From Cusco, I took the Inka Express bus for tourists, recommended by the Swiss man on my Galapagos cruise and by Lonely Planet. This meant that I wasn’t allowed to sleep on the journey as I would have liked, but instead we were herded off to see some church or ruin every hour or so. The guide was a charming man who looked like the French guy who lures Liam Neeson’s daughter into human trafficking in the movie Taken. “Mi nombre es Hugo. Cómo Hugo Boss. O Hugo Chávez. Jajaja.” He gave the exact same spiel in English as in Spanish.
On the way, we saw many of the non-native eucalyptus trees, imported from Australia to stop soil erosion but now planted everywhere as a cheap and profitable crop. Unfortunately in disregard of the fact that these thirsty trees are sucking the soil dry and in a few years time they won’t be biologically or economically feasible anymore. It was snowing at the highest point on the route, and the unfortunate souls who were bravely manning the artisan stalls had to cover them up and, I’m sure, did not do good business that day. In the communities at this high altitude, we were told, life expectancy is very low. This is due to the climate, their poor diet (they kept livestock but only to sell, while they stick to a very monotonous vegetarian diet), and the use of lama dung as fuel in houses with no windows. Community properties (previously under a feudal system) lack the titles to prove ownership, so the government could take the resources of these areas whenever they want to. The most important promise, therefore, that a politician in this area can make is to award these titles; but the inhabitants have been waiting 30 years for these promises to be fulfilled. Families have 4-6 children, as they need the labour, and education is limited though legally compulsory up to the age of 16. Education, as I’ve been repeatedly told by earnest locals, is the key to economic development and equality.
As we approached our destination, we passed through the commercial centre of Juliaca, strategically located between Cusco, Puno, and Arequipa, and close to the Bolivian border, and as such a centre of contraband trade. Puno, in fact, wasn’t a whole lot nicer, though more geared towards tourists. The main attraction is a visit to one of the islands, and in particular the unusual Islas de los Uros. The Uros are a pre-Incan people who live on manmade islands created from totora reed, originally built as a defensive measure against their aggressive neighbours.
The boat I took had some rather serious engineering problems but eventually we arrived at the island of Chumi. Five families make this island their home, with a president to lead them. In total, there are 2,000 Aymara-speaking inhabitants on 80 different islands. There is a small hospital and there are three primary schools, but for secondary education the children must travel to the mainland. On the capital island, there are even hotels. “No hay discoteca. No hay internet.” The principal activity is fishing; on the mainland, 1kg of fish can be exchanged for 2kg of potatoes. The people here also hunt birds and eat the meat – better than chicken, apparently. For entertainment, they play football and volleyball – but not basketball. And their weddings last for two days, with people coming all the way from Cusco and Arequipa to get married here.
From the small island of Chumi, we were told that we could also make a special visit to the capital island, for an additional, but apparently not optional, cost. As we left Chumi in one of the traditional boats (less traditionally powered by a small boat behind us with an engine), three women said their goodbyes. They sang a local song, followed by Row, row, row your boat, and finally Vamos a la playa. No commercialism here. We had a lovely boat ride after which we were dumped on a small patch of totora reed with an artisan shop, a restaurant, and a toilet. This must have been the ghetto of the capital. We all stood around there for an hour until the captain decided we would be allowed back to Puno.
The next day, I left Peru for the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.