And so my South American travel odyssey begins in…
(try to guess from the photo…)
The birthplace of the sun, according to Incan legend and the highest navigable lake in the world, at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft) above sea level.
Lake Titicaca is divided between Peru (northwest) and Bolivia (southeast), and I am staying with a family in a little pueblo called Ccotos, which is located on a northern peninsula on the lake, on the Peruvian side.*
This is a homestay, a beautiful form of community-based tourism, where I eat 3 meals a day with the family, I stay in an extra room they have built specifically for this purpose. They treat me like a visiting friend, sharing meals and conversing, recommending things I can explore in the community during the day, and helping me plan the next part of my journey. When they met me at the terminal, the mother of the family even chastised the mototaxi driver for charging me a few more soles than the normal going price.
My stay started perfectly…I woke up in the morning to do yoga looking out over the lake (the house backs up to the lake). I asked the mother if she wanted to join me and she sent her two kids to join me – a smiley, shy 16-year-old girl, Judith, and a witty, talkative 6-year-old boy, Ronnie. Together we did yoga watching the lake, while the donkey and calf watched us.
After yoga we had breakfast of hot tea (fresh coca leaf to help me adjust to the altitude), bread specific to the sierra region, and a hot quinoa drink. The father, Alfonso, told me about the points of interest I could go explore, and the kids headed off to school.
Chatting with him, I learned that they are mostly farmers, planting quinoa, potatoes, corn, wheat, and barley. They had a few cows and a few sheep and they also sometimes caught fish from the lake. The quinoa drink we had that morning was from the harvest earlier in the year. And for lunch they bought fish from a neighbor that had gone fishing in the morning.
After breakfast, I decided that I wanted to follow the main (dirt) road to the very tip of the peninsula… which means I got to see most of the community since there is basically only one main road that goes down the middle of the little peninsula. But in my way out, I saw the family doing a curious thing…
They explained that they were taking advantage of the wind blowing to separate the grains from the husks. The wind carried the husk away, and the grain fell in a pile.
A few women were working in their fields, and almost every property had a few sheep! I have never seen so many sheep in my life.
The 45-minute walk through the community to the tip was so incredibly peaceful, only one car passed and just a handful of people walked by. The women wore these great brimmed hats with two colorful balls on top. Almost all the land was divided into small plots of farmland with crops planted and sheep grazing and an adobe house (or a few) on each property. I also saw a woman taking water from a hand pump well. While the community has a central well-based water system, water is only available every other day. (I never clarified if that was due to pumping costs or lack of sufficient water in the well, but the community was interested in engineering help to have water on a daily basis. Note to self – another reason to return. And note to all you Engineers Without Borders out there.)
The beach at the tip of the peninsula was incredible. A peaceful silence- there was literally no one and nothing around, other than the occasional bird. As I climbed down to the shore I heard the waves lapping at the shore; it could have been easily mistaken for the ocean. A very calm ocean with small waves – nothing like the (poorly named) Pacific Ocean, but a very ocean feel.
Looking out I could see a few fishing boats and a few islands – one larger one with terraced land, that I guessed might be Amantaní, the island I was thinking of visiting next.
I returned to the house for lunch and saw that, like Alfonso had mentioned in the morning, 2 other tourists, young Italian guys, had arrived. We all had lunch together – that fresh fish from the morning catch, quinoa and potatoes from their farm and vegetables bought from the nearby market.
Later, with the Italians, we climbed to the mirador (scenic overlook point) and I was really feeling the altitude as I huffed and puffed to the top, my first day at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft).
After wading around in the lake, we returned to the nice surprise that Alfonso agreed to take us out in the boat to fish. That meant bundling up (because it gets really cold when the sun goes down), and paddling out to leave nets out that we would then go out and gather in the morning.
Over dinner I helped Judy (the 16-year-old daughter) with her English homework, which was way too hard for a non-native speaker and reminded me that in American English we don’t pronounce our words clearly, we let words run together, and we speak very differently from written English. Anyway, her homework was to understand this video of street interviews in the US, which I found hilarious and interesting, so I’ll share it here.
After dinner we started kicking the soccer ball around, laughing hilariously with Ronnie and coincidentally continuing my Friday soccer tradition, making me both miss Oxapampa and still feel connected at the same time.
The next morning I did yoga with Judith and the donkey while the guys brought in a few little fish from the nets they had left out. After breakfast, Judy dressed us up in the traditional clothing for celebrations and events…so finally I have a photo of those great brimmed hats with puff balls that the women wear!
Sad to leave new friends and happy and thankful to have been invited into their lives for a brief moment, and given the opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of the beautiful lakeshore on their land, I headed away from Ccotos feeling like this tiny farming peninsula on the lake has a very special place in my heart.
*Yes, I should have been rushing to get out of the country to not overstay my visa. But I couldn’t pass up this opportunity! Hopefully they won’t arrest me and throw me in a detention center and deport me back to the US. Privilege noted.