Cradled by the bold southeastern Andes Mountains, Cusco is our final stop in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Approaching the city, we see yet another massive walled Inca complex, Sacasyhuamán, overlooking the city. The fortress was the site of the final battle with the Spaniards that ended the rule of the Inca.
Sitting at a daunting altitude of 3400m, with stone streets and building foundations laid by the Incas more than five centuries ago, Cusco is a fascinating blend of eras. The city was the political, military, religious, and cultural centre of the Inca empire and although the Spaniards razed most Inca buildings and monuments, they found the structures so well engineered that they re-built upon many of the original foundations.
The old centre of the city is organized around the Plaza de Armas, lined by arcades and carved wooden balconies. We pass under the porticoes that line the square, walk across the plaza, and enjoy the spectacular architecture, mountain views, and diverse crowds of people that surround us. I wander through the endless galleries searching for a soft alpaca sweater or a piece of stylish silver jewelry. Ever practical, I end up with a simple fleece jacket to fend of the high-altitude chills. I’m finding that my electric motorcycle jacket just doesn’t work that well when it’s not actually plugged in, meaning that I’m pretty much frozen every time I leave the bike.
We visit Norton Rat’s Tavern, a relaxed pub overlooking the Plaza de Armas and run by a Norton motorbike enthusiast. The place is a Mecca for motorbike travelers passing through Peru who all stop here to write a message in the guestbook. We were no exception and the front door and guest book are now emblazoned with Smiles and Miles logos. In fact, we’ve since received several messages from fellow travelers who spotted our logo here.
We overnight in Sicuani (home to great street food and delicious local cheese) before continuing south the next morning. The bikes venture across the altiplano, a high wind-swept plateau extending from Southern Peru into Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and northern Chile. Our route takes us through Juliaca, a chaotic and ugly mess of half-finished buildings, potholed dirt roads, and trash-strewn streets clogged with sales carts and tuk tuks. By the time we get through the city, we have the sense of having made it through a war zone.
By afternoon, we catch our first glimpse of the sapphire waters of Lake Titicaca at 3830m above sea level. The magnificent lake, straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, is South America’s biggest lake and the largest lake in the world above 2000m. To Peru’s indigenous Andean peoples, Lake Titicaca is a mystical and sacred place. The original Inca chieftain is said to have risen from the lake’s waters along with his sister to found the Inca Empire.
Our stopping point for the day is Puno, a ramshackle and fairly uninteresting city but a good jumping-off point to explore Lake Titicaca. In the morning we take a boat to the Uros islands. As improbable as it sounds, the Uros Indians live on floating “islands” made by hand from the buoyant totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallow waters of the lake. The lives of these people are interwoven with these reeds, which are also used to make the massive tent-like thatched huts where they reside, to make their splendid gondolas with animal-head bows and to make up part of their diet.
The Uros began their unusual floating existence centuries ago in an effort to isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and Incas. They might remain on their floating islands because they believe themselves to be lake people by birth, the very descendants of the royal Inca siblings. Their unique practices have endured since the time of the Incas, and today there are some 45 floating islands in the Bay of Puno. Although a few of the islands are set up to receive tourists, the vast majority of the Uros people live in continual isolation and peace, away from curious onlookers and camera lenses.
Each island is inhabited by a small community of just a few families. We experience the ancient culture on two of the islands, enjoying a snack of totora root with a flavor and texture similar to hearts of palm. We witness part of a typical day spent collecting reeds, hunting for water birds, fishing, and undertaking the ongoing maintenance of the islands. Constructed from many layers of the totora, the islands are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. Underfoot, the ground is soft and springy and I’m certain that I’m about to take a dip in the icy waters of the lake as my foot slides into a soft spot on the island. Thankfully, there are still may layers of reeds underfoot and I manage to stay warm and dry – at least for now.