Over the Andes by Frog

All right, it wasn´t a frog. It was a luxury train. But before I tell you about the train, I´m going to tell you about the lake.

I wanted to go to Lake Titicaca not because it has an amusing name (though it does if you have that sort of mind) but because the area is very important in pre-conquest Andean culture, which is one of my interests. I would have liked to see the ruins of Tiquaneco, the long-lived South American culture whose mantle the Inca managed, in a fine piece of PR, to inherit. We were only in the area two days, and one day was a pre-paid trip on the lake itself, but I thought that as we arrived very early on our first day, we might be able to arrange a trip. But I reckoned without the sorache – altitude sickness. Apparently only one in ten people get it, but within a couple of hours of our arrival both Beloved and I had taken to our beds (and not in a good way). Beloved did not emerge for two days. Thanks largely to the miracle of coca tea (available free in all good hotels over 10,000ft) I had recovered enough by the evening to peer through the headache and stagger, zombie-like, downstairs. The hotel restuarant had a great view over the lake, complete with faux reed floating island, but the food was expensive and seemed to taste of cardboard, though that might just have been the sorache.

Next morning I went alone on our pre-booked tour, a cruise to Sun Island. But before the cruise, the two hour drive in a tourist bus across the altiplano, and the international border crossing. The drive gave me a chance to see more livestock and cheerful peasants in bright clothing than I had in the rest of my life to this point, plus some odd cloud formations which turned out not to be clouds at all, but the Cordellera Real (probably not spelt like that, like many things in this blog). Given that I mistook them for clouds when I was already 12,500ft up, that makes them bloody big mountains. The border crossing  into Bolivia turned out to be easier than I had expected. You just queue up on the Peruvian side to get your exit papers stamped (and optionally your boots cleaned – I felt I couldn´t leave the country with dirty boots), walk under the metal arch marking the border, then queue up on the Bolivian side to get your entry papers stamped and rejoin your bus. No customs procedures, no questions, passport barely glanced at. I still almost managed to cause a minor incident when I bought a bottle of Inca Cola (Peruvian equivalent of irn-bru: brightly coloured, nasty, addictive) on the Peruvian side, then wandered towards Bolivia with it. Bottle refunds only work nationally – at least I think that´s what the nice lady from the concession stand was saying to me. So I had to drink the lot whilst still in Peru, and enter Boliva belching.

A short drive into Bolivia and an even shorter stop at a scenic church (you get a lot of scenic churches in South America), and the bus disgorged us onto a catamaran, where at hour on the open deck temporarily blew away the effects of the sorache. Sun Island turned out to be one of the most peaceful places I have ever been, with no cars, few people and lush greenery on the steep terracing. I climbed the Inca steps, got up close and personal with a llama and witnessed an Aymara blessing ceremony (something I´d written about, so was particuarly keen to see). On the drive back in the evening I witnessed the same peasants who´d been carrying wooden ploughs out to the fields early that morning decide that  it was time to unhitch the oxen and head home.

And after the boat, the train. I knew the journey from Puno to Cusco over the high Andes was one of the great train journeys, but I didn´t realise it was quite so decadent. I´d had visions of trying to cater for ourselves, or at most of a buffet car, but it turned out the ticket included a three course silver service dinner, plus assorted drinks and snacks. The combination of sorache and the early hour meant I didn´t take advantage of the pisco sour cocktail served at 10am, causing Beloved to comment that of all the new experiences the holiday had brought so far, the most unexpected was seeing me turn down a free drink. We were also provided with various entertainments, as though the scenery was not enough. We had the traditional frantically grinning ensemble envolving battered guitars and pan pipes (I´m not a great fan of pan pipes, and hearing ´My Way´ played on them has ruined any respect I ever had for the instrument). Later there was a variation with only one bloke with guitar-and-pipes plus two brightly dressed girls who sung like Chinese opera singers on speed and danced surprisingly well in the rocking carriage, even persuading some of us, against our better judgement, to dance a sort of Inca Conga. Plus, the Perurail spring knitwear collection fashion show. I kid you not. All part of the understandable desire to part tourists from their money, but a bit irritating when the models kept walking through the observation carriage and interrupting the view.  

Initially said view was of the altiplano, though we also passed through the middle of several towns. Right through the middle, as in the market stalls almost touched the train, and people had to duck into them to get out of our way. Outside the towns we´d go for miles without seeing any sign of human habitation except a distant adobe and thatch hut on the horizon, then suddenly whizz past a herd of sheep and llamas guarded by barefoot children, or a group of women by a river hanging clothes out to dry on rocks or cacti. We climbed slowly but steadily until the high point of 14,100 feet. By now the sorache had returned with bonus hallucinations; the hills billowed towards me, whilst distant peaks shimmered in a non-existant heat-haze. On the far side of the pass the land was greener, though still as mountainous. More affluent too, with houses roofed in tile or tin, and some even with two stories. Everywhere we went, lush or arid, town or country, we were chased by barking dogs and waved at by grinning children, as though the train passing through was the most interesting thing in their day. Which, when you think about it, it probably was.   

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