellow restaurant.
A taxi picks us up at 10am and drives us to meet Cesar from Uros Samaraña Uta Lodge who collects us on his red speed boat.
As we near the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of this 4,000-strong community around the freshwater lake. I had no idea how large it would be. This beautiful lake of reed beds with reed houses and reed boats. Reed all about it! We walk across the sunny island, yellow reeds crunching underfoot, past deckchairs, a parasol and an arch all made of reeds.
Our room is full of bright colourful patterned blankets, with neon hand tapestry on the walls. There are two windows with curtains, overlooking the ducks on the lake.
Cesar takes us on his reed boat to another island and demonstrates with a model how the 3m island is 2m of reed bed topped with a latticework of straw or torpato.
The fancy tiger-headed boats take two months to build and entice visitors. The lovely handicrafts are their source of income. We’re more than happy to buy gorgeous embroidered tapestry wall hangings at their pop-up shop.
Back at the lodge, we sit in the sun on deckchairs, then swing in the hammocks wearing a reed hat. Language lessons from 6-year-old Litsi, as she leafs through our Lonely Planet guidebook. We now know how to say ‘I don’t eat guinea pig’, ‘No como cuy’.
Litsi dresses us up in full skirts, neon waistcoats, straw hats and Pom poms for some traditional folk costume dancing. It’s 5pm in the afternoon and we’re twirling around like we’re in my front room at 3am drunk. I feel drunk – my heart racing from the altitude.
It’s freezing on the lake and early to bed, fully clothed with five blankets. Woken by a clap of thunder and lightning, the storm continues through the night with torrential rain.
8am and the beautiful lake is now still as a millpond. There is a slightly different view from our bedroom window where the reed island has shifted overnight.
Breakfast is bread served in reed boat-shaped baskets, fluffy sponge-y omelette, avocado and fresh sliced tomato, peach syrup juice and fried dough with jam.
TAQUILE ISLAND - Be still my beating heart
We head out on Cesar’s boat. The port is full of boats and tourists visiting 45 of the islands (the 90 islands open alternately for visitors). Boarding a bigger boat, we head ninety minutes to Taquile Island for a slow breath-y walk up to the top of a hill to see another breathtaking view. Walking on the rocky terrain past men in traditional costume, stone walls, sheep, flowers, and potatoes on the ascent. I feel like a potato.
As we approach the restaurant there are men walking around whilst knitting.
Unusual…to see a man… multi-tasking.
The locals demonstrate ‘dancing’ in traditional dress: crop waistcoats over white shirts, accessorised with colourful woven belts and neon-tasselled hats. The kids charmingly but tunelessly blowing pipes and banging a drum. It reminds me of a comedy sketch from the pan pipes band in The Fast Show. A luminous neon yellow Inca Kola accompanies lunch. Back down the hill to hop onto the tourist boat and enjoy another nap. Weirdly, my altitude sickness has gone now we’ve done a mini hike. Be still my beating heart.
The rain is torrential at dinnertime. Dinner is quinoa soup, trout (from the lake) with quinoa, and yep, you’ve guessed it… quinoa cake – all of which are delicious (if you like quinoa). It’s cold on the lake so I wear a fleece, silly hat, leggings, socks and Cesar gives us a hot-water bottle for bed. I sleep curled up and snug, like a cross between a dormouse and the Michelin Man.
Breakfast as the mist rolling in on the lake swiftly disappears. Cesar takes us out on a reed boat that took him and his brothers a month to build. He shows us how he cuts the reed. We taste it, it’s edible too! It’s incredibly calm and peaceful out here - even with a soggy bottom. Posing for a cute photo with Cesar's family and Paddington bear under the arch, we're sad to leave our wonderful hosts.
He speedboats us back to land, to meet a cab, which drops us back at Sonesta Hotel.
We devour a delicious lunch of vegetable lasagne and white wine in the conservatory, sat on the loungers, watching around ten guinea pigs racing around the lawn.
Pleased they are not on our menu… or plate.
When it cools, we retreat inside for hot chocolate, reception prints out our bus tickets and we take a taxi. The bus station is grim and bustle-y but the bus is luxe with big wide reclining seats. I close my eyes for the journey, the bus hurtling along and lurching at high speed racing to Cusco....
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Read about Luxury Rail & Sail to Machu Picchu on Star Clipper and Belmond train.