Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, March 27, 2008

We finally left for Copacabana, the city on Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca shore on the next Thursday with our guide, Cathy, a thoroughly modern Aymara Indian woman. As our bus climbed up and out of La Paz we passed through El Alto situated on the rim of the crater, the fastest growing city in South America. Filled with ugly square brick houses looking half finished, and dirt streets, this is home to hundred of thousands of people who flock to the city looking for work. Most will find out that the streets are not paved with gold.

After an hour or so, the road cuts across a flat plain of farms and small poor villages with the spectacular, glacier covered volcanos of Illimani and Illampu looming above the horizon. There are two ways of reaching Copacabana, a very long road around the perimeter of the lake, or a much shorter boat crossing of the Strait of Tiquina, a mile wide, which separates the smaller, southern part of the lake from the larger northern section. Most travelers, whether tourists or commercial, take the shorter way. On one side of the strait is the town of San Pedro de Tiquina. Here passengers leave the buses to take small boats across. The buses are driven onto flat boats and ferried across. Four years ago passengers could stay on the buses during the crossing but an accident and sinking of a bus has now meant that no passengers are allowed on the bus while the bus is floating. On the other side of the strait, we re-boarded the bus at San Pablo de Tiquina and continued our journey.

After the crossing is a twisty mountain road with absolutely spectacular views down to the lake below, which reawakened Maria’s motion sickness. With a lot of effort she endured the bus speeding around the turns, and we finally pulled into Copacabana, a hilly town of about 15,000 inhabitants located on a lovely semi-circular bay with a white sandy beach. When the early Portuguese settlers moved to Brazil and founded the City of Rio, they named their beach after the one at Lake Titicaca, Copacabana.

Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru with 40 % in Bolivia and 60% in Peru. The lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world, over 2 miles above sea level, about 13,000 ft, with the surrounding hilltops rising some 1000 to 3000 feet higher. It is also huge, some 150 miles long and 60 miles wide, and once away from the mountainous shorelines, the other side is not visible. It seems like an ocean. The lake is fed by 40 small rivers, many of which carry water down from the glacier covered mountains along its flanks. Strangely, it has only one outlet but a high rate of evaporation in the thin atmosphere keeps it from overflowing its banks and, more or less, maintains its size though it has risen somewhat over the centuries. The water is less than 1% saline, remarkably clear, and delicious. Oxygen here is less than 50% of that at sea level. This means that even the fittest of people are panting with every climb. The sun is immensely hot but the air is chilly.

Our first day was spent mostly sleeping. The hotel we stayed at is only a few years old, very nice with clean but chilly rooms, although they did provide us with a propane heater for several hours in the evening. The second night, they forgot to collect the heater, which we had turned off when we went to bed. Suddenly, at 4 am, the staff remembered us and, afraid that we might have been asphyxiated, woke us up to get it. Downstairs was a restaurant which served chicken and local fish. Neither of us was up to hiking so after our nap, we wandered a few streets to the town square. At the local market we saw a few of the 4000 types of potatoes that grow in Peru and Bolivia. (Later we had a chance to taste several types of potatoes when Cathy, our guide invited us to her home for typical Bolivian meals. Some of the potatoes are delicious but others must be an acquired taste as neither of us could swallow them). We had already seen the lovely white corn grown here in the markets of La Paz. Each kernel of corn is very large, almost the size of marbles. On each occasion we tried eating corn we found it chewy and dry. Not at all like the sweet corn we are used to. Next we saw the local version of popcorn, maybe an inch across and sweetened. It isn’t crisp but rather chewy, a type of candy. Locals and a few tourists wandered about eating bags of the popcorn. We tried it but weren’t impressed.

The town square is small but lovely. At one side sits a large and beautiful church. Here is a statue of the Virgin that faces out looking over the lake, supposedly to warn and protect against approaching storms and pirates. During mass, the statue is turned toward the congregation. At one side of the church is a door that leads to a large dark room where hundreds of pilgrims light candles in offering. In front of the church, vendors sell flowers and religious items. On certain days, people park their cars and the cars are blessed. Others bring small models of cars, hoping that the blessings will bring them a real car. Originally, during colonial times, Indians weren’t allowed inside the church and heard mass in the large courtyard. It is a lovely church, filled with statues and elaborate gold niches. By entering another chapel upstairs, the virgin facing the lake can be seen, surrounded by gladiolas which are grown in the surrounding areas.

Early the next morning we boarded a boat for a tour of the lake and the Isla del Sol, largest of some 40 or so islands which dot the lake. We had originally planned to stay on the island for a night. However, the hotel our tourist agency had us booked into is reached by a 45 minute climb to an altitude exceeding 14,000 ft. Though our minimal luggage could be carried up by donkeys, we would still have to hoof it. Our guide Cathy, very perspicacious after observing us old folks on the first day, suggested that we take just the boat tour and return to Copacabana for the night rather than attempt the climb. Both of us agreed without any hesitation. Actually, Cathy proved to be invaluable, both as a source of information and for arranging all kinds perks, perfect for coddling us ancients.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists make this trip every day. Dozens of boats, each carrying at least 50 or 60 people ply the lake between Copacabana and the Isla del Sol, as well as the somewhat smaller Isla de la Luna, either to visit the ancient ruins of the Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan civilization, or simply to climb up and down the hills like mountain goats. God only knows why.

The boat trip of about 3 hours to our landing on the Isla del Sol skirts the shores of the lake along which rise lovely green vegetation covered hills as well as a few rather spectacularly distorted and deformed cliffs; signs of the tremendous upthrust which is still today creating the Andes. Far away, on the horizon, the glacier covered peaks of those mountains could be seen rising above the clouds which occasionally obscured them from our sight. It was the creation of the Andes which also created this magnificent lake. Millions of years ago, this area was covered by an inland sea. When the mountains rose, the sea disappeared leaving behind the lake as well as the Uyuni salt flats we had visited weeks earlier, and the whole of the Bolivian Altiplano, the high plains, the second highest inhabited plateau on earth after Tibet.

The sun shone during the first part of our trip and, though the air was quite cold, maybe 50 degrees F., about 10 degrees C., it was quite comfortable sitting on the upper, outside deck of our boat. At one point, however, the sun disappeared behind some high cloud cover and the temperature dropped quite precipitously. The weaker sisters (and the less well dressed) among us headed below to the covered cabin. We, however, were well prepared with heavy coats, mufflers, hats, and gloves and remained above. One girl, who had begun the trip in a mini skirt and halter top, eventually donned a sweater and stuck it out, though the goose bumps on her bare legs eventually grew to something like ostrich egg size. Just before we reached the island though, the sun came back out and the weather was lovely.

This area has been settled for over 4000 years and is the birth place of the first Inca ruler. It is also believed to be the birthplace of the sun. At least that is the myth. Archeologists have found lots of pre-Inca items, some under water as the level of the lake has risen over the years. For 3500 years the Indians lived peacefully, terracing all the hills and growing their crops. The Incas, a very war loving group subjugated all the people from Colombia to Chile, building large cities and an empire for about 100 years. The Spanish ended the empire with their quest for gold. For a few years the Incas tried fighting back but finally their empire ended in civil war and defeat. Ruins, named for the Incas, actually belonged to the culture of Tiwanaku, an earlier empire whose capital was not far from La Paz. Among these are the Inca Palace, reached via a high flight of steps which we skipped, and the Inca Steps, an even higher stairway which leads to the Inca Fountain, a natural artesian spring fed by the lake itself. The fountain flows down alongside the stairs in a waterfall, so we didn’t have to climb up to enjoy it. Cathy climbed up with an empty bottle to collect some water from the top of the spring. It was ice cold and delicious.

The island itself is home to a few villages and about 8000 inhabitants. Farming and tourism are the only two sources of income. At one village, on the north side of the island, we got off of the boat in search of a toilet. A woman who was cooking collected our two Bolivianos (less than a dime) for the use of her toilet and a handful of toilet paper. After the three hour trip, there was quite a long line waiting for the one toilet. Her small outdoor kitchen came complete with a small open pit filled with all sizes of Ki, otherwise known to us as Guinea Pigs; dinner for her and her family. These cute little guys were living quite happily in their pen, munching away on the endless supply of leaves being fed to them, totally oblivious of their ultimate and ignoble fate. She gave us a bit of golden potato, a very buttery and delicious taste.

Most of the day the sun shone brightly, and we were quite warm. When clouds hid the sun, it was bitter. Pigs with numerous piglets roam the island with a few cattle and a handful of llamas and donkeys, mostly used for transport.

We ate lunch at a small restaurant and visited the small local museum before re-boarding the boat for the return trip. Several people had left the boat for the four hour hike across the island to catch it on its return to a village on the southern side. Others chose to spend the night on the island.

We ended our day quite happy for the trip. The next morning we woke to rain and cold. Not a good day for a lake trip. Our return to La Paz was uneventful except for the short boat trip back across the strait. Now the water was choppy and the boat rising and falling threatened to upset the steadiest of stomachs. Back in La Paz we felt like we had returned home, glad to be back in the hotel we’ve lived in for three weeks, and our little heater.

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