Train travel and Titicaca

View to Isla de la Luna and the mainland beyond

Bright and early on the Monday morning in Cusco we packed up and headed for the train station. Since I normally get travel sick on long distance buses and Chris doesn’t particularly like them either, we decided to go for a much more interesting option of a train from Cusco to Lake Titicaca. The train took 10.5 hours, a few more hours than the bus and was much more expensive, but it was a great way to spend a day travelling.

The train stopped at the highest point of our journey
The train stopped at the highest point of our journey

We arrived at the station and passed our bags to the porter, aware that ours were the only backpacks being loaded amongst the smart suitcases. We went for a drink in the waiting room and realised we were probably the youngest passengers by about 30 years too! The other passengers were mainly made up of an older tour group from Tazmania with their Chilean guide, and we had a nice chat with a few of them.

We boarded the train and, as it pulled off we went to explore. The seating carriages were very plush, old fashioned with armchairs and proper tables with little lamps and tablecloths. We had a four person table to ourselves. The toilets were also very smart, more like a nice hotel than a train. Then there was a large bar carriage with windows curving up so you could see out of the roof too. The back end of the train was open air so you could lean out and watch the world passing by.

Us on the train to Puno
Us on the train to Puno

We sat and watched the views as we pulled out of the city and through the Andes. We passed small villages and farms along the way, far away from the road for most of the trip with just the scenery stretching out into the distance. For most of the journey the railway travelled away from the road so the countryside around us was largely unspoilt. Since the railway is now only used for tourists the stations that we passed through were largely abandoned and the towns around them we also often half empty and full of decaying adobe buildings.

After a while we were lured to the bar car with a welcome drink and a couple of sandwiches, and we found ourselves a captive audience for the really touristy part of the journey. There was a ‘fashion show’ where a woman wearing various scarves and jumpers walked up and down the bar carriage to pumping techno music. Very odd! Then a traditional band appeared and played a few songs. They were accompanied by a dancer who changed her traditional costume for every song and span around the narrow carriage. For the last song she was wearing a terrifying doll mask and was picking on all the men, pulling them up to dance with her. Chris tried to escape but was unsuccessful!

Scary masked traditional dancer
Scary masked traditional dancer

We had one stop at the highest point (over 4000m) to look at a church and a craft market. I was feeling a bit rubbish at that point, partly the altitude and partly as my stomach was still not right. The staff were lovely and gave me plenty of coca and mint tea and I curled up in the armchair whilst everyone else had a tasty lunch.

We spent the rest of the day taking photos and walking around the train. We sat in the back carriage in the open watching as the scenery changed from mountains to wide planes. We passed through a city called Juliaca which was very crowded and dirty. The market ran right up to the train, you could have reached out the window and touched the stalls. The stalls were organised by what they sold including car parts, random bolts and screws, tyres, DVDs, food, herbs and spices, clothes, fabric and much more.

We reached our destination of Lake Titicaca as it was getting dark so we couldn’t get much of a view and were looking forward to seeing it the next day. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and stretches for miles over the Peru-Bolivia border.

We were pulling into the station when we had a call from Felix, the owner of our accommodation for the next couple of days. He had sorted out a taxi for us which would be waiting outside the station. We met our taxi driver and headed out of the city into the dark countryside. We drove for about an hour and a half, heading to a small village called Llachon on a peninsular jutting out into the lake. At first on paved roads, then dirt roads, and finally very bumpy dirt tracks. We kept going past dark houses, with no streetlights we had no idea of the landscape or where we were. Finally we pulled up by a tree with a man in traditional Peruvian clothes sitting underneath. This turned out to be Felix. We were greeted and made our way down winding paths following his quick pace and waving torchlight.

Casa Felix in the sunset
Casa Felix in the sunset

We were led to our room, very basic and unfinished with a private toilet but no working shower (i.e. there were taps on the wall but no water or shower head). There were other, solar heated, showers just a short walk outside. We dumped our bags, just grateful for the large amount of blankets on the bed as the altitude makes it pretty cold at night. We followed Felix back down to the ‘restaurant’, a lovely room with simple long wooden tables, all decorated with traditional fabrics. We were served a large and filling two course meal, soup followed by chicken for me and omelette for Chris. We had a pretty early night, as when it gets dark there isn’t a lot to do on the peninsular.

The first night I barely slept, I was really struggling with the altitude and finding it hard to breathe. I think I was a bit delirious and being in the middle of reading a book about a kidnapping in South America really didn’t help with the weird dreams! The positive side was that I was awake for the sunrise and saw the lake for the first time in the light, it was amazing, stretching so far it appeared to be the sea.

On the beach near Casa Felix
On the beach near Casa Felix

We got up for breakfast, and were offered various activities for the day, but I decided just to head back to bed for a while. Chris went and sat in the sun overlooking the lake. It was such a nice place to relax, we were quite happy to do nothing all day. We went for a walk on the beach just before sunset. It was so peaceful, we only saw one other person and met a very friendly dog. The dog was a large puppy and very excitable, he kept running up to us and pawing at our feet, then bounding away to play with some of the plastic bottles that washed up on the beach (they use bottles as floats for fishing nets). He followed us all the way back to Felix’s place. Dinner was just like lunch, a soup and filling main, although Chris’ option was a huge block of fried cheese to go with the double carb of rice and chips!

The next day I was feeling much better, having actually slept and able to walk a bit without feeling too out of breath. We decided to go on a boat trip to a floating island in the lake. Felix’s son took us, it was about a 50 minute ride on a small motor boat. The lake was so large it felt like we’d barely covered any distance. The Uros Islands are floating islands made of reeds, there is a traditional community of around 90 islands of various sizes. The one we visited was small, with about five reed huts on and home to 15 people. We were welcomed and given an explanation in Spanish of how the islands are constructed from blocks of rooted reeds which grow together to form a strong base. The islands are covered by loose reeds which bed down, giving the surface a very spongy feeling to walk on. They are anchored in a shallow area of the lake, so that when the wind picks up they aren’t swept away to Bolivia!

A floating island on Lake Titicaca
A floating island on Lake Titicaca

It was fascinating to see this way of living. The community is dependent on fishing and tourism for income and cannot grow any of their own food. They have no electricity except for a very small solar panel on one of the huts. They were very welcoming and didn’t put any pressure on us to buy things. They made some amazing crafts from the reeds but we couldn’t see how we’d get them home in one piece! They offered an optional tour in one of their traditional boats, also made from reeds, so we decided to go. We went out on the lake to where they cast fishing nets and where the reeds are cut to maintain the island. Once on the boat, our guide explained it was actually made of 1500 plastic bottles covered by reeds. One of the few places we’ve seen recycling here!

We took the motor boat back to Felix’s and had lunch. We had a few hours before our taxi arrived and decided to use the time to call some of our family. There is a deal with Vodafone where you pay £5 to use your UK phone package for a day. They had recently added Peru to the list of countries this deal works in, but they hadn’t added Bolivia, so we realised we needed to call that day or we wouldn’t be able to until we reached Chile. It was quite surreal to be able to speak to family rather than just with WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, and the first time we’d spoken to them in almost three months.

We checked out and said goodbye to Felix and his family, wishing we could speak more Spanish to have more of a conversation with him as I would have loved to know more about life on the remote peninsular. It was great to stay there, very basic facilities but the most amazing location and definitely worth the visit. Soon our taxi was ready, the same driver as last time, but he’d brought his very sweet son along with him for the ride this time. We set off as the sun set and a lightening storm started overhead. It was amazing to watch the sky light up all around us as we headed back to the city of Puno.

We’d been booked into Posada Kusillo, a small local B&B in Puno, the owner was a friend of Felix’s and he had called her to arrange it. We were welcomed and shown to a clean and comfortable room with an enormous bed and the softest sheets we’ve had on our travels! We went to check in and the owner asked our plans, on hearing we were taking the bus to Bolivia the next day she offered to book the tickets for us. She then recommended a pizza place in Puno, which turned out to be excellent and exactly what we needed after a couple of days of rice and chips with fried chicken, trout, cheese or eggs! We returned from eating to find our host had been to buy us tickets for the bus the next morning, amazing service! We arranged an early breakfast and went to bed.

The next morning was a little rushed to get packed and ready by 6.40 to get a taxi to the bus station. On leaving the room for breakfast I couldn’t find the room key anywhere, this was weird as the key was on a huge fabric keyring, impossible to miss! So we ended up one of us eating whilst the other looked for the key, then swapping. We’d basically repacked both backpacks and Chris went to check out and agreed to pay a small fee to get a new key cut. We were apologising and running around like crazy, when I went to pack the sponge bag and found the key underneath it! Panic over, but by this time we were running about 10 minutes late for the taxi, so we legged it outside with a quick hug to our fantastic host. The taxi driver put his foot down and we made it to the station with a couple of minutes to spare. We got to the right gate just on time and found a queue of people including our Dutch friends, Jacqueline, Esmee and Katinka. We had a good catch up with them and in the end our bus was 30 minutes late so we needn’t have panicked!

The bus ride along the lake shore was good, looking out over the lake and passing small towns along the way. We stopped at a money changing shop. We’d been warned that the rates would be terrible and we’d be ripped off by the bus company, but found the exchange rate was slightly better than we’d seen online that morning, so we changed all of our Peruvian cash.

A woman dressed in typical traditional style
A woman dressed in typical traditional style

We got the Bolivian border, again we’d read it could be a stressful and long experience, with staff asking for non-existent fees and making you queue for ages, but in reality it was quick and on both sides the staff were friendly and efficient. So we’d officially made it to our fourth country, Bolivia! It had been great to revisit Peru and see some incredible new things we’d missed last time and re-do some of the things we’d loved before.

After a few miles more on the bus we got to Copacabana town and our first experience of Bolivian entrepreneurial spirit when two “officials” boarded the bus and demanded a 2B$ (20p) tax to enter the town. This wasn’t so official as the family behind us managed not to pay as they had no cash!

We got off the bus and went to find a cash machine. There were only three in the whole town and the first we found didn’t accept Visa. The next two were out of order, which we found out after trekking around for a while with our giant bags. Luckily Chris had read that you could get out money at a local bank for a charge. We hurried over to the bank and managed to get enough cash to last us until we reached the next big city. That problem solved, we went to buy ferry tickets to Isla del Sol for us and the Dutch girls. We also got some food and tried to get some internet, but the connection at the restaurant was terrible. So far, Bolivia was proving a bit more difficult to navigate than Peru!

All loaded up and ready for the ferry
All loaded up and ready for the ferry

We queued up for the ferry, which for some reason only runs at two times per day, even though they were filling three boats at our departure time. The boat chugged slowly over to the island, the lake was a beautiful colour blue and the scenery amazing. We disembarked and we’re faced with another entrance tax, although this time we’d read the guidebook and were expecting it!

I had called ahead to reserve Hostal Inti Wayra, all the reviews said it was fantastic but a bit of a walk. When the boat docked we could see a set of very steep steps climbing the large hill in front of us. We were at around 3800m above sea level and so any kind of uphill made us totally out of breath. Needless to say it took quite a while to climb up. I was really struggling with the altitude and when we got to the hostel my head was pounding. We checked in and our friends gave me an altitude sickness pill. I dumped the bags and was finally able to appreciate the location of the hostel. Being so high up the hill we had the most amazing view over the lake.

The start of the steep stairs to our hostel on Isla del Sol
The start of the steep stairs to our hostel on Isla del Sol

The altitude pill and piles of water I’d drunk started to kick in and I was feeling well enough for a walk. The island is very basic as they have no cars and rely on the boat to bring supplies. We tried to find an internet café to book our next night, but the wifi on the island wasn’t working so we gave up and went to a restaurant with more great views. Several things we ordered weren’t available, but luckily they had one large veggie pizza left so we were able to eat. We watched the sun go down and saw another lightening storm over the far side of the lake. The power went out briefly so we took this as our queue to leave and found our way home by torchlight.

The next day we had a tasty breakfast and packed up, leaving our bags with the hostel whilst we went to explore. We followed small paths along the coastline, climbing up to get a better view towards the north of the island. I was feeling pretty tired from the altitude, plus the pills had a side effect of giving me pins and needles which was really uncomfortable! The island was so beautiful though, we found an old Inca temple and enjoyed exploring the different trails.

We returned and collected our bags then made our way down the steep hill, which was much easier and quicker this way around! We waited by the port in the sun, then boarded our boat. This time we managed to secure seats on the roof, much cooler with more of a breeze and a nicer ride.

Back at Copacabana, we returned to more difficulties! We managed to buy bus tickets successfully, giving ourselves plenty of time to eat and book a hostel for the night. We were heading to La Paz and wouldn’t arrive until 10.30pm, so we wanted to have something booked for security. This should just have been a simple matter of booking online, but the cafe we were in had no working wifi. I asked if I could borrow the owner’s phone, but he said it didn’t work properly. We found someone else with a phone but when he dialled the number it didn’t work. Next, we tried to find a public phone but the nearest one was several blocks away and we were running out of time. We approached a tour company but their only phone didn’t have any credit. We tried Chris’ Peruvian SIM but it blocked international calls. Finally we found a tour agency with a working mobile phone! The woman wanted to charge us and by this time we were quite happy to pay!

I managed to make the call and asked about booking rooms, the guy said he couldn’t book on the phone. I tried explaining our situation again and was just asking if he had any free rooms when he hung up! So we moved onto the second option, feeling pretty annoyed by now. I called the Adventure Brew Hostel and arranged a room for Chris & I in their B&B hostel, we then had a slightly confusing conversation in Spanish about getting the girls a dormitory room in their other hostel next door. After a bit of too and fro on the phone and with the girls to get their opinion on prices etc., all in Spanish, I managed to book us in, then found out the guy spoke perfect English anyway!

The vehicle ferry across Lake Titicaca
The vehicle ferry across Lake Titicaca

We were relieved and tired by this point, our food was ready but we had hardly any time, so we just scoffed it down and ran to the bus. The bus was not as nice as in Peru, a little more out of date and no TV or air control, but we were on our way! The bus route took us via a narrow strait of Lake Titicaca where the bus crossed on a simple platform boat, and we got off and took a small motor boat across. We found our bus again in the dark and began the bumpy journey to La Paz. They are making the main road into dual carriage way and seem to be digging up most of it in one go, so the journey was mainly spent bouncing along dirt roads.

We arrived shaken and a bit tired but excited to see the city, the ride in had given us a small taster with a view across the city and lights of houses spreading out for miles around us. A completely different experience after the peace and isolation of Lake Titicaca. Chris had marked our hostel on Maps.Me on his phone and memorised the route. It wasn’t far to walk so 10 minutes after getting off the bus we were checking into our hostel.

That’s all for now, next up is the five days that we spent in La Paz where we cycled down death road, went drinking with the locals and had the worst curry that we’ve had in South America!

 

Author: Alex Greenwood

Traveller, muddy gardener, sustainability consultant

2 thoughts on “Train travel and Titicaca”

  1. Sounds like you guys got a lot out of the place even just in a few days, beautiful pictures of the lake & mountains & people! I hope your bums have recovered from the bumpy ride 😉 Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Fabulous photographs, it looks all quite wonderful if a tad uncomfortable at times xx

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