Hiatus on Titicaca: Rowing Across — A Travel Tale

Get back to Cuzco late on a Sunday night after hiking el Camino Inca to Machu Picchu. Find out Monday that I have nearly a week to kill before my eighteen-hour bus ride into the jungle.

Up at 4:00 on Tuesday morning to catch a beaten-up old bus to Puno at 5:30. Sleep most of the way. My first view of Lago Titicaca, caught between barely open eyelids, startles me. Force alertness back.

Walk a few blocks to Terminal Zonal. There’s a one-hour wait before the next minibus departs for the Peruvian-Bolivian border.

Hoist my pack onto my back once more and find a restaurant for an early lunch. The set menus are the same everywhere in the lake area: fresh trout. The place I settle on seems less than grungy, but I’m starving and the trout’s delicious if I close my eyes and avoid looking into the fish’s.

Return to the packed bus just in time to squeeze onto the front step with my backpack sitting beside me. The attendant chats me up — who can blame him?

More interesting is the old man sitting in front of me. He explains some downfalls of Peru’s health care system, moves smoothly on to war talk (Men.), then casually tells me that he traffics contraband by profession. Nothing surprises me anymore.

Another transfer at Yunguyo, but this time onto a tricycle taxi — the aged cyclist is out of breath so fast he has to get off and push the bike most of the two kilometres uphill to Kasani. Vow to walk the distance and save some cash on the return journey.

No queue at the border. Whew! A collectivo brings me to Copacabana. Stop overnight. (More trout for dinner.)

Hit the busy market early in the morning to buy provisions for the day then set off on foot down the road to Yampupata. The sun’s not yet high in the sky, but it’s scorching. I hardly notice; the breeze coming off the lake cools my skin.

Detour through a pasture in Kusijata with two indigenous women dressed in flamboyant pink to visit a minor Inca ruin. Climb a steep set of stairs. My calf and butt muscles hurt from the Inca Trail but my motivation’s high. Reach the top and turn towards el Baño del Inca. It’s closed.

Keep going.


Magnificent lake scenery during a hiatus on Titicaca.

Pass through an eerily quiet village and obtain respite from the hot sun in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Leave the dirt-packed thoroughfare to climb an old Inca road. Donkeys everywhere. Stumble downhill into Titicachi shortly afterwards. Three hours into the hike and halfway there.

Pause for lunch. Sit on a stone wall, slowly chewing, contemplating the still, vast lake before me, the cows and goats grazing in the fields by the shore. Not a soul in sight. Stand, stretch, and begin mechanically placing each foot in front of the other.

SCREEEECH.

A village boy appears on the side of the road.

I stop to chat with Ever. He’s only ten but I can tell he’s clever.

When I tell him where I’m headed, his eyes light up. He hears opportunity knocking. He begins to shoot off numbers — it will cost far too much to go to Isla del Sol in a motorboat from Yampupata, he says. He suggests rowing me across the lake.

I hear opportunity knocking — or is it adventure? — and accept his offer to take me across.

We set off through the field to fetch his older brother. It occurs to me that he should be in school today. He answers that classes are only offered every second day.

I wait while he runs into the house and then follow Ever and Willy into the reeds along the shoreline to hop into the rowboat. Or so I think. Deeper into the reeds we go, only to transfer into a bigger boat. (Security’s tight around here. Just reeds and a rope holding the boat in place.) We pole our way out into open water. I can’t believe my eyes. The enormity of the lake overwhelms the senses. I can barely refrain from jumping in.

Sitting back in the stern, arms on the sides of the boat, watching Ever and Willy row, I admire their synchronised pace, thinking, “That’s tough work!” I look in each direction and appreciate the endless views of snow-capped mountains outlining vast turquoise waters that the boys are too busy to notice. I can’t help it, I feel lucky to be alive at the moment.

I take out my camera and snap off a few shots. Ever is interested. He insists on taking a few as well. It can’t be his first time with a camera, can it? He understands the concept, so he mustn’t get to see them very often then…

The water begins to get choppier. I’m so glad I’m not the one fighting against Mother Nature!

Jinx.

Rowing a boat on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.

A few minutes later, I’m sweating hard as Ever gets tired after an hour and I have to take over the second set of oars. I have difficulty adjusting to Willy’s quick rhythm.

Ever asks for my camera again. I fake ease as he points the lens towards me.

Mi turno,” I say. Ever lets me take his photo, but he ignores the camera. I can’t get him to smile for me but he assures me that it’s okay.

I feel the spray from the oars on my arms, the crisp wind on my face (I don’t have much hair for it to blow through), the sun, hot despite our altitude, beating down on my head.

Young boy rowing a boat to Isla del Sol, Bolivia.

I take a deep, slow breath, inhaling the salty air through my nostrils. “Absorb the moment,” I tell myself.

We’re nearly there. Row!

We reach the island. Ever walks me to the village, but he asks that I go back to the boat with him. Since poor Ever and Willy have to row back home, I buy them each a bottle of their preferred beverage: orange Fanta.

After giving them my most heart-felt thanks (and a few bucks extra) for adding excitement to my journey, I watch the boys set off, a little sad to see them go.

Follow a farmer herding his donkeys along the narrow terrace path back to Yumani. Guess what’s on the dinner menu. Getting sick of trout.

Ouch! Realise I got a sunburn today and roll onto my stomach. Lights out.

More hiking climbing the next morning. Scale a cliff wall — musta lost the trail along the way —

(shrug)

and look up towards the next ledge; nearly let go. A donkey’s staring down at me! I’m hallucinating, right? Must be time for lunch.

Take in the views (and brews) from a sunny patio in the afternoon, but for crying out loud, trout again?!

Return to Copacabana in the evening on the ferry. Head straight for the gringo street and devour a hamburger. Read most of the return journey to Cusco, from where I catch my connection to Puerto Maldonado the next day and continue on my planned route.

This article originally appeared in TravelMag.

Travelmag posted the events of my journey from Copacapana to Isla del Sol across Lake Titicaca in a rowboat because it’s a fast-paced article with a touch of humour — but in this hiatus on Titicaca, I also slow down to savour fleeting but memorable moments.