Travelblog SA#25: Lake Titicaca Part 1 (Uros, Amantaní & Taquile) – Peru

1st-2nd November 2018

Situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is both the largest lake in South American and also, at 3,800 meters altitude, the highest navigable lake in the world. It has a rich history, having been inhabited by many cultures – including the Tiwanaku people – for thousands of years before the Incas came, and many ancient relics to this area’s spiritual past remain.

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This was my final week in Peru and I began it with a two-day boat journey through the lake. The boat I was cruising on took us first to the Uros archipelago. A community of floating, man-made islands made out of reeds. Each one is home to a small extended family and they form a complex network, either connected to each other directly or within close proximity.

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It is said that these people originated from the Amazon, from which they were driven out hundreds of years ago. Having no land to call their home, they created their own. The islands are mobile and they used to dwell deeper within the lake but now, having achieved a more peaceful existence with the people who live upon the shore, they have moved closer to the port town of Puno where they supplement their living on tourism and selling handicrafts.

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As a tourist, your time on Uros is very structured. You are not really allowed to wander freely and are taken to a small part of it chosen by the community. The amount of time you spend is also designated by the captain of your boat. One of the locals comes out, tells you a little about their lives, and then you get some time to browse the shops some of the inhabitants have set up.

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I am not saying this as a complaint. It was still interesting to see, even if you didn’t feel like you get to know the place and its people properly. I have seen a lot of people online complaining about this place being too ‘touristy’ and, to be quite frank, those people need to get a grip. What exactly are you expecting? You are a tourist. One out of dozens who come to a very small place each day to walk among them. Of course they are going to control where you go and try to sell you things. What other benefit are they going to get out of you nosing into their life? Minority cultures don’t exist solely for the curiosity of white people.

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After our time in Uros, we got back onto the boat and sailed deeper into the lake, passing through a channel between the beds of reeds. We saw lots of birdlife. Within an hour or so, something appeared on the horizon and it got bigger and bigger. It was the Island of Amantaní, where we were staying that night.

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Amantaní is a small island, mostly populated by Quechua-speaking farmers who have lived there for generations. There are no hotels, restaurants or cars, only homestays, which the Elders allocate to visitors on a rotating system. I was given my own room, which was surprisingly comfortable, but there was no electricity or hot water (not that I am complaining, simplicity is what I came here for). The woman who looked after me also provided me and the other guests with meals.

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After lunch, I went out and explored the island by foot.

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Despite how small this island is, it is surprisingly tiring to wander around. It is hilly and sits at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,100 meters, leaving you breathless at times. The sun is very strong too.

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First I walked to Pachatata, a peak which is home to some old Tiwanaku ruins which are still in use by locals for folk-ceremonies today.

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And then I walked to Amantaní’s highest peak of all, Pachamama, which had more ancient ruins and some wonderful views. One of my favourite sights was this photo I took.

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Amantaní has many Tiwanaku-style stone arches framing the pathways and this is one of them. In the background, you can see Pachatata, and then, beyond that, the white peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. An area I intend to explore in the coming weeks.

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Most visitors to the island remain at Pachamama till dusk to watch the sunset, but I didn’t see much point in that because it was cloudy. I walked back to the main plaza. The temperature plummeted and it quickly became chilly. On the way, I popped into a small bar and had a beer before I returned to the homestay for dinner.

I slept very well that night. At one point I needed to get up to use the toilet and saw one of the starriest skies I have ever glimpsed. In the morning, our host made us a quick breakfast and then we were back on the boat again.

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We went to visit another island called Taquile that morning. Our captain dropped us off at the northern tip and then picked us up from the other side later that day, allowing us to walk its length.

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Taquile was a little more touristy and yet also more scenic than Amantaní. Amantaní gets fewer visitors, and the ones who do come mostly stay overnight, whereas Taquile mostly just gets day-trippers. It is steeper too. Not many people seem to bother walking up to its highest peak, which is a shame because it was probably my favourite place on these islands so far, and the walk had stunning views.

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There was yet another temple at the top, which also showed signs that it was still in use by the locals today.

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After lunch, I went to the dock where the boat was waiting to take me back to Puno.

 

For more photos from Lake Titicaca, click here.

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Travelblog#37: El Nido & Puerto Princesa – the Philippines

14th-19th January, 2015

El Nido, with its dramatic landscape of limestone mountains and white sand beaches, is the top tourist destination in Palawan. When we reached there we were greeted by the usual signs of a popular beach experiencing growing pains – inflated prices, cluttered streets, white people outnumbering Asian – but I had already guessed that it was going to be like this so I was mentally prepared. Jody, James, Chloe and I got ourselves a family room (it was one of the cheaper options in town but yet it still cut a bit more into our budgets than we would have liked) and then booked ourselves for ‘Tour A’, to see some sights in the archipelago offshore the next day.

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Our first stop was at a small cove on an island 30 minutes away, where we were told we needed to jump off the boat and swim through a gap between the limestone karsts.

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Have I mentioned yet that my new travel buddies own a Go Pro? Well they do. So, for the next couple of months, while I am travelling with them, you will also be able to see photos of the more watery places I venture to.

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James and I swam on ahead and reached a lagoon.

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In fact, we were taken to many lagoons that day, and a few beaches, most of which were very beautiful. ‘Secret Lagoon’ could do with being renamed though, as you have to queue to get into it these days. El Nido really does have some fantastic scenery but the way that dozens of people are carted around just a handful of famous locations, on these pre-made tours, makes it a little soulless.

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We figured out that it is not too hard to get away from all the hustle and bustle though: the next day we hired out a pair of kayaks because we fancied a bit of freedom.

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We rowed out to a really beautiful island which had a nice beach, calm waters, and better snorkelling than any of the places we were taken to the previous day, and the only other people we saw were a few fishermen and one couple (who also happened to be on kayaks). It was a really lovely way to finish off our time in El Nido but, on our way back, our kayaks were unfortunately turned over by a sudden wave. As soon as I pulled myself back up to the surface, I began scrambling to collect items and managed to recover Jody’s wallet, bottles of water, the oars, and a few other things, but I lost my snorkel and sandals to the tide.

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We caught a bus back down to Puerto Princesa the following morning and our time there began with a trip to Palawan Butterfly Garden, whose friendly staff were keen to show us around the place. I found their collection of cocoons, which had several species of butterflies in the process of hatching, particularly interesting.

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It wasn’t just home to butterflies either, but also scorpions, reptiles, stick insects, and even a pair of rescued Palawan bearcats which had been orphaned by poachers. After we were done admiring all the various creatures and taking photos we were coaxed into the nearby Tribal Village.

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When I first saw the ‘village’ – where a few men clad in loincloths were waiting to begin the ‘show’ – I did worry that it was going to be a bit false and tacky, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. They were Palawano tribesmen from the southern mountains, and they gave us a demonstration on some of their customs; how they hunt with spears and blow-darts, spark fires by striking two stones together, and one of them even played a traditional guitar-like instrument with only two strings. They didn’t speak any English, so a Filipino translator narrated, and she told us how these tribesmen are volunteers who stay in this village for two weeks at a time, on a rotation scheme, and the money generated by it goes towards several programs to help keep their way of life thriving in the modern world.

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In the afternoon we went for a wander around the town, soaking up the atmosphere as we strolled through the local market, along the waterfront, and past the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, where hundreds of people had come to watch live footage of the Pope – who was at the time in Manila – give a speech.

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I then finished off the day with a sunset beer on the rooftop balcony of the guest house we were staying at.

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In the morning I made a quick trip to the Palawan Heritage Centre – a museum which is filled with lots of interesting information on Palawan’s culture, fauna, and history, but does not seem to get as many visitors as it deserves – just before we caught a tricycle to the airport to fly to Cebu.

For the next few weeks of our journey, we will be travelling across The Visayas.

 

For more photos from El Nido and Puerto Princesa, check out my Flickr account. Some of the photos from this blog were kindly donated to me by James, who not only owns a GoPro, but also a DSLR. He is a very talented photographer, and his website, James Robert Eldridge Photography, is worth a browse if you want to see some more professional snaps from Asia.

Travelblog#22: The Togians – Sulawesi, Indonesia

5th-13th November, 2014

The backpacking scene is quite well networked these days. During my time on the road I have made lots of friends – from both this trip, and the one I went on a few years ago – and many of them I am still in touch with via Facebook, email and Skype. Occasionally my path will cross with one of theirs again but, even if it doesn’t, it is still interesting to find out where they wind up on their journey.

One of the benefits of this networking between travellers is the sharing of information. When we notice that others are about to venture to an area we have already been to we will often throw tips to each other. A cheap hostel to stay in, perhaps; or a one of those “travellers’ secrets” (places that are played down or barely mentioned in the Lonely Planet, often purposefully and/or by request); or, more often, somewhere that is in the guide book, but we just want to make sure they are going see it.

Such was the case when I reached Sulawesi: I received a stream of private messages and Facebook comments. “Go to the Togians!” they said. “Are you going to the Togians?” “You HAVE to go to the TOGIANS!”

So, we went to the Togians.

Kate was, sadly, no longer with us: her spider-bite which we thought was healing got infected again so she was told she would not be allowed to swim nor hike for a while and – as that is pretty much all there is to do in Sulawesi – she decided her time might be better spent in an area with attractions which are easier to access and had better hospitals, such as Bali, or Java.

So it was back down to the original duo again; me and Roy.

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The journey to the Togians took almost three days, in all. I won’t bore you with too many details. There was a stomach churning bus through south-Sulawelian mountains (Roy threw up, I merely felt nauseous), followed by a night in a dingy hotel in Poso. Then, in the morning, we hopped onto another bus, this time along the coast, to Ampana, where we had an afternoon to relax before we caught the boat.

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In the early evening, just as it was getting dark, we arrived on Malenge Island.

We didn’t have much time other than to claim a bungalow each at Lestari Cottages (where we were stayed) and eat dinner that night. In the morning we finally saw the place in the daylight and realised that it was paradise.

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Lestari Cottages is perched on the narrow straight between the joining of a small peninsular to the rest of the island. One side of the resort opens out to a stunning sandy beach, dotted with grass and trees.

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Walking through to the other side of the decked out restaurant area brings you out into a small lagoon.

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We swiftly found out that the owners of Lestari Cottages also own a small canoe which is free for guests to use so, on our first day there, we commandeered it and rowed out to a nearby Bajo village.

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The Bajo (also referred to as “sea gypsies”) are the oldest inhabitants of the Togians, and many of them still live in villages built on stilts over the reef.

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Many of them are even said to possess evolutionary adaptations, such as changes to the muscles of their eyes to help them see clearer underwater and bodies which are more efficient at conserving oxygen (indeed, when Roy snorkelled out this way a day later, a boy swam out to meet him and, without any mask, fins, or breather, was ducking beneath the surface, holding his breath, opening his eyes, and swimming around with a grace which put Roy’s own efforts to shame).

They were very friendly and enthusiastic, and happy to show us around their village. The children kept asking us to take photos of them so they could stare in wonder at the screen, and never at any point did any of them ask us for money, or ”gula” (sugar), like many of the kids on the mainland (who live comparatively much more comfortable and modern lives) have been trained to.

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I stocked up on some snack foods at a small shop and was quoted prices which were much lower than I what people often try to charge foreigners on the mainland. By the time we got back onto our canoe and began rowing back, I realised that these sea gypsies were possibly the happiest and most honest of the people I have met in Indonesia so far.

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Much of the exploration we did around Malenge was below the water. We didn’t see big creatures such as sharks or turtles, but the micro-life was spectacular and the coral was some of the healthiest and most intact that I have ever seen. One afternoon I simply jumped into the water and followed the coral gardens along the coast until I reached a mangrove forest a couple of hours later. When I emerged from the water a sighting of a pale snake slithering in the shallows put me off exploring, as I was barefoot and wearing only my swimming trunks, so instead, I just sat there for a while and rested while enjoying the sounds of the birds.

I am not one of those flashy travellers who owns a GoPro, I’m afraid, so I have no photos. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Birds were another attractive feature on this island. The lagoon was a great place to lounge in a hammock and watch them fly by, and bright green parakeets were a fairly common sighting. Roy and I also went on a walk through the jungle early one morning and spotted some other interesting species which we couldn’t name. We were past the Wallace Line by this point, so much of the fauna was unfamiliar to us.

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The rest of our time in Malenge was spent relaxing: reading books, playing chess, laying in the shallows of the water, and staring out at the sea. We were tempted to stay there much, much longer, but there was more of the Togians to explore so, almost reluctantly, we left on the fifth day.

Sorry Tioman, you are now my second favourite island in the world.

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We went to Kadidiri next. We were a little bit underwhelmed by the location: the sandy cove, with three different resorts to choose from, was nice, but it didn’t have a spot on Malenge.

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Or maybe Roy and I have been a bit spoilt recently, when it comes to islands and beaches.

Kadidiri is, however, – with its larger population of tourists – a much better location for booking tours and venturing out to places. On our first day there Amal (the son of the family were staying with) look us on a free trip to nearly Taipi Island for some snorkelling.

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We also ended up visiting a lake nearby which had a very unique eco-system; it was absolutely full of stingless jellyfish, and many other curious creatures.

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We swam around for a while with our snorkels. I ended up spending much of my time childishly swishing my hands around and, without touching them, casting the jellyfish off in different directions with the waves I created.

“Feeling powerful, Tej?” Roy asked me, lifting his head up from the water and removing his snorkel.

“Yes.”

He ended up doing the same thing for a while, and discovered its rather addictive quality. I have since named this art “Jellyfish Kinesis”.

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Click here for more photos from the Togians.