Lake Titikaka. The shimmering jewel of the Andes. At 3,812 meters it is the highest navigable body of water in the world and at 8,372 square kilometers it is the second largest lake in South America.
The expansive waters were used by ancient cultures for irrigation and were seen as a source of vitality and life. This combined with the majestic deep clear waters surrounded by the lofty snowy peaks, it is no wonder that the lake was at the center of Andean culture mythology.
The lake itself has been inhabited for several mellennia. Small villages gave way to kingdoms which consolidated into empires which underwent fracturing and reshuffling. The dominant empire that took hold on the lake was the Tiahuanaco. They reigned from 300-1100 AD. The lake was the center of spiritual life and it's waters breathed life into the harsh surrounding landscape as they developed sophisticated ways of growing crops in the high altitude by irrigation, elevated beds, and terracing, all techniques that would later be co-opted by the Inca.
A prolonged and particularly harsh drought was thought to have precipitated their abrupt decline, as the empire fractured into numerous kingdoms. Around the same time, farther north, the Huari empire was also collapsing into numerous kingdoms. Roughly 200-300 years later, in the 14th and 15hth century, from mysterious origins, the Inca would begin their meteoric rise and come to dominate the Andes, from what is present day southern Columbia down into Chile including the Lake Titikaka region.
On the Southern side of the lake - and for that matter through much of Bolivia - the indigenous groups still speak Arymara, a dialect thought to have originated with the Tiahuanaco people. On the northern end of the lake in Peru, which was closer to the seat of the Incan Empire in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, the indigenous language predominantly spoken is that of the Inca - Quechua.
We took a bus from La Paz, momentarily debarking and taking a rickety boat across the Strait of Tiquin, a roughly 100 m channel separating the two large basins forming the lake. A steady rain fell on us as we waited for the ferry to shuttle our enormous tourist bus across on the other side. Once on the bus, we were unfortunately informed that the rain on the lake shore was in fact snow on the hill tops above where the road would snake towards our final destination of Copacabana, making then currently impassable. After waiting for about an hour, we started moving.
Unfortunately, when we arrived to Copacabana, we did not experience the awe inspiring glory most travelers feel when viewing the lake for the first time as it was still steadily raining and cloudy. We wandered around for a bit in the cold wetness until we managed to find a taxi to take us to our hostel, an Eco lodge about 1-2 km down the shoreline from the main town.
Copacabana itself has been around for centuries, having been established as a way station for people traveling through the lake. The town has now morphed into a largely tourist oriented town with numerous hostals and restaurants alongside shops selling random bits of plastic and cloth.
We spent the first day wondering around the town and desperately trying to keep warm. It was roughly 40 degrees and raining with occasional snow mixed in. Also it should be noted that at this point in our travels we have yet to experience central heating, occasionally being spoiled with a space heater at a restaurant. It was that type of cold thats wet and gets into your bones.
We did stumble upon a little gem in town for lunch. A pizzeria run by to ex-pats from Chicago. Hand made thin crust pizza that was quite possibly the best I had ever experienced in my life, or at the very minimum top five. The couple - Jefferson and Deborah - were incredibly friendly and nice. They regaled us with stories from their time in Bolviia. Having come to the lake 7 years earlier to help locals build infrastructure - in particular greenhouses - they had remained and opened this Pizza shop about 2-3 years ago. They shared stories of the difficult and sometimes whimsical nature of owning a business in Bolivia.
As we ate our pizza we heard the frequent popping of fire crackers outside, which Jefferson and Deborah explained was part of the ceremony used to bless new cars. As Deborah put it, "it's a huge part of the local economy".
The following day the weather began to clear some, and we started to get little snippets of the surrounding snow covered peaks. We climbed the steep point overlooking the town, Cerro Colvario. On our way up, at about the half way point, we saw what appeared to be ceremonial blessings and holy men burned incensed, chanted prayers, and sprayed alcohol on the ground. At the top of the peak, we discovered numerous plastic figurines for sale and later found out that people purchased small figurines of objects they hoped to acquire in the near future - cars, houses, even hotels - and performed the ritual with the hope that it would bring them this object in the future. The view was quite beautiful, but still somewhat obscured by clouds.
We then walked down the lakefront, the only public beach in Bolivia. It was quite the scene. Bordering on mayhem, with random paddle boats and bits of plastic used as flotation devices strewn seemingly everywhere. It was Sunday and all the locals had come to party. We ate lunch, the local delicacy, a fish caught in the lake known as "Trucha". The spent the rest of the day lounging on the lake front, and eventually watched the sun go down over the lake before returning to our hostal.
The third day we woke up early and headed via boat for the two main islands on the Bolivian side near Copa. The smaller and less inhabited Isla De La Luna and the larger Isla De la Sol. The islands were sacred to the indigenous people and are thus studded with ruins of temples and other complexes. Isla De La Luna was first up. After a dicey 2 and half hour boat ride where I ended up peeing in a bucket(we'll leave it at that), we got off and began exploring the ruins. We then took the steep path up towards the ridge and for the first time got sweeping views of high snow covered peaks on the Bolivian side. It was breath taking and awe inspiring.
Next up, we took the short trip over to Isla De La Sol. We disembarked near the ruins on the south side of the island. The majority of the ruins are actually located on the northern end of the island, but unfortunately it is closed to all tourist traffic due to an on-going dispute between the north and south of the Island. We heard multiple stories, but our most reliable source informed us that the southerners had built a hotel on what the northerners viewed as sacred ground. When they refused to dismantle it, the northerners came in and blew it up with dynamite, sparking a blockade by the south and demand for reparations.
The Island was magical. The high ridges offered sweeping views that looked manicured and not real. No cars are allowed on the island as rugged foot paths cut through the terracing, linking the small villages. We hiked past the ruins and a little way over the ridge, seeing numerous alpaca feeding on the local fauna.
We made our way back to the main town on the Southern end, Yumani, and stopped at a restaurant high up on the ridge overlooking the lake and again indulged in some Trucha. Afterwards, we made are way down the steep path to the boat landing. The final part of the decent was comprised of beautiful Incan stair ruins. When we got back to Copa, we took the hike up Cerro Colviaro once more, this time for a magnificent sun set vista.
Our bus to Puno the next day was not until 5 pm, so we took the chance to rent bikes and ride up the coast. Again, the Bolivian side was extremely undeveloped. Most of what we passed were tiny villages and farmland. The rise and fall of the road along the road did offer us more pretty views of the lake.
We returned in the late afternoon, and decided we shouldn't pass up world class pizza while we had the chance. Our bus arrived slightly late, and we learned that the Peruvian border was closed yesterday due to protests(the mayor had stolen money from the local coffers and the people wanted his head), thus explaining the mob of people waiting for the bus as travelers were unable to cross the previous day. They told us they were unsure if the border was open, but we would get to Puno "no matter what it took".
Fortunately the border was open, but again the extra flow of travelers back logged from the previous day created some chaos. We did finally make it through and got to our hotel around 9 pm, not too far behind schedule. In Puno, we splurged and stayed at a nicer hotel overlooking the city. While they still did not have central heating, they did have a space heater in the room and hot showers.
We took it easy the next morning as we were quite tired. I diagnosed Zuza with Strep throat. It was a pretty easy diagnosis given her huge, swollen, and infected tonsils. I surmised I was suffering from a less harsh version of the malady myself as my throat was slightly swollen and tender. We took the azythromycin we had for travelers diarrhea.
Later that afternoon, we took a boat out to the Uros Islands that are situated several kilometers outside Puno. A fascinating small community of 100-200 people were still living the ancient lifestyle created over the centuries by their ancestors. The Uros people, who are Aymara speaking, were living on the northern shores of the lake when the Incan expansion swallowed them up in the 15th century. Unwilling to submit to the Inca, they took to living on boats on the lake, and eventually discovered that they could make more sustainable "floating islands" out of reeds and roots. The majority of the Uros people now live on land(about 4000 in total), but many still come back to the Islands to continue the tradition. The entire community exists on these flowing islands, including a hospital, schools(children to the mainland for high school though), and a soccer field.
We arrived on one of the islands where a couple of families lived, and they showed us their homes and of course tried to sell of stuff - which we bought(we had too, and it was pretty nice hand made stuff). Women seem to do everything on the islands - cooking, crafting, raising children, ect... This includes taking us via boat to the "capitol" island where numerous restaurants are located(I was later informed that the mayor does not reside on the capitol and this was strictly a tourist trap island). We hung there was a bit before heading back to Puno via boat while enjoying another beautiful sunset.
The next day, we set off early for the nearby Juliaca airport for Cusco and Machu Picchu!! More to come, hold on to your seats!