We spent a couple days on Lake Titicaca, which Bolivia shares with Peru. Bolivians joke that they have the titi, while Peru has the caca. The world’s highest lake of its size, Titicaca was once part of a vast inland sea that included the Uyuni Salt Lake, hundreds of miles away.
The name Titicaca originates from Tihuanaco words, meaning ¨rock puma,¨ or the puma that swallowed the sun and moon. Cultures have lived on the lake for thousands of years, and all of them have mythologized Titicaca.
Our first hotel was at lake’s edge, at what was once an important Inca site. Amazingly, we met one of the Aymara men who helped construct Thor Heyerdahl’s reed boats.
They were based on traditional boats built on Titicaca. The boats were used to test theories about whether Easter Islanders had originated in South America, and had paddled such boats to Easter Island. And while Heyerdahl showed it was possible to paddle such a boat to Easter Island, Easter Islanders were later proven Polynesian. At any rate, it was fascinating to meet the boat builder, and to see new reed boats being constructed for future experiments. And it was an interesting coincidence, after learning about Heyerdahl in Easter Island.
We saw vicunas and an alpaca, up close. Both are camelids; vicunas are wild, and alpacas are tame, like llamas. Juan is their favorite pet alpaca, with ridiculously long fur that forms body dreadlocks. Because of this fur, he cannot see beyond his nose, and is startled when you pet him.
Juan wasn´t the cleverest.
Traditional, round mud huts; a woman demonstrating weaving; unusual varieties of Andean potatoes; and a workshop for constructing some of the local alien-looking carnival masks were on display.
A small museum of Andean culture had an audio tour narrated by a woman with a bizarre Australian/Andean/American accent.
After watching a short film on the subject, we perused a great little museum teaching about the local shamen and their cures. The diagnostic section was first. Apparently the medicine men pass a rabbit over the patient’s body like an ex-ray, then kill the animal to "read" the viscera. This provides the diagnostic. Other diagnostic methods include dropping molton lead into water so it creates strange shapes, which are then interpreted.
Cures included things like herbs for a headache; tying a dead, and partially eviscerated puppy to your spine for a backache; or eating a human placenta for "women troubles." Not sure what the dead snake on the arm is for.
The museum also included examples of offerings to Pachamama, as well as taxidermied local, sacred animals. I was dismayed to see a small puma among them; while revered, they’re now rare around the lake. The finale was a visit with a medicine man, in his dark, smoky lair. He answered our questions by casting his sacred coca leaves, and reading the results.
The stars were out, so we learned a little about Inca cosmology. It was a beautiful night for stargazing, at such a high altitude with just a sliver of moon. We liked the llama constellation — two bright stars representing a llama’s sparkling eyes.
Dinner was great, accompanied by talented traditional musicians. I enjoyed the local mulled wine aperitif.
The next morning, a hydrofoil ferried us to a floating village, where we took a reed boat through the shallows. In Pre-Colombian times, a group of people lived on the lake, on floating islands they constructed from reeds. It is theorized they were Polynesian. They ate mostly raw fish and duck. The Spanish destroyed their way of life, and the current village was set up by our tour company. So it was a little tacky, but interesting to see the floating structure, after having walked on the natural floating islands at Carlos Pellegrini, in Argentina. I ended up buying a llama made of reeds for my, er, llama collection. Like my father, I too will unwittingly return from South America with a llama collection. Jason took this great photo of one of the children.
We hydrofoiled to Copacabana, a small town at the lake’s edge, which inspired the naming of Brazil’s Copacabana. A huge Moorish-style church stood in the town square, and there was a wedding inside.
In another part of the church, people lit candles for the Virgin.
Copacabana is locally famous as a place to bless your car; people bring cars from as far away as Peru or Brazil.
All the accouterments for this ritual were for sale there; flowers real and plastic, colorful streamers, confetti, whiskey, etc.
There are also tiny models of houses, bodegas, buses, or other items for sale. You buy them and pray about them, in the hopes that you’ll eventually have the real, full-sized thing. I really wanted one of the little houses; each was so uniquely constructed, like little pastel fifties ranch houses or modernist office towers. But they were just too fragile and heavy to lug around.
The lake was dotted with seventy-some islands, and most were tiny. And amazingly, they were all were terraced for farming use — their edges looked pixelated from all the right-angles. What’s really mind-blowing is that the first people to terrace and irrigate the islands were pre-Inca and pre-Tihuanacu — they sculpted the land thousands of years ago. This terracing reminded us of Bali.
Ruins from a Tihuanacu temple stood on Moon Island. They included this amazing three-dimensional Andean cross.
The temple was rebuilt by the Incas, who added their own architectural touch — characteristic trapezoidal doors. The Incas designated Moon Island as a worship site for women, and Sun Island for men. Women wore only silver, evoking the light of the moon, while men wore gold, as metaphor for sunlight. That day, local women wearing all colors of the rainbow mobbed us with weavings for sale.
Sun Island was swimming distance, if the water wasn’t so cold. So we took the hydrofoil. We climbed up Sun Island for more Tihuanacu/Inca temples. Tiny, ancient courtyards seemed like a kid’s hideout. Ancient terraces formed our path across the island, and a llama sherpa carried our bags. The trek was exhausting at that altitude.
We had a great lunch at our beautiful adobe hotel, and contemplated the lush landscape of land and lake. Were it not for the frigid breeze, we’d have sworn we were on a Mediterranean island.
Hiking further up the hill, through the local village, we dodged hawkers with blankets, and saw donkeys, pigs, llamas and sheep. The view of water, islands and mountains was lovely. We shared a sunset coca tea with Heather, the other person on our tour, and our guide, Guido.
The next morning, I wandered up the hill again (although "wander" is probably too casual a word for something strenuous enough that you have to stop every fifteen seconds to catch your breath). Jason hiked to the top of the island.
Cute kids approached me with a llama, demanding one Boliviano for a photo. They become jaded at a young age. I occasionally tested my sheep call.
We had a delicious lunch of local trout on a tropical-looking terrace. Trout are an introduced species. A motorboat took us back to Copacabana, where we hopped on a bus. After the fifteen minute journey to the Peruvian border, we walked from Bolivia to Peru. It reminded us walking across the border from Thailand to Cambodia. There’s often something seedy yet concrete about a land border.
Boarding a new bus, we stopped at a couple small towns en route to Puna, Peru. It was nice, as the residents weren’t too experienced with tourists. They gave us shy smiles and said "Hey you!" Many were dressed mostly in black that day — the women’s traditional shawl, ruffled skirt and bowler hat ensembles were black too. This was a signifier of authority, for some. For others, was the color of their family group.
We were struck by how even the tiniest of towns had towering, grand, stone churches. The Spanish really left their mark, architecturally and culturally. One church was made of rare red sandstone, and was inscribed with charming and unusual carvings.
The carvings contained a mix of Catholic and pagan symbolism — the Virgin and the cross, as well as pumas, and flowery vines symbolizing the Pachamama. We’ve seen many instances of this this mix in South America.
In Puna, we stayed at a pretty colonial hotel. Puna had a nice town square and church, like many colonial towns. Pathetically, we were very excited about Puna’s well-stocked pharmacies, high-speed internet, and yuppie restaurants. Bolivia was amazing, but we were ready to relax a little.