A girl wielding a heavy cleaver carved us heaping portions of slow-roasted lamb and served it to us with dirty fingers on the roadside. Hunger sated, we chased an impossibly golden sunset into Puno, the largest Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca’s expansive shore. The city itself offers little in the way of attractions. It holds no illusions about its role as a portal to the sights of the world’s highest navigable lake.

Stamina of the Inca

Crumbling Inca terraces wound their way up a low hill overlooking our campsite. Off the beaten path and forgotten to all but the locals, the hilltop ampitheater maintains an ancient watch over Titcaca’s shore.

How are the ruins in such good condition? Are they still used for gatherings? we asked an old man, whose path we crossed.

Yes, he replied, his face wrinkled by the piercing sun and chest barrelled from a life spent breathing the thin air of Puno’s 3,877 meter altitude. The village gathers here for festivals. Did you hug the stone?

No, we answered half questioningly.

The big red stone, he explained, is sacred. If you hug it, it gives you stamina.

A gesture accompanied the word stamina that made clear its meaning.

“Hard-On Rock” is a rectangular red stone that overlooks a shallow valley spilling onto the shores of Lake Titicaca. Jon and I questioned the wisdom of hugging a rock beloved of generations of horny men.

Better safe than sorry, Jon said.

The Floating Country

A sleek boat captained by a sunglasses-shrouded youth ferried us to Titicaca’s fabled Uros Islands. The Uros people make their homes of matted totora reeds. Each island is roughly 50ft (15.24 meters) square and up to 12ft (3.7m) thick. Stepping onto one feels like stepping onto a sponge.

Our guide on the island happened to be the president of the islands that year.

“The women do everything on the islands,” she joked. Or at least stated jokingly. “The men just fish and drink.” Legend has it that the Inca considered the Uros sub-human, but these sturdy women laboring to monetize their culture seemed as fully human as anyone.

The president corralled us into a small wood and reed building stuffed with bright traditional clothing. With the self-assured speed of a seasoned security guard, she coated us in traditional Uros garb. Her half-hearted sales pitch suggested that this activity was done more for her entertainment than for monetary gain. Upon leaving the building, I discovered that the totora reeds make for a slippery surface.

 

She next hustled us into a large and brightly painted reed boat of a vaguely viking longboat appearance. “We’re giving you the Cadillac,” she said, laughing. “The Uros drive the Volkswagons.”

“Do you spend a lot of time on the boats?”

“Oh yes, especially the teenagers. Two float into the reeds for a while, three come out.”

The view from the boat was illuminating. Solar panels decked rooftops. A clinic advertised its presence with a large red cross. The president pointed out the primary school and then the new high school.

“We used to have to send our kids away for high school,” she said. “so barely any went. Now when they leave, it is for college. Some even come back. Our primary school teachers are from the islands.”

Pride and happiness imbued this last statement.

 

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