Uros Islands and the Road to Cusco

After breaking camp in the morning we headed towards Puno, stopping first for a car wash in order to deal with the gasoline leak that was slowly staining our car yellow.

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The full service car wash turned into a DIY job when the kids working the station didn’t quite put in the elbow grease Wolf would have liked.

One shiny car later, we pulled into the dock at Puno and were quickly accosted by several locals peddling their boat rides out to the Uros Islands. We chatted with a few and pretty quickly were whisked to a waiting boat where Ciaran, Anas and I boarded for a day trip to check out the reed islands. Since Wolf had been there before, he opted to stay behind and do a bit of work.

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Gliding out to the islands we started passing through massive swaths of reeds and a few islands and structures also made from reeds.

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We passed by dozens of reed islands, each with a little village and a few buildings, past villagers in all different kinds of boats.

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Even though I knew what was coming, the scene was all a bit bizarre – an entire community built completely from reeds and permanently established on the waters of Lake Titicaca.

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We docked at one of the islands and sat to listen to one of the villagers talk about why they lived on reed islands, how they were made, and what the community is like now. His story pretty quickly evolved into an explanation of the crafts they had made to sell to tourists and how dependent they are on the tourist economy for survival.

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We had some time to walk around the little island and check out their homes. From there we climbed into a big reed-covered boat for a trip to another island.

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Again, we passed dozens of islands and villagers, all milling about on boats or hanging out on the islands.

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We spent some time on the second island and eventually all piled back in the boat and headed back for Puno.

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Seeing the Uros islands was an interesting experience  – I’m glad we had the chance to check it out but it did feel a bit overly commercialized, certainly not as authentic as I had imagined it might be.

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Back in Puno we met Wolf, grabbed some lunch and headed on our way. Our next destination would be Cusco but we knew we’d probably have to camp one more night along the way. Our drive brought us through Juliaca where we spent what seemed like forever trying to find our way around a jumble of road construction and back to the main road.

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Before it got too late, we decided to check out a camping spot located in Tinajani off the main road. Our detour led us a dozen kilometers down an unpaved road that started with rolling hills and eventually wound into a canyon with a beautiful river flanked by distinctive red rock formations. It looked like a movie set to me – the rocks were so vibrant and towered with interesting shapes and layers that looked like they could have been papier-mache.

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The site we were looking for sat right on a river and consisted of a few picnic tables and an outhouse. The few nearby buildings were locked and the only civilization in sight were a few locals fishing in the evening light. We’d read online that this site had caretakers but we couldn’t find anyone to check in with or anywhere to pay, so we made ourselves comfortable.

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These sort of nights have become our favorite part of the trip. The undiscovered campsite, well off the beaten path, in a place few tourists have reason to visit. It was a lot of fun for us to camp there with Ciaran and Anas and give them a little taste of the wild camping experiences we’ve loved so much.

Dinner preparations went smoothly until we realized our flame was slowly dying – the propane on our stove was running out. Annoyed but not deterred, we pulled out our backpacking stove and finished cooking dinner with our tiny burner.

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Once again, we fell asleep in our cozy bunk bed formation.

Early the next morning we woke up to the sound of a bike bell. We checked the time and, realizing it was 6am, Wolf unzipped the window of our second-story bedroom and poked his head out to see a teenager hanging out with his bike, just watching us. Wolf greeted him and suggested that perhaps it was a bit early for socializing, and pulled his head back in. The kid didn’t seem to get the message and hung around, not budging. Eventually it got too weird for me so I hopped out of the car, clearly still wearing pajamas, to find out what he wanted. The first thing he asked me was whether we wanted to go to the museum. I almost laughed out loud. For starters, I’m not sure what this museum in the middle of nowhere could possibly have on display, and I couldn’t figure out who actually visited the museum. And even if we had wanted to go, we probably would have opted for a guided tour that started sometime after sunrise. The kid was harmless enough and we chatted for a few minutes until I convinced him that we did not, in fact, want to go to the museum. After I went back inside he hung around reluctantly for a few more minutes before cycling away. Another memorable morning :)

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Although it was a strange wakeup call, we were happy for an early start and hit the road towards Cusco.

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Along the way we passed a few Inca ruins and were excited to start seeing old Inca terracing across the hillsides.

Before reaching Cusco we made a quick pit stop to try to refill our now-empty propane tank. Unfortunately we had no luck with the iOverlander-recommended location. We chatted with the folks working at the big gas storage facility, but they insisted they didn’t have the necessary adaptor or equipment to help us. Disappointed, we turned our sights on Cusco.

We navigated through the maze of suburbs and finally through the old town and up into the hill overlooking the city. With only one campground in town it was easy to decide where to stay, even though we were perched a little ways out of town. The hosts greeting us were incredibly kind and helped us settle in to the campsite, even moving their own cars out of the way to make sure we had a prime spot. There were a few other overlanders parked next to us and we looked forward to chatting with them.

After getting settled we grabbed a taxi and headed into Cusco to check out the city and to see about organizing a trek to Machu Picchu. We had a schedule to keep so our window for trekking was fairly small. We had just arrived on Saturday and we wanted to go on a trek starting Monday, so we certainly weren’t the most flexible customers. We dropped off our laundry and then started stopping into various agencies to inquire about options.

After chatting with a few agencies that were either too expensive or made a poor impression, we finally settled on a four-day Salkantay Trek with Cusco Viajes. During the month of February the Inca trail is closed for maintenance so we knew going in that we’d have to choose an alternate trail and decided on the Salkantay route since it seemed to offer a good challenge and also a nice mix of environments. Before booking we did a quick wander about town, shopping for a few things we’d need for the trek and discussing our decision over dinner. Taking in a few sights, we also checked out the main square and the nearby inca walls, including the famous many-sided stones.

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By the next morning we knew we were ready to book and we headed back to town to finalize things. From there we had some shopping to do – Ciara and Anas set off in search of hiking boots and Wolf and I headed to the market where we grabbed a few delicious fresh juices and stocked up on trail snacks for the hike.

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We even managed to fit in a little sight-seeing, with a few churches, even a museum, and a nice stroll about town.

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Carnivale was still in full swing, and we spent a few minutes watching a parade and the foam/water-gun fight that followed.

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After running around town, we were ready to call it a night, knowing our 4am departure the next morning would be plenty painful. We spent the evening loading up backpacks in preparation for the next days’ adventures.

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