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Friday, 16 May 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Lake Titikaka

Having spent a couple of days acclimatising to the 2,300m altitude of Arequipa, we took the 7-hour bus trip up to Lake Titikaka, at the dizzying altitude of 3,800m. Titikaka is the highest navigable lake in the world, and covers more than 8,000 square kilometres.

Beyond that, it is a magical location, with clear skies at night revealing myriad stars and galaxies, and calm crystal clear waters reflecting the sky above during the day.

It is a tranquil place to visit and relax, and has a unique Andean culture to soak up, as well as a multitude of aquatic and other birds. Because of its elevation, many people suffer from mild altitude sickness for the first day or two, so it is best not to plan many activities in the first 24 hours.  While the lake is stunningly beautiful, it must be admitted that the main city on Lake Titicaca - Puno - is anything but. So rather than stay in one of the many hotels there, we opted to stay at the Titilaka Lodge, a 45 minute taxi ride away from Puno.

Where to Stay

The Titilaka Lodge is a luxury all-inclusive hotel with only 18 rooms, all of which have magnificent views of the lake. The Lodge was thoroughly refurbished in 2008, and subsequently accredited by Relais & Chateaux in 2013. Coming from the dusty and unattractive nearby town of Puno, through unpaved and unmarked country roads, on arrival the Lodge is both a very pleasing surprise, and an oasis of tranquility and beauty.

The public and guest rooms are tastefully decorated using a mix of local artefacts and state of the art contemporary design. It has striking colours and plenty of natural light, with stunning views of Lake Titikaka.

The experience of staying at Titilaka Lodge is rather like being invited to a country house. There is no TV in the rooms, and so after a day of excursions, guests tend to gather in the ground floor reception rooms.

To encourage this, complimentary afternoon tea and biscuits are also served, as well as a happy hour for drinks and cocktails in the early evening. This means that guests tend to meet and chat about their activities that day and plans for the next, which makes for a sociable experience not commonly found in top flight hotels.

Entirely by coincidence, it turned out that Tuanny and his wife Winnie, who both visited my supperclub in January 2014, were staying at the hotel at the same time as us. We had a great time chatting with them, hearing about their travels in South America, and their plans for when they return home to Sydney after 7 years in London at the end of this trip.

The lovely Winnie and Tuanny, a very nice surprise at Lake Titilaka Lodge

Our room had a stunning view of the lake, through windows as wide as the room itself. It was simply but elegantly furnished with white linen sheets against a backdrop of colourful Peruvian fabrics and tapestries.

The bathroom was also spacious with a large bathtub that overlooked the lake.  This was one of the most serene and naturally beautiful places I have ever stayed in.

Where to Eat

One of the attractions of Titilaka Lodge is its remote location, which makes it a great place to relax and switch off from the outside world. To facilitate this, all meals and drinks at the dinner table are included in the hotel’s rates.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining room, which has wall-to-wall glass on three sides, overlooking Lake Titikaka. It was light and airy with high ceilings, and was beautifully designed.

The kitchen is headed by local chef Maria Fé Garcia. Her cooking is well made and flavoursome, making use of local ingredients such as quinoa and trout from Lake Titikaka. We enjoyed a number of popular Peruvian dishes including Lomo Saltado (a Chifa or Chinese-Peruvian dish) and also her take on French soufflé using native quinoa.

Breakfast is generous, and includes a buffet serving fruit, yoghurts, hams and local cheeses, as well as breads made in house and served warm in beautiful clay pots.

Freshly cooked items include a selection of eggs cooked any style, such as Benedict and Florentine. We went for “huevos rancheros” – poached egg served with a lightly spiced tomato salsa, and the quinoa pancakes, which were both excellent.

What to Do

The main activities around Lake Titikaka are, besides relaxation, appreciating the landscape on foot, boat or bicycle, as well as the natural plant and birdlife, and the local archeological sites. It is a place to commune with nature.

Titilaka Lodge offers a wide variety of 2-hour excursions in the basic room rate. These include kayaking, sailing, rowing through the reeds to view aquatic birds nests, walking tours along the shores of the lake, cycling through the fields of Plateria, and observing the night sky (weather permitting).

In addition to this, there is a variety of half-day tours available at extra cost. Some of these are similar to the popular tours on offer from the many agents in Puno, but start directly from Titilaka Lodge and so avoid the crowds and extra journey time to Puno.  For example, tours are arranged to the floating Uros Islands, and to Taquile Island, and to the Chullpa Towers at Sillustani dating back as far as 1000BC.

We spent quite a bit of time just relaxing in the hotel, soaking up the peace and calm at Lake Titikaka's edge. However, we also took one of the hotel's half-day trips. This started with a visit to the bartering market in Acora, about 4km southwest of the hotel.

This was a great opportunity to see local farmers in their element, speaking neither Spanish nor even Quechua but Aymara, the local language.

On Sundays, there is a conventional food market where items are purchased, but also a smaller section where fresh and smoked fish, vegetables, clothing, alpaca wool and other items are bartered for other items rather than hard currency, in a manner practised by the Aymara people for centuries.

Our minivan then drove to the shore of the lake, and bicycles came from the back of the van for us to start a cycling tour of the region.

This was fascinating and beautiful, and we were lucky enough to see many birds along the route.  These included Andean coots, the Casanova woodpecker (aka Andean flicker), a pair of burrowing owls, American kestrels, Puna teals, and lots of common moorhens.

We stopped along the way for an excellent picnic provided by the hotel at the edge of the lake. It was a long day of intense cycling over dirt roads, but it was exhilarating.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Titilaka Lodge, and visiting the stunning scenery around the lake. Despite having come from Arequipa where the altitude was already high, we suffered from mild altitude sickness throughout our two days at the Lodge. We were told that it would have got better after 48 hours. I would recommend you take plenty of paracetamol and ibuprofen to help with the headaches. However, this was a small price to pay for the beauty of the region.

Another nearby town is Juliaca, where there is a small domestic airport flying to Cusco and Lima. It was from there that we made our next trip to Cusco.

Travel Essentials

Titilaka Lodge
Peninsula Titilaka

A double bedroom with full board including wine, cocktails, a free minibar, and any hotel activity lasting two hours or less, is advertised at £165 per person, per night (i.e. £330 per couple per night).

The 'comprehensive' package, including full board, all hotel activities, excursions and transfers, costs £284 per person per night, although this is reduced to £245 per person per night if a stay of three nights is booked.   

A taxi from Puno to the hotel costs around £15. A taxi from the hotel to Juliaca airport costs £35.

Cruz del Sur bus ticket from Arequipa to Puno costs £13 per person, and takes around 7 hours.

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