Bluer than Blue: Lago Titicaca

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Imperio del Sol, Isla del Sol

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lake Titicaca is a serene expanse of deepest azure blue, a jewel-toned jewel of a lake. At an altitude of 12,5000, the sun's close proximity makes its waters - literally - painfully beautiful. This immense body of water - covering an area of over 3,000 square miles – culminates in a distant horizon of snow-capped Andes peaks that reach heights of over 20,000'.  On the mid-summer days of our five day stay, the sky remained as blue as the waters reflected below, and benign wisps of cloud trailed behind those majestic peaks. Lake Titicaca’s beauty surpasses the physical; it is a sacred place to its native inhabitants, having for thousands of years been a vessel for spiritual beliefs and practices.

We left La Paz via taxi on May 3, 2010. Our departure was delayed considerably by boisterous street protests that blocked all roads leading out of the city. Strikes and protests against the government are common occurances in this newly democratic land where freedom of speech is frequently and enthusiastically exercised. Our destination this day was Tiwanaku, Bolivia's most important pre-Inca site, dating back to 2,500BC. The drive from La Paz was easy and interesting, though, at over two hours, longer than we expected. The ruins themselves are a bit of a let down after the guide books’ enthusiastic recommendations. The area is huge, but not much is left standing. A lot of reconstruction activity is underway that will certainly bring the ancient temples and monuments into better focus one day. The most interesting structures are the "Sun Gate" and several monoliths, life-sized carvings of gods.  We had planned to spend the night here, but the few hostels in town were dismal, and we were eager to push on Lake Titicaca in any event. 

Our destination then became Copacabana, a resort town on Lake Titicaca. According to our map, we could continue northeast on the main road crossing briefly through Peru for a direct route to the lake; the suggested route in our guide books. However, our driver adamantly insisted that getting through this way was impossible, and despite our protestations, insisted that we backtrack to La Paz. We realized that our Bolivian driver couldn't pass into and out of Peru as easily as us, if at all, so rather than lose our trade by dropping us off at the border, he was refusing to continue via that route. This left us with little option but to agree to pay him at extra $100 - an exorbitant amount for Bolivia - to drive us to Copacabana via La Paz

Hurrying back the way we came as the sky darkened, we still had time to appreciate the pastoral setting laid out before us on the Bolivian altiplano, as if time had stood still eternally when the great civilization of Tiwanaku fell. 

The drive took over five hours, the last couple of which we rode in complete darkness, our driver pushing the limits of speed and safety on a narrow, serpentine road as we wound our way up and over mountains surrounding the lake. The final adventure of that day involved crossing one of the rivers that feeds the lake via a rickety ferry/raft, manually operated via a pulley system, in total darkness. We arrived Copacabana, a small lakeside resort, at last. It was after 11pm. After stopping at several hotels, we settled on one with a large upper floor room with lake view (supposedly, as we could see nothing at this hour).  And despite the bed being among the least comfortable we have encountered this trip, we fell asleep instantly, the wheels of the car still spinning in our heads.

Next day, we explored Copacabana briefly and agreed that it is a very pleasant seaside town, its tourist presence limited to one long road lined with the usual stalls, tour agencies and internet cafes. Beyond that is a lovely town, low-key yet bustling with local families going about their lives, all centered around the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, a most picturesque cathedral adorned with Portuguese tile.

Our passenger ferry to Isla del Sol (where we had decided to base ourselves for five days, not knowing quite what to expect) departed mid-morning. The altitude and relentless sun made sunglasses a necessity on the open water. The lake's immense size was confirmed with sighting of a good-sized cruise ship bobbing in the distance. Cruises lasting several days are a popular way to see the lake. 

Isla del Sol. a tiny, oblong island, has been inhabited continually for thousands of years. The Aymara people, the largest ethnic group in Bolivia, live as they have for centuries, as farmers and fishermen. A strong community geared to preserving the purity of Aymara culture keeps tourism and outside influence at bay. Funds from tourism are put to use for schools and other infrastructure that support the locals and the community appears to be thriving. School was in session and we passed a schoolyard of some thirty typical kids in gym uniforms, giggling and goofing off, to their teacher’s consternation, during PE exercises. While kids do approach with trinkets to sell, it is a cheerful sell. We couldn't resist the kids, who jostled one another good-naturedly for attention, and ended up with piles of  "handmade" bracelet and necklace souvenirs. The tense undertones between locals and tourists we felt in La Paz and Sucre was nonexistent here.

We were soon approached by an eager, helpful lad of about twelve who ran impatiently ahead while we trudged behind with our packs, feeling every inch of the 12,500' altitude. With his help, we soon were ensconced in a pretty room in a newish hotel, with the requisite lake view. While the touted hot water amenity was mostly non-operational, the island's natural beauty and kindness of our hosts more than made up for any lack of creature comforts. We fell into a sudden calm in the space left by lack of cars, computers, machinery of any kind. Each morning dawned clear and bright as we awakened to comical, and surprisingly soothing, animal sounds: braying donkeys, bleating llamas, snorting pigs and "cockadoodleing” cockerels.

Other than occasional trips to the mainland for supplies, locals have no need to venture from their island paradise, subsisting on what they grow in the terraced farmland, as they have for centuries. Immersion in this simple lifestyle resulted in a sudden and complete calm, as if the very air were infused with a relaxing drug - what we gringos refer to as "a natural high". 

We spent each day in some combination of hiking, sunbathing with a good book and eating freshly prepared food from small restaurants. Our most strenuous hike took us along a pre-Inca trail that circles the island. Inca ruins, the first we have seen, stand at each end of the island. Distinctive stone walls were constructed with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. These are major early Inca sites, thought to have served as ceremonial religious centers and palaces. By all accounts, two Incan kings were born on Isla del Sol and the island is considered sacred to this day. The sites are revered and continue to be used for ceremonial rituals by the local Aymara. Hiking here involves extremes in altitude, temperature and terrain. Mom (me) was sorely  affected at several points on the trail and forced to sit for long periods of time to take in the phenomenal vistas in all directions. The low lands are cultivated for pastureland and farms, and the lower portion of the trail took us past local men and women in traditional dress working in the fields, accompanied by their children and llamas.

At night, the clear, black sky awed us with a rich density of stars and detailed views of constellations and the Milky Way. The Inca were advanced astronomers whose beliefs and actions were dictated by the position and patterns of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Gazing up at the brilliant night sky, filled with the same stars, planets and constellations that guided the ancients was a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

One day we hired a boat to take us the short distance to neighboring Isla de la Luna, visible from the island’s north side. Our exploration here brought the Inca worship of dual forces (i.e. sun and moon, life and death, man and woman) into perspective. The tiny Isla de la Luna is home to ruins of an huge and elaborately constructed Inca convent where select beautiful virgins of noble birth were housed in isolation. Their days spent in spiritual pursuit and the  "nobel art" of weaving fine textiles, they were groomed for service to the king and nobles, including in some cases, to be sacrificial virgins; a great honor (we were told!). Isla de la Luna (female) provided the duality for Isla del Sol (male) quite literally in this case. 

As our boat pulled up on the island’s rocky shore, we saw that we were the only visitors on the island that day. A man appeared running towards us from a cluster of houses across a field of sheep. He turned out to be the "welcoming committee", introducing himself as the community leader and tourist representative, a revolving position. He shook our hands and insisted that we join his family for lunch after our hike around the island. After seeing the convent and returning to the dock via the beach, a total walk of some five miles, we returned to the spot and our host. He led us across the wide field to his home where a meal had been prepared in our honor. The hospitality of this family, father, mother and daughter, not to mention the delicious meal of freshly caught fish and newly harvested vegetables, served on the family's outdoor deck overlooking the lake, stands out as the best meal we have yet enjoyed. At times like this, our meager Spanish fails us in our ability to communicate adequately with newfound friends. 

We returned to Copacabana, determined to find at all cost a room with a hot shower, ending up at a lakeside hotel in an artsy cabana that was more Big Sur than Bolivia. The little house, called Las Rocas, is perched on a steep hillside with striking views of the harbor and lake from wall the ceiling leaded glass windows. We not only had a hot shower, but a granite grotto complete with tropical foliage in which to take it! A sense of humor was a requisite for guests: The loft bedroom contained irregularly shaped beds that forced Michael and I into a triangular shape (!) and Oliver into a diagonal that left his feet poking out the bottom. A boulder had been integrated from outside (the window shaped around it) for the dining table. A private deck with hammocks and a feast from room service completed the experience - all for the US equivalent of $45. There are many things we’ll miss about Bolivia - incredibly low prices among them.

Following our extended R&R in Lago Titicaca, the time came to leave Bolivia. On the morning of May 12, we boarded a bus for the eight (read: twelve) hour ride to the border, where we crossed without incident into Peru. We immediately noticed the difference; wider, paved roads, billboard advertising, heavy machinery for agriculture, modern construction and higher population density. Five weeks in Bolivia had taken us back to a simpler time with lots of breathing room. Now the present day rushed in to fill the fields, skies, and silence with progress. After a jouncing yet scenic journey into Peru's famed sacred valley, we pulled into the bus terminal in Cusco well after dark. 

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