Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Lake Titicaca (Peru to Bolivia)

Lake Titicaca from a height of about 4,000m. Doesn´t take much of the fab local beer to get tipsy at this altitude.
After the emotional high of Machu Picchu, and a memorable night out clubbing in Cusco, our last destination in Peru, Lake Titicaca, might have been a come down. But, at least in the physical sense, it was anything but. At 3,800m, Lago de Titicaca is half as high again as Machu Picchu and the highest navigable (ie big) lake in the world.

Altitude isnt the only thing about Lake Titicaca that leaves you breathless. At 150 miles long and over 9,000 sq km in surface are, the lake is like a huge water-filled hole in the top of the world, splitting Peru from Bolivia and transforming the weather of the South American high plateau.

The air is so clear on Lake Titicaca that the views are of a different order to anywhere else and photography takes on an unbelievable clarity. And there are some bizarre and unique photo opportunities too.

The Uros Islands definitely fall into the bizarre and unique category. The islands are man-made by a Quechua speaking tribe who were contemporaries of the Incas. Constructed from reeds, the islands can be visited by boat from the mainland, though their exact location can be changed as the islanders can up-anchor and move around the lake, presumably if they take a fancy for a change of scenery.

Many years ago, this fishing and hunting community must have made for a challenging and unusual existence. Now tourism has taken over as the main raison-d¨etre for the communities, though outwardly at least the islands look much the same as they have done for hundreds of years.

The lake plants provide material not just for the construction of the islands, but also for boats and houses. Reeds even constitute part of the local diet.
The lake dominates the border between Peru and Bolivia and all movement between the two.

At one point we have to cross an inlet of the lake. As a first experience of Bolivian infra-structure, the crossing is an eye-opener. Vehicles are punted across the river in ones and twos on pontoons, while bemused travellers cross separately via a fleet of speedboats. The photo shows the Dragoman truck with Dan, our guide and driver, catching 40 winks on the roof.

Our last experience of Lake Titicaca was a mixture of torture (Bolivian water torture) and joy. The crammed speedboat from Copacabana takes two hours to reach Isla del Sol at walking pace, but once there the islands are incredible. It looks every bit like a Greek island but with crystal clear air and waters. And the trek across the island is without doubt one of the best one-day walks I¨ve done.

The communities on Isla del Sol are fascinating. Ali and I stumbled across this town meeting in our trek across the island. We got some strange looks. Of course this was before I became a star of Bolivian tv...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Machu Picchu

The magic of Machu Picchu is in the location - Tikal in Guatemala, for example, is larger, taller and older, while the staggering complexity of the architecture is shared by any number of Incan sites that we had visited in the week before - but what a location.

Perched (never before has the word been so apt) on a mountain top, the whole site looks as if it might at any moment avalanche down either side of the mountain into the valley below. And that´s almost certainly what will happen one day. Even as more and more sections are being uncovered and restored (only 40% of the site is thought to have been discovered to date), a large portion of the middle of the site is being closed off for fear that the footsteps of 3,000 daily visitors are causing the ruins to quite literally split in two across the back of the mountain.

Luckily for us there were far fewer than 3,000 bodies there as Christmas is firmly in the low season for Machu Picchu. And when the low season rains started in the afternoon, the site emptied even further. This was truly a blessing as I got some fantastic photos.

Left - much of the site looks exactly as it would have done when abandoned in the 16th century - only the straw roofs are gone, long rotted away.

Right - even with all the technology available today, we cannot replicate the precision and accuracy of the Inca´s architecture.

The highlight of Machu Picchu for me was climbing Wayna Picchu, the adjacent peak that rises even higher than the ruins themselves. My friend Adrienne and I climbed the very same steps installed by the Incas for the purposes of rituals and sacrifices. Steps made treacherous by the rain which must have put off other visitors, because once at the top we had 30 magical minutes to ourselves in what must be one of the most incredible spots in the world.
The top of the Inca world. A truly unbelievable place.

For many visitors to Machu Picchu, the journey there is as much of an experience as the site, Machu Picchu being the last stop on the classic Inca Trail. Having hitched another route through the Andes (see below), our group took the train to Machu with the posher, non-hiking visitors. And it´s a train journey never to be forgotten - not content with offering us unbelievable views of the Andes through the train´s panoramic windows - Peru Rail´s staff put on a display of traditional dancing, and an alpaca-dominated fashion show, using the aisle of the train as a catwalk.