A Rovin’: Sky-High Lakes & A River of Stars

The rough-cut steps, hewn out of the rock of the island’s rocky hills, were easier to navigate before the sun went down, before the party. In the background at the rec center, a traditional Andean flute band went for another reprise of “Despacito.” I was trying to use my meagre cell phone light as a flashlight to guide me and my friend back to our homestay on Amantani Island, located on Lake Titicaca in southern Peru.

“What’s that?” my companion asked, halting so suddenly that I ran into her.

“What’s what?” I asked, already prepping to ditch her if it was a spider of any sort.

“That.” She sketched a large line through the air with her arm, looking up at the sky. Above us was a clear night, filling with stars as our eyes adjusted to the dark. I tried to see if the International Space Station (ISS) was flitting by overhead, or a plane. “The blurry thing,” she clarified, and made the arm gesture again.

“The…Milky Way?” I asked.

That’s the Milky Way?”

“…Yes?”

“Oh. I’ve never seen it before. I thought it was just in books.” She continued to look up for the rest of the walk back to the house, transfixed.

So that’s how, at age 28, I realized the rarity of my rural childhood. I had noted that it was a good Dark Sky—nearly as good as a crisp winter night at my parents’ place in rural Maine—but then resumed picking my way down the steps. My homestay companion was raised in Lima, Peru, and rarely traveled, even then mostly to other cities. She had been to New York City where I lived, she told me. “So many lights!” But this was the first time she had seen the Milky Way. The same can be said of my friends from college, raised in suburbs and cities, when I took them back to Maine for spring break: “So many stars!”

Among other travel publications, the well-known Lonely Planet has written about the rise of dark-sky tourism. Earlier in the backpacking trip that brought me to this island homestay, I had traveled to the Atacama Desert in Chile specifically looking for a dark sky area to spark spiritual inspiration. I was able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with my bare eye, and use powerful backyard telescopes to view binary stars, nebulae, and several planets.

If there were a moment to connect with your God, that was kinda it. Religion in general becomes far more understandable outside of artificial light; if you looked up at a pool of infinity each night, wouldn’t you think about it more and believe?

I travel seeking these moments of radical perspective shifts. Oh, that’s what the Maya and Galileo and astronomers around the world looked at for millennia. Oh, weekends are not always Saturdays and Sundays. Oh, that’s how one buys weekly food where grocery stores do not exist.

I see and experience many new things—penguins! surfing! swimming with sea lions! eating new food!—but more and more I am seeing old things from new perspectives. I don’t think travel fixes everyone and am the first person to tell you to spend money on a therapist before you buy a plane ticket, but traveling has enabled me to look at my hum-drums with a fresh eye for how interesting they actually are.

Take the Milky Way example, above. I loathed rural Maine by the time I fled it to go to college, but during each trip abroad I take, I become enamored of things that I have come to understand are all elements of my small town adolescence that I secretly did enjoy. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone (or re-contextualized), I suppose.

Anyway, I spent a while in southern Peru having my perspectives radically altered, so here’s some ideas on an itinerary, assuming you’ve started with Macchu Pichu already:

Day 1: Cusco to Puno, Overnight Puno

Take a daytime train (Peruvian Railways is good for Cusco to Machu Picchu but also has an Andean explorer train), or cheaper bus from Cusco to Puno, which is on the southern border with Bolivia. I encourage daytime because the Andes are sublime: deep greens and purple valleys and fluffy llamas and mountains.

Day 2 & 3: Lake Titicaca Overnight Homestay

Join a two-day tour of Lake Titicaca, which visits the Uros people—living on floating reed islands on the lake—then to Amantani Island, discussed above. On the island, huff and puff your way to the top to watch the sunset over this high altitude lake and explore one of two temples on the island. Make sure to do the homestay, and expect someone’s home, not a hotel.

Get back to shore and take an evening bus or train to Arequipa. Get in late.

Day 4, 5 (6,7,8…): Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city and it’s a joy to be in. A city of white stone, it is remarkably similar in appearance to cities in southern Spain (a side effect of several hundred  years of brutal colonialism, just FYI), but obviously with an Andean twist. Make sure to get to the Santa Catalina Monastery (very Insta-friendly), the Basilica, and try Andean delicacies like potatoes of all colors, guinea pig, and the Peruvian-Chinese cuisine of chifa.

When you’re looking for fresh air again, take a tour to Colca Canyon, where condors use wind currents to soar through this 9,000ft deep canyon. I did a one-day trip, which was enough for me—baby condors learning to fly are simply priceless—but there are multi-day treks available, with or without donkey. A trip to Colca Canyon from Arequipa also should stop at a field of old cairns and point out the actively smoking volcanoes in the area.

Day 6 or whenever: Fly back to Lima/Ultimate destination

Peru is far more than Machu Picchu and this will allow you a glimpse of the different parts of the Andes outside of Cusco.