Posted by: davesnewadventure | October 4, 2007

Nine Days on the Northern Route of Lake Titicaca: Part 1 – Smashed on the Rocks

Dave´s New Adventure: Adventures from the South American Continent 4/2007-5/2007

Nine Days on the Northern Route of Lake Titicaca: Part 1 – Smashed on the Rocks

The Journey to La Paz, through Lake Titicaca.

On the red, dirt road, which was cut into a bare mountain in the shape of triangular saw teeth, a herd of sheep bleated as the trotted by me and my camcorder. Two aymara men, with dark brown fedora hats that matched their tanned red skin, followed the sheep with their walking sticks. I stopped recording for a moment to look at the surroundings. My mud encrusted bicycle and bags leaned on a rock, as a lamb sniffed it. I looked across the overcast sky at the near horizon, and at the range of mountains. They, like all mountains that lined the northern shores of Lake Titicaca, were filled with thousand year old terraces. The terraces were strips of gray and black stones set into walls that held up long, winding platforms of green. Unlike the quechua of Peru, the Aymara maintained their millennial old culture, and they maintained many of the ancient terraces. The mountain I was on was bare of vegetation, but it also had the remains of terracing. Below me, was verdant green valley, filled with marshes and streams, coursing through clumps of thick, tough, high altiplano grass. Altiplano ducks, wrens, and fishers milled about in the sky, and swam in thew water, hunting for pejerrey and minnows.

I turned off my camcorder and sighed. I´d just finished ranting into my video journal, about how I discovered, to my dismay, the recent disappearance of my bicycle pump, yet again. It was day two of the difficult journey to La Paz, Bolivia along the northern route of Lake Titicaca.

The northern tier of Lake Titicaca was rough, and the asphalt section of road ended the moment I left Hauncane. I was still in Peru, and the border with Bolivia was four and a half days away. In Huancane, I rested in the only hostel in town, and ate out at a vegetarian café run by two seventh day adventists. While there, I had a conversation with the owner, who was the pastor about religions. As a buddhist, it was my habit to never bring judgment on other faiths. That´s just something that I did’nt do. So, when I told the pastor that I was a buddhist who also studied the bible, he went into a long lecture about how the devil created the other religions of the world, and how an apocalypse was impending with a confrontation between the forces of the devil, ie. The other religions and faiths, and the armies of the 2nd coming of Christ. He asked me which side I was on. I smiled, and replied that what was most important, was that he had his appropriate faith.

I think that threw him off. He stopped talking about religion after that. When he asked me about my name, and my last name, which in vietnamese means “judge” or “judgment”, he said that´s a sign. I moved the conversation to how I really loved 7th day adventists, because meeting the adventists meant there was vegetarian food nearby.

I stopped in the café the next morning to have breakfast with his family. We took pictures, joked, and bid each other farewell with blessings. I was off, into the bright altiplano sunshine, and due to the night´s heavy thunderstorm, a half day full of mud. Ahead of me lay the muddy road through a valley, which ascended up the mountain. I pushed my bike through the thick mud past an army fort, and the mud coated my brakes and fork. I had to stop every ten minutes to cut the mud away with my hands. When I finally reached the top of the mountain, I exited the mud zone, and in front of me lay the north western, rugged shores of the lake. The lake sparkled like a gem of brilliant aquamarine blue in the thin air. Waves lapped the shore, where islands of green and yellow totora reeds grew. A few cotton puffs of cumulus clouds lazed about in the sky.

The road went down the mountain, alongside a small village, and then along a road cut into the mountainous sides of the lake. Terraces were also cut into the mountain sides. The village was silent, and except for a minivan full of people that bumped and droved down the dirt road.

I rested and inspected the road. It descended at a steep angle, and many rocks jutted out. I knew I´d have to be careful. I put on my muddy goggles and helmet, mounted the bike, and took off. In five meters at such a steep angle, I developed a dangerous speed, and I immediately applied the brakes, but it was too late. My front wheel hit one of the rocky protrusions, and both the bike and I flew. The bike hit the ground, and I catapulted far to the front, and landed hard on my hands and knees.

I laid their for a minute, and felt the pain register through my body, before I picked myself up. I dusted my dirty bike pants and wind breaker. My gloves were shredded, and my pants were full of shredded holes. I pulled up my left pants leg and bike short. Blood seeped out of the wound, and a dull, powerful ache throbbed in my knee and skin. At least nothing was broken. I limped to the bike, and picked it up. The front rack bent to one side, and the right came off the fork completely, but the bottom attachments still held. I determined that it would hold, but not without reinforcement. I remounted the bike, and slowly cruised down the road to the lake´s shores, where I repaired the damage with some rope. I lashed the rack to the fork while two peruvian aymarans curiously watched. Then I rode to the edge of the lake to clean the wound.

The road led around a small section of shoreline, and then inland away from the lake. Back in the surrounding mountains, I rested and helped an aymara family harvest their fava bean crop. The father ran a business in Juliaca. He came to visit his family and help them with the harvest. They gave me a bunch of beans as a going away gift. At 4:30 PM, a regular, and powerful gust of wind picked up, and I dismounted to push against the wind´s resistance. At 5, the mountains and the setting sun created an early twilight. I passed a farmer earlier who recommended that I ask the school master, name Alex, who lived in the center of town, for a place to stay.

The town was like all the other villages along the shore. The bricks were hand made adobe, of red mud and straw. Roofs were made of corrugated tin or aluminum, and timber was cut from local groves of eucalyptus trees. Water was piped in from a spring that flowed from a nearby mountain, while wastes were funneled into totora lined creeks that led into the lake. The village was like many others, except for the solar panel, radio antennae, and satellite dish that poked out of one home, which I presumed was the mayor´s house.

I walked my bike up the village road into the school grounds, where a crowd of youngsters looked at me. I asked them where Alex was, and they pointed me to a neatly trimmed, white painted building surrounded by small flower gardens. I looked in the door, to see a short, red man sitting in front of a computer.

¿Hello, are you Alex? I asked.

Alex came out, and I introduced myself. Then a middle aged woman came out from the school house. She was one of the teachers. We talked for a while, and they first decided to let me sleep in the school house. Then the conversation led to teaching science and technology. They told me about how backwards the peruvian government was regarding education. I drew up several basic science projects they could do with the students, which included a telescope made from newspaper and spare magnifying glasses. After the teacher left, Alex decided it was safer to let me sleep in his home, the director´s quarters, which was next to the school.

As we moved my bicycle in, his wife arrived on her single speed bike, carrying a basket of food from their chacra, which is the peruvian word for a farm. Since the money from the peruvian government was meager, teachers in the city ran a small business, while teachers in the countryside often depended on their own crops for food. Alex and his wife were no exception. Trade and supplies were infrequent, due to the difficult terrain. Consequently, Alex and his wife, who were childless, developed unique strategies to get all of their food from one acre of land, and to have enough during the winter to live. Part of their strategy relied on small scale crop rotation, yearly calendars for planting, and the use of cow manure and fava beans to maintain the soil´s fertility. Since Alex and his wife were also 7th day adventists, they were also vegetarian, and we ate a hot soup of potatoes, carrots, and fava beans which I supplied, cheese, and apples, as well as a sweet, boiled apple drink.

The Aymaran People. Slide from 2nd trip, 2002, Fujia Sensia

Due to the impotence of the peruvian government, small villages like Alex´s worked on a communitarian basis. Next door to the director´s house was a newly built teacher´s quarters, funded and built by the village. Alex showed me around the rough, adobe brick walls. Almost all of the village communal structures were build based on a village council vote, where everyone pools funds, supplies, and labor to build what the community needs. That included the water pipeline, school grounds, school, director´s quarters, teacher´s quarters, and the radio station.

The director´s quarters, Alex´s home, was a two story building; a crude log ladder served as a stairway to the 2nd floor, which was made of unpolished, split timbers. The 1st floor was a storage area for brass musical instruments, drums, and other equipment, while Alex and his wife lived on the 2nd floor. The 2nd floor was just one small room. The building did’nt have running water, hot water, or water sterilization. Almost everyone took a shower or bath once a week, due to the extreme temperatures of the altiplano. According to Alex´s wife, they also bathed in a communal pool, which was unsanitary and prone to disease.

I drew up plans for a community, solar thermal shower business for Alex and his wife. I put the shower business idea that I saw in Juliaca, which was about 60 cents for a hot shower, in combination with the solar shower I saw in Pucara, and added a simple biological wetlands to filter the waste water before entering the lake. They had most of the materials laying around, so it would be a minimal investment.

The Solar Water Heater Shower Setup.

The Biogas generator.

They also cooked on a gas stove, and energy was expensive. Electricity was pricey, and one tank of gas ate half a month´s salary. So, I drew up plans for a basic biogas generator. The plans were my way of giving back something of value in exchange for their hospitality. After talking and learning more about their farming methods, I did my equipment check, and then went to sleep with the sound of the howling altiplano wind against the window.

At 5:30 AM, I woke up to the stirring of Alex and his wife. Then I heard him say,

¿Why were you dreaming about David?
¿What do you mean?
You know what I mean. I heard you cry out his name.
I heard you say, “¿David, David, where are you?”

“Uh oh”, I thought. A jealous man will always create problems. I feigned sleep for another half hour, before quietly stirring awake. I opened my eyes to see the both of them making the bed, and the wife left to tend to the farm, while Alex and I had breakfast, which was leftovers and boiled apples. I gathered my things, and Alex accompanied me and the bike outside. I did’nt remember to do my equipment check. As I stood outside, I thanked Alex for the hospitality, and then asked if I could quickly take a picture of the school. Not once did he crack a smile.

He said no, and that I had to leave immediately, since school was starting, but I could take a picture if I decided to comeback. He then went back inside the director´s quarters. I walked alone out of the school yard. At first, I thought it was a little strange at how brusque he was, but then I shrugged it off. Maybe he was busy.

I walked through the village, and filmed a few sequences along the marshes of the lake. Then I biked through another village where a crowd of kids immediately jumped around me. They grabbed my bike and bags, and I scolded them, saying, you don´t touch things that don´t belong to you. How would you like it if I went in your house, taking your things? They laughed until a teacher told them to back off. 30 minutes later, up the mountain road, I discovered that my bike pump was missing.

So there I was, on the road, annoyed and upset at Peru, for being full of thieves. I´d been to Bolivia three times, and I´d never been robbed. But every time I came to Peru, which was twice, I was robbed. What´s worse was that I was traveling on difficult terrain, which made me prone to a flat, and a pump was the difference between a bad situation, and a worse one. I took a deep breath, and reminded myself that there were many small villages along the northern tier. I also reminded myself that whoever took it probably needed it more than I did, and that I was going to arrive in Bolivia soon. I was getting sick of the sheer ignorance and thievery I kept running into in Peru.

I calmed down and continued along the spectacular cliff side bluffs that overlooked the edge of the lake. As I climbed, I watched the edge of the lake disappear, and then after climbing for several hours into an enormous rock outcropping filled with ancient carvings, and small chacras growing potatoes, I reemerged at 4000 meters to see the enormous lake glitter in the vast horizon. Off in the distance, mountains dotted her southwestern edge. Puffs of clouds floated over her, while a thunderstorm gathered in the mountains I´d just exited. I pushed on. A peruvian motorcycle taxi driver who passed me earlier stopped again to beg me for money. He grimaced when I gave him some cheese and bread, and drove off.

A Ferry crosses Lake Titicaca. Slide from first trip in 2001, Fuji Sensia.

After a long downhill, I finally reached the bottom, and cycled between the mountains to enter the city of Moho. Moho sat on the peak of a mountain, so as I pushed my bike up, two teenagers came out to push my bike with me. Then we were surrounded by grinning school children. I cracked jokes to make them laugh, as we pushed up to the town plaza. There was only one hostel in town, Hotel Municipal. It was a well built hotel with modern architecture, and no hot showers. It was freezing cold, and a heavy rain came down as I wandered the town looking for a hardware store. I needed parts to repair the front rack. If it came apart, I´d be in worst shape, trying to carry the entire front weight of my bicycle. I finally found a shop with parts strewn haphazardly across several shelves, and as I searched for the parts, I got into an argument with the cholita. She insisted that she did’nt have the parts I was looking fro, and I admonished her for being a lousy business woman, especially when I finally found them. I asked her how could she ever hope to be successful and feed her family if she maintained such a lousy attitude to the customer who persisted to find what he needed in her shop?

Later that night, after a meal of fried cheese, rice, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes, I gave an extra tip to the waiter for his good service. Then I had a cold bath before sleeping. The next morning, I repaired the rack mount with a jerry rigged solution, with two pieces of metal held by two large bolts. They squeezed the rack and the fork together. I gave the hotel doorman, a hunchback, some money to purchase a hacksaw blade for me, and then I cut off the protruding bolt, tipped the doorman, remounted my bags, and cycled out early the next morning.

I was just a day away from the border of Bolivia, or so I hoped. I checked my passport, and noticed that I had just two more days left in Peru on my tourist visa, and I had to cover many kilometers of dirt track and rough conditions. Would I get there on time? I did’nt know. I just knew I had to keep going.

Taking Photos on the Altiplano. Slide from 2nd trip in 2002, Fuji Sensia.The Author, hard at work admiring the view.



  1. Nice post. I will definitely come back soon..

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