The path less taken

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

The path less taken
October 24, 1997

We sought the isolation of the
east coast of Lake Titicaca
"You camped where last night?" The Peruvian border guard was incredulous. "Wasn't it dangerous in Bolivia?"

"No, no. My tranquillo," we countered.

He shook his head in amazement. "Peru is much more tranquillo."

The irony was hard to escape. For months people throughout Bolivia had been warning us of the dangers of Peru. But here in the small, remote border town of Tilali, it was obvious that Bolivia, and not Peru, harbored terrible dangers.

Still shaking his head, the border controller took our passports and entered our names into page one of a small notebook. "No entrant stamp?" I questioned.

"No, we don't have one. But when this book is full we will send it to Migraciones in Juliaca. No problem."

I imagined authorities in Juliaca learning of our arrival into Peru five years from now, but accepted his explanation with a smile.

Tilali obviously isn't a popular border crossing.

But isolation was the reason we were riding around the seldom-traveled east coast of Lake Titicaca. This is the famous lake's forgotten coast. Most travelers head for the new paved route, via Copacabana or Desaguardero en route to Puno. But for travelers willing to brave the rough roads and spartan accommodations, the eastern shore offers a glimpse of traditional Aymara lifestyles, unchanged in over 500 years. After two months of climbing in the mountains and swinging in jungle hammocks, we blew the dust from our bike seats and climbed aboard our forgotten friends.

Our first few pedal-strokes out of Achachachi, fronting Lake Titicaca's southeastern shore were nearly fraught with disaster. How quickly you forget the feel of 150 pounds spanning two wheels. I lurched forward like a hippo high on tranquilizers, almost wiping out an elderly cholita and her span of sliced pineapples, swerving as I glance back to check on Nan.

We struggled over the rough, rocky earth outside Achachachi
But soon we were beyond the town's fringe and into the campo, where families led oxen teams over the rough, rocky earth to prepare for potato-planting. The spine of the entire Cordillera Real towered incandescent and white beyond the foothills, fighting against the bold turquoise of the lake for attention.

That night we were guests at the hospital in Ancoraimes, where we were given our own room. We spent the evening with 15-year-old Victor Yugo, trading English phrases for Aymara, a knowledge that became an invaluable passport through the isolated communities to come.

Two days later we crossed into Peru after a magical night camped at 13,500 feet in splendid isolation on the border, the lights of Puno, on the opposite shore, reminding us of the path more taken.

True to predictions, the road deteriorates rapidly after the border. A strong statement considering the already makeshift condition of the route through Bolivia. The abysmal path along the lakeside returned us to those days of pounding torture in southern Patagonia. But the transcendent vistas and feelings of exploration abated any misgivings.

"Kamisaki!" (how are you?) we'd shout as we rolled past ever-present campesinos. "Walika!" (I'm fine) they'd shout back, often waving us to stop or running from their fields to the road side to ask us about our trip. A nice change from Bolivia, where campesinos hid their interest beneath the shadowy brim of their bowler hats, and a hesitant smile was a victory.

Outside Moho we camped amid sheep in a farmer's field and drew water from a centuries-old Incan well. In Huancane, the eastern shore's largest town, they received us like royalty, giving us our own ward in the local hospital. In the evening Pablo, Juan, and Javier, our self-appointed custodians, took us on a walking tour to the town's star attraction, the recently renovated main plaza. We stood under the sculpted trees, staring up at the ornamental clock.

"We don't have many tourist attractions here," Juan explained apologetically. "Not many people come through Huancane."

We smiled. That in itself was our attraction.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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