A tour of Peru continues with visits to Lake Titicaca and the Colca Canyon

By Fritz Oelrich
This article appears on page 44 of the May 2017 issue.
Residents of one of the floating-reed islands we visited on Lake Titicaca.

Zelda and Fritz Oelrich’s tale of their travels through Peru continues…

Following our stay in Cuzco, Peru — part of a September 2016 tour my wife, Zelda, and I took with Cosmos (Littleton, CO; 800/276-1241, cosmos.com) to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary — it was time to move on to the next destination on our itinerary, Lake Titicaca.

Traveling from Cuzco to Puno (located on the lake’s shore) requires a whole-day bus trip, a 14-hour overnight rail trip or a short flight to Juliaca followed by two to three hours by road. Our group took option number three.

Our hotel in Cuzco was quite close to the airport, and the flight to Juliaca took only 45 minutes. After our arrival, we had to run our bags through the x-ray machine before leaving the terminal. We were advised to make a bathroom stop and purchase snacks and water at the small airport before beginning our journey to Puno by bus.

Our bus was waiting out in the airport parking lot with our new local guide, but there were luggage problems for some passengers, so we waited while claims were filed. 

Lake country

Departing Juliaca, we passed miles and miles of high-plains farmland that looked like Wyoming or Montana. As we began to leave the flatlands, we stopped at the archaeological site of Sillustani, located on a peninsula above Lake Umayo. From the bus park, we could see its large, ancient stone structures high on a hill about a mile away.

The Colla people, who once controlled the area around Lake Titicaca, buried their nobility in family funeral towers called chullpas. The best examples of these are at Sillustani. They looked like silos, but the construction and stonework were amazing. 

View of some of the chullpas at Sillustani.

From the bus park, the lake looked small and shallow, but once on top of the mesa, we could see the rest of the large lake, with several sizable islands.

Returning to the main highway following our visit, we got the first glimpses of Lake Titicaca. It is large — 50 miles wide and 100 miles long — and divides Peru and Bolivia. Because of the completion of the Inter­oceanic Highway, which shortened the trip across the lake from hours to minutes, ferries no longer offer scheduled service. 

As we drove into Puno, our guide called our attention to the steep steps going up the sides of the street. Since there can be no public transportation except at the bottom, rent gets cheaper as you go higher. 

We passed through the heart of a very busy city and took a road going clockwise around the lake. We saw several hundred boats for tourists, the large rusting ferry in dry dock and the restored 1890s steamship that I’d seen in a National Geographic documentary. 

As was the case earlier in our tour, our lodge was not the one advertised on our itinerary. Instead of the Libertador, we stayed at the Eco Inn, right across the road from a swampy part of the lake. There were several vendors out front selling woolen goods and souvenirs. 

Our room was large, with a full view of the lake from our window. 

That night, dinner was on our own. Since we were at the hotel, we decided to eat at the on-site restaurant. The food was good and reasonably priced. 

Many of our fellow travelers ordered wine, but we had been advised to stay away from alcohol at high altitudes, so we continued drinking coca tea.

Island visit

The following morning we took a short bus ride to the docks in Puno, where we boarded one of the larger boats docked there. It was only after we got out onto the lake that it sunk in how big a body of water it was. It was like being on an ocean! 

Our local guide had a large map of the lake and spoke about the area’s Uros people. We would stop at two Uros floating reed islands before continuing to Taquile Island for a late lunch. 

After about 30 minutes we sighted the floating islands and numerous large, colorful, catamaran-style reed boats. (Perhaps they appeared large because the floating islands were not.) 

At the first island, we were greeted by about a dozen residents in colorful dress, including several small children. 

There are more than 40 Uros islands, and each contains a family group. This island had a population of 17. 

With my artificial ankle, I was worried about keeping my balance, but the island’s reed covering was like a thick carpet and was stable. 

The islanders put out bundles of reeds in a semicircle for us to sit on. They showed us a large map of the Uros islands and proceeded to tell us how they harvest the reeds and construct their islands, complete with a detailed demonstration. They also eat the reeds and extract the juice for lotion. The government had provided solar panels, and the tent-like reed houses had lights. One even had a TV and power to charge cell phones. 

The younger children row to a community elementary school, but they must go to Puno for high school. (The high school was quite close to our hotel.) 

They had crafts for sale and invited us in to see their homes. Zelda and I, being the oldest of the group, were hosted by the 80-year-old matriarch. I had trouble getting into her home through the tiny door, but once we were inside, she proudly turned on her electric lights. Her house was perhaps 10 by 8 feet, with a bed on the floor against the far wall. A shelf above the bed contained her worldly goods. 

As we prepared to go to the next island, some of our group members paid a fee to be rowed there in the big reed catamaran. 

The second island was a little larger than the first, and it was obvious that they had completed their lecture and demonstration to a group earlier. They had interesting crafts made from reeds for sale. The articles looked delicate, but Zelda got some home without damage. 

Our lunch stop, Taquile Island, was 45 minutes away, and as we traveled there, the local guide told us more about the Uros people. 

A herdsman with his llamas and alpacas.

She said the population was shrinking. As the youth were schooled in town, they were exposed to other opportunities and a different lifestyle. They were also marrying outside the Uros culture. 

Perhaps in three or four generations, the Uros islands may just be tourist attractions with former inhabitants going out in motorboats in the morning to host the visitors. 

We finally arrived at Taquile Island. Inhabited for more than 3,000 years, it has a population of about 2,000. Its residents are not Uros, and they speak Quechua, like our guide in the Sacred Valley. 

A small group of islanders met us at the beach and demonstrated some traditional dances, then they took us up to a large building for lunch. After lunch, there was more dancing plus fine textiles presented for sale. 

Zelda developed a severe headache, possibly altitude sickness, though several days later, at over 16,000 feet, she was fine, so maybe she was seasick. Our tour manager, Fernando, also became queasy.

On to Arequipa

This was the last night of the tour for most of our group, so there was a farewell dinner served buffet-style at our hotel in Puno. However, Zelda and I and one other traveler were going on an extension to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, while others continued on to the Galápagos, some to the Amazon and the rest, home. 

Fernando had all our tickets and boarding passes for our flights from Juliaca to Lima and onward to each of our destinations. For those taking Cosmos extensions, he had detailed instruction sheets for each destination. He really was organized. 

After checking in the next morning in Juliaca for our flight, we learned that the plane was going to be late. We were worried about our close connection time in Lima. 

In Lima, you can’t just go to a different gate. You have to collect your bags, go out, check in again and go through security. Fernando helped us while the porters were collecting the bags for the others who would be staying overnight. We made it, but the third person in our group, our new friend from New Zealand, Bill, didn’t, so he had to take a later flight. 

We arrived in Arequipa about dusk and were met by the local Cosmos guide. She spent quite a bit of time on the phone trying to locate Bill, finally discovering that he would be arriving several hours later.

(Since our extension destination was not far from Puno, we might have preferred taking a bus from there to Arequipa rather than the two plane rides, with the hectic connection in Lima.)

It was an interesting ride from the airport into Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, with a population of around 1,000,000. 

Vehicles were not permitted on the main square, so we unloaded several blocks from the hotel, and a porter met us to take our bags. When we reached the main square, it was a sight to behold — a large, tropical park with beautiful white buildings on all sides. 

Our hotel, Casa Andina Select, was the city’s treasury in colonial times. We had a very nice room on the upper story, with a balcony overlooking the large, beautiful square. 

During the night, there was a knock on our door and it was Bill; he had finally arrived.

Road trip

The following morning we had a great breakfast on the restaurant balcony, then met our guide in the lobby. 

Departing for the Colca Canyon, we found traffic at a standstill, and the truck traffic was especially heavy. 

This area was very dry, but there was a river valley far to our left where we could see verdant farming areas in the distance. 

Zelda and Fritz at Mirador de los Volcanes, a viewpoint in the Colca Canyon region.v

As we climbed and curved up the Interoceanic Highway, the truck traffic clogged the road. 

A snow-covered mountain and a puffing volcano could be seen to the east, and after about an hour we passed some mud flats with small herds of vicuña. 

When we eventually left the main highway, we also left the traffic behind. We were then on a very high plain, 14,000 to 15,000 feet. There was sparse vegetation to support the camelid herds, and ponds supported water fowl. 

Steadily climbing, enjoying broad vistas for miles, we suddenly came to a halt. Rockslide! 

We sat for about 40 minutes while large construction equipment cleared the road for one-way traffic to pass. 

Finally reaching the top, at over 16,000 feet, we stopped for photos. There were snowcapped mountains with glaciers, and the puffing volcano, Sabancaya, was clearly visible. Then we followed the winding road down into the Colca Valley. 

Colca Canyon

We had thought the Incan terraces of the Sacred Valley were amazing, but the terraces here far surpassed them. The area around the town of Chivay is a densely terraced landscape, and some of the terraces predate the Incas by hundreds of years. 

We were late getting into Chivay because of the traffic and the rockslide. The town square was clean and landscaped, but the dirt side streets were dusty. Tuk-tuks were more prevalent than cars. 

A trip to the hot springs was on the afternoon program, but we had no swimsuits and it was getting late, so we went directly to the hotel. Casa Andina Classic Colca was rustic and spread out over a large area, with all accommodations on ground level in small blocks or duplexes. There was an on-site observatory open in the evenings for an additional charge. Our meals, other than lunch, were in the hotel dining room. Service was a bit nonchalant. 

The hotel was situated in the middle canyon, really a valley, in an agricultural area. The upper canyon is narrower and colder, with a harsh landscape. The lower canyon is very steep and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We were to go the following day far down to the rim of the canyon, itself, to, hopefully, see condors.

We were up and off at the crack of dawn. We saw few vehicles in Chivay, but we did spot a flock of white tourist vans that was heading in the same direction as us. 

We got to Cruz del Condor about 8:00 and stood out in the cold air. At about 8:30 we could see the condors far below us rising on the warming air. By 8:45 they were near, and by 9 there were perhaps a dozen circling closer. 

We took lots of photos. One condor passed within 20 feet of us, but we were startled and didn’t get a close-up shot. 

By 9:30 they were high overhead, and we headed back.

Back to Arequipa

The next morning, Oct. 8 (our 50th wedding anniversary), the group departed Chivay for Arequipa at about 8:30. After joining the Interoceanic Highway, the road was again filled with truck traffic. 

The traffic proved to be so slow that our driver chose to go around the city so we could start our tour early at the outlying districts that overlooked Arequipa. 

We started in the Chilina District, which had a park with an overlook across the river from the city. It was crowded with schoolchildren. 

We could see the rushing river and the farming area that ran along it. There was a Catholic retreat center directly across the river with a large, ultramodern bell tower. 

The tour continued down and across the river to another high point, in the Yanahaura District. There was a restored church, Iglesia San Juan Bautista (a common church name in Peru), that was originally built in 1750. It is now a museum. 

Then we headed downtown to the hotel we had stayed in on our earlier visit to the city. We tipped our Colca Canyon driver, who had been with us for three days, and checked into a room on the top floor next to the one we had before. 

After freshening up, we rejoined the group to walk down the block and across to the Iglesia de la Compañía, a large church situated on the Plaza de Armas. The courtyard had artists at work on one side and some exclusive shops on the other. 

In the back corner of the church was the San Ignacio Chapel. Its dome and walls were ornately decorated with flowers, fruit and birds mingling with warriors and angels. (Photos were permitted.) 

Arequipa’s immense Cathedral covered the entire far side of the square. We peeked in through its large doors but were not there when it was open to the public. 

Around the corner and up the street several blocks was the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a massive complex covering 20,000 square meters, a city unto itself. Entry to the monastery and a guide were included in our tour cost. We spent several hours walking through.

One thing we found particularly interesting was that the nuns, from wealthy families, each had their own apartment complete with a kitchen, a living room and servants. 

To mark our anniversary, we picked up some crackers and cheese and a bottle of wine and celebrated on the balcony overlooking the square. 

One last day in Lima

The next morning, our guide showed up right on time to take us to the airport for our flight back to Lima, but when we went to check in, we were told our reservations were for a later flight. We complained but finally acquiesced, as we had no scheduled activities in Lima for the afternoon. (Truthfully, we wished we could just change planes in Lima and go home a day early.) So we went to the gate to wait… for hours. 

Then the gate agent came up to us and asked for our boarding passes, upgrading us to the first row! Latam treated us well for the entire trip.

Upon arrival in Lima, we were met by the same gentleman who had met us two weeks earlier. He took us, again, to the hotel San Agustín Exclusive, where we had the same room as before. 

With the afternoon free, we went to the Indian Market, which is actually an entire district of markets selling crafts, jewelry and souvenirs. We wasted the afternoon away walking, looking around and buying a few things. 

As we had to leave for the airport the next morning at 5:45, we arranged for an early breakfast. 

The winds were favorable, and the flight back to Washington Dulles took less than seven hours.

Far exceeding our expectations, the time we spent in Peru was great.