My weekend in Lima was coming to an end. I got to sample amazing ceviche, and hung out at the capital’s coastal areas. Along with Maria, we concluded our weekend together with a boat tour to the San Lorenzo and El Fronton islands.
Isla San Lorenzo is the largest island of Peru. Except with a special permit, the access to the island is banned, so one can only observe it from a boat. The nearby Isla El Fronton is home to an infamous Peruvian jail, in which former President Fernando Belaúnde Terry was held as a political prisoner. Later, Maoist guerrillas from the Communist Party of Peru Shining Path were imprisoned, and extra-judicially executed during a rebellion there.
The boat set to approach and pass by these islands departed from the Callao Port, and we just caught the last ride of the day. The sun was setting when we departed, which at first seemed cool as even though Lima is permanently cloudy this time of year, the sole thought of sailing into the sunset added a lot of romanticism to the “date“.
On the other side, not being that far from the equator, the transition from daylight to night is fast in Lima, so by the time our boat reached the islands, there was nothing to be seen. It was pitch dark. Moreover, with the sun, the temperature dropped rapidly too.
Here’s the video from the port. It shows the last but one boat docking, continues with the plentiful pelicans that hang around the port, and concludes with our departure from the port in the boat:
There is a constant and rather abundant presence of the pelicans at the Callao Port, and whereas they are used to the presence of boats and people, they maintain pretty close proximity.
The people feed them, so that brings them ever closer to us, but there’s also a lot of plastic floating in the ocean, making them confuse it for food. It’s a sad sight, really.
End of Weekend in Lima
Me and Maria have greatly enjoyed each other’s company during my brief detour to Lima, and even though I had to return to Cuzco after the weekend, it was clear that we’ll hang out again. But now I had another 22 hours long bus trip to undertake, and it was as brutal as the first.
Located at the altitude of near four thousand meters above the sea level, in the cold waters of the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, are a series of artificial islands created by the Uros.
The Uros are an ethnic group originating from Lake Uro-Uro in Bolivia, who, to escape the invasion by the Incas, Tiahuanacos and Collas, took refuge in Lake Titicaca.
Titicaca – which means “stone puma” – is according to legend the place from which emerged Viracocha, the Sun God, who in turn sent Manco Cápac to found the prosperous Inca culture in Cuzco.
The floating islands of Uros are up to 3 meters thick and are built with a type of reed called totora that grows in the water. They and are in constant need for maintenance, since totora naturally decomposes with time. Every 20 days a new layer of totora is added on the surface of each island – a job performed exclusively by men.
According to the backinfo I for, the Uros consist of 82 artificial islands, each inhabited up to seven families family, and each having its own president. In addition, there are community islands housing a church, a school, a health center, or restaurants. Estimated 1,800 people live on the floating islands, usually related to each other.
Something about the fact that the Uros islands are floating attracted me to them, so before my first day in Puno was over, I decide to take the boat trip there. I went on my own, and not with a tour, so I paid 10 Soles (about $3 US) for the boat ride there and back, plus 5 Soles (about $1.50) for the access to Las Islas del Uros. The latter was a bit off putting, as it’s overall ridiculous to pay for a visit to what is basically a town, but in spite of that, I went for it and paid the cost.
The ride in an old boat took a bit over 30 minutes one way. I asked the boatman how exactly it worked with the return journey back to Puno, and he explained to me that the same group of people currently on his boat will be exactly the group of people going on the same boat back. I asked when exactly the journey back takes place, as in to determine how much time I had for exploring Las Islas del Uros, to which he replied that when we arrive, the people on the island would explain everything to me.
This started to sound a bit fishy to me, and at the time I didn’t know what exactly to make of it. But things became clearer as soon as we arrived.
Basically, the boatman took us to one of the isolated tiny floating islands where we were given short presentation by the locals on the life on the floating island, which was followed by a very aggressive sales pitches to make us, the visitors, buy the trinkets sold on the floating outcrop.
My philosophy on buying trinkets has not changed in 10 years of traveling – I travel light and I move from one place to another. That means I have neither the room nor the will to add weight to my baggage. There ain’t nothing any salesperson could say to make me spend money so I can make my backpack heavier than it already is. I only buy what I absolutely need for survival, and that usually happens only when I wear out what I already have and need to replace it.
With only about 20 meters in diameter, the floating island on which we were left provided no opportunity to escape the aggressive sellers. Nevertheless, I never bought anything because it would simply make no sense to me.
Having exhausted all the options on the sales of trinkets, the villagers then proceeded to pressure the visitors into boarding their cool looking straw boat they called Mercedes Benz. Without explaining what this was about, they kept telling us to get on board. I was however insistent on explanation whether the presumed ride on said boat is included in the cost of the visit to the island, or whether I’ll be expecting to pay extra for it.
Only after I resolutely declined set foot on the boat unless the intention of the locals is made clear I was clarified that if I get on the boat, I will be charged 10 Soles, but I will be taken for a ride to another island.
A brief chat with other visitors lead to the conclusion that we’re not taking the Mercedes Benz boat, and instead requested the boatman who brought us on this tiny floating outcrop to take us to a bigger island where we were told we’d encounter restaurants and other amenities.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do on the other island either, so we just snapped a few pictures and then asked the boatman to take us back to Puno.
Overall I would rate the trip to Uros as a waste. It wasn’t anything akin to taking a boat to an island where you can wander around to explore the place at your own pace. It was about being taken to a very small space where you get exposed to pressure sales tactics without the option to make a physical exit.
Considering that the access to the islands costs money to begin with, had I been clearly explained what I’d get if I bought the trip, I would not have bought it. I did not find it worth it at all.
When I was buying my bus ticket from Kratie, Cambodia to Don Det, Laos I had no idea the boat transport from the mainland to the island would be included in price. I thought the bus will simply deliver us to the jetty from where we can conveniently hire a boat to get us across, but to everyone’s surprise, none of this was necessary.
The turn off to Don Det wasn’t far from the border. We only went for a few minutes before the bus got off the highway and steered through narrow dirt road to drop us off at the spot that was very close to the jetty. About half a dozen backpackers and one local got off the bus. That local guy asked each of us to hand him over the bus ticket we’d purchased and asked us to wait until he’s made arrangements to get us across the Mekong river.
This was a positive surprise as I was already getting ready to start negotiating with the boatmen but there was no need. Instead, I got a chance to chat with the other guys and savor the feeling of being free.
Laos vs Cambodia
The difference between Cambodia and Laos became instantly obvious. For one, none of the locals jumped any of us as we were getting off the bus. We were all able to peacefully collect our backpacks and figure out the next step without hosts of touts pressuring us and breathing down our necks from all sides.
Secondly, even though there were many villagers scattered around, none of them stared us down. They were simply minding their own business, allowing us to mind ours. We had a few minutes to spare, so I popped into a nearby convenience store (small hut with a few items for sale) and asked them if they would accept US dollars for a bottle of water I wanted to buy. I had no Lao currency on me but this was a no issue for the woman running the shop.
All it took was a ride across the border and fake smiles full of shady purposes were gone. They were replaced with genuine, warm and welcoming ones. It was a breath of fresh air to be approached by a local man who would simply want to ask us how the ride was and welcome us to his country, without attempting to scam any of us. It was the third time leaving Cambodia for me and it was the third time I felt like I got out of the gas chamber to breathe the free air again.
The deal was sealed – there are so many nice people who would make your travels enjoyable all over the world, and each day in Cambodia strips you of a chance to meet with them. From now on I only wanted to travel through the countries where there are nice people so deep in my mind I already knew – there will be no going back to Cambodia for me.
Boat Ride to Don Det
All of us who got off the bus at 4,000 Islands were backpackers so all of us were headed for Don Det. Don Det is where most backpacker friendly, budget guesthouses are located and it’s also where 4,000 Island’s nightlife (for what it’s worth) is at its highest concentration. Don Khon and Don Khong are the islands offering more peaceful stay with more upscale accommodation options.
The boat they packed us on was small and barely had us all fit along with our backpacks. It was one of those tiny fishing boats for one or two persons, only the owner added a few planks to bridge the sides so passengers could sit but it was a squishy experience. Of all the boats that were docked at the jetty, we were told to board the smallest and the furthest one. To get on it, we had to prance across several boats with roofs which gently tested our balancing skills. Keep in mind we all carried our backpacks and had to crouch down to squeeze through tiny space under the roof of a boat which was loosely on the water, hence moving with each person who stepped on it.
The boat ride itself was scenic enough to make us all forget that we had to sit with our knees under our chins only capable of making limited turns as each of us tried to record some video of the mangroves and islands we passed by. It only took a few minutes to get us across and soon we got to feel firm ground below our feet as bikini clad girls walked by headed for their chalets. There are no beaches on Don Det, but what’s there to hold you back when you’re on an island in a tropical country and it’s a nice, sunny day?
Don Det is very touristy these days. Many former fishermen now specialize in offering transport service between mainland and various islands because that’s where easy the money is. Tour operators and transportation companies have agreements with boatmen so if you end up buying a ticket to Don Det and then away from there, it will include the cost of the boat transfer so if you asked me how much a boat ride alone was, I wouldn’t be able to tell.
Below is the brief video from the boat that took us across from the mainland Laos to Don Det of Si Phan Det (4,000 Islands):