August 2012

Lake Titicaca

Historically, spiritually, and currently speaking, it is nearly impossible to exaggerate the significance of Lake Titicaca. Depending on who you ask, it is the world’s largest high altitude lake, the site of the creation of the world, or just simply home.

By: Camilla Morrison
Projects Abroad Volunteer
San Antonio, Texas - United States

Isla del Sol
Photo:Camilla Morrison

Nestled between two mountain chains, the lake straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. Before the vast plate movements that changed the geography of the planet, this area was a large inland sea called Lake Ballivián. Eventually the altiplano was raised to a height of about 4,000 meters, resulting in the formation of what we know today as Lake Titicaca. In present times it is 230 km long, 97 km wide and, at a height of about 3,820 meters, it is considered the world´s highest navigable lake. Arguably the lake’s most notable inhabitants, the Incas considered Lake Titicaca sacred for a number of reasons. Not only did they believe it to be the birthplace of the first Inca king but, according to their mythology, it is the spot where the god Viracocha emerged and created the world. It still holds religious significance for the indigenous populations living there today and continues to be a site of pilgrimage for thousands each year.

In addition to the religious significance it carries, the lake has always been a varied source of livelihood for Bolivians; countless lives revolve around the happenings of the lake. Today, however, virtually all of this is related to tourism. As a local Aymara man explained, “Everyone here is involved in tourism. We are tour guides and boat drivers, we sell food and souvenirs— we rely on tourists to make a living.” The tourism industry in and around Lake Titicaca is booming for a reason; for visitors there is a seemingly endless list of things to see, do and eat. When approaching from the Bolivian side, the lakefront town of Copacabana is the desired destination and launching point for all activities, including continuing on to Peru. A small but lively place, Copacabana boasts an overwhelming selection of interesting cafes and restaurants, as well as a handful of discotecas. Tourism has definitely been embraced here as the main street is lined with a volume of artisan stalls rivalling the likes of La Cancha. Although there are various Inca ruins within hiking distance, the city’s must-see is the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, located on the main square. Built in the sixteenth century, it is a shrine to the patron saint of Bolivia and one of the most important religious sites in the country, sacred to both indigenous and Catholics. The inside of the building was originally adorned with all sorts of jewels and colonial treasures but in 1886 they were expropriated by the president to create the first coins of Bolivia. To take a break from sightseeing, visitors can pass time on the Copacabana beach. After Chile took over Bolivia’s ocean access back in 1884, Lake Titicaca and Copacabana gained a new importance as the location of Bolivia’s only beach. Here people can relax among the chaos and enjoy a beer from one of the dozens of beachfront stalls. Also, if interested in kayaking, there are a dizzying number of options along the shoreline to rent boats by the half hour. Perhaps as captivating and fascinating to observe as the Inca ruins are the large clear inflated globes in which children of all ages attempt to navigate the lake with comic dysfunction.

Incan Sacrificial Table
Photo:Camilla Morrison

In terms of culinary offerings, Copacabana offers unlimited options for sampling the famous trout of Lake Titicaca. Introduced to the lake in 1939, the trout quickly became a staple of the area. Although slightly controversial on account of causing the decline of native fish species, a trip without sampling one of the many varieties would be incomplete. Within the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca’s waters there are a staggering 41 islands. The most popular and commonly visited are Isla del Sol and Isla del Luna. Copacabana is the perfect launching point for visiting these islands and on the lakefront you can hardly walk five feet without being offered a tour.

Departing daily at 8:30am or 1:30pm, the boat ride to Isla del Sol is a solid two and a half hours and offers a peaceful opportunity to observe the lake and a few of the other islands. To get a spot on the top of the boat you must arrive a few minutes early but, if you are so lucky, make sure to bring a warm coat.

Although only a boat ride away, Isla del Sol is years behind the hustle and bustle of Copacabana. With no motor vehicles, paved roads, or even running water on the island, visitors really do feel they have gone back in time. The occasional indigenous woman selling handmade jewellery breaks the spell but, generally speaking, the 800 or so families living on the island have changed little about their way of life in the last hundred years.

In terms of religion and mythology, Isla del Sol is the most important site in all of Lake Titicaca. With over eighty identified Inca ruins scattered about its rocky and hilly landscape, there is no shortage of things to see. Arguably the most important spot on the island, at least according to the Incas, is a large rock formation, called Titicaca Rock. This sacred rock is believed to be where both the sun and the first Inca emerged from. To this day, local people can be seen ceremoniously placing both hands on the rock to absorb strength and power. To reach Titicaca rock, it is a fifteen minute hike from the main village. Before setting off, the understated yet fascinating local museum is a mustsee; if not for the history then for the Inca skeleton that rests exposed on a countertop in a corner of the room. Within steps of Titicaca Rock is a sacrificial Incan table and a bit farther down the hill are the remains of a large and sprawling temple. A longer hike to the southern side of the island will reveal more ruins but for visitors aiming only for a day trip, this is the point where you must return back to the main village to catch a boat back to Copacabana.

Photo:Camilla Morrison

Isla del Luna is significantly less visited but interesting nonetheless. The Incas believed it to be the site where the god Viracocha commanded the rising of the moon and today its biggest draw is the ruins of an old convent that supposedly housed the virgins of the sun. Also only a boat ride away from Copacabana are the legendary floating islands of Uros. The Uros people predate the Incas and, according to their legends, also pre-date the sun. Uros legend also explains that they were once a far superior race with abilities such as the inability to drown. A group of roughly 2,000 individuals, they all inhabit these relatively small reed islands with just a few families on each. The islands originally came into existence and necessity as a defensive move away from conflict on the mainland. An intricate weaving system utilizes tortora reeds to create the thick mass on which the Uros people live and conduct their daily lives. The reeds, in never ending supply, are also used to construct houses, furniture, and boats. Although the move to floating homes has protected the Uros people from many threats over the years, the one thing that could not save them from was tourism. A common complaint of visitors to the Uros islands, and to Lake Titicaca in general, is that it is “too touristy”. Although a loaded and subjective phrase, the Uros islands do seem to fit the description. The islanders rely on a mostly tourismrelated income; it is the lifeblood of their economy.

Although proven a strong and selfsufficient people, their traditions are under threat as modern life encroaches. For example, the lack of professional dental care was never an issue until tourists began giving candies to the children. In addition, many adults have given up traditional ways of life to make money from tourists paying to take their picture. However this has not yet reached the entire Uros population seeing as only less than a third of the islands are actually open to visitors. Furthermore, there is merit in an alternate view of the situation. In such a quickly developing world, these sorts of changes are not only inevitable but normal. As Bolivia becomes increasingly on travellers’ radars, tourism will only increase in coming years. The Uros people are simply adjusting as they have been for years and adapting to a changing world. Whether this is natural process, ongoing tragedy, or a mixture of the two depends on personal opinion. Struggling along with the rest of the world with maintaining the delicate balance between development and tradition, Lake Titicaca remains a truly remarkable place. If you are fortunate enough to visit this lake and its surrounding towns, it will undoubtedly be an unforgettable experience.

Rio Rocha

Rio Rocha obtained its name from a Spaniard named Martin de la Rocha. However, before the “Spanish conquered the Cochabamba Valley around 1538, that same river was known as Kunturillo, meaning condor” (Walter Sanchez). The river is not only significant because of its historical background, it also has many functions within the community.

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