Lake Titicaca is famous in lake terms as it is the highest navigable body of water in the world at 12,500 feet (3,811m) and very nice it is too. It effectively straddles Bolivia on the East and Peru on the West, which means that it has a lot to offer the tourists on both sides.
The Peruvian side is more famous for its Islas Flotantes or Floating Islands. Titicaca is also the largest body of water in South America as Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo is actually connected to the sea via the Gulf of Venezuela.
The two sides of the lake both have very different personalities and feel like two different lakes, which they almost are. The Strait of Tiquina, at its narrowest part is only 2,620 feet (800m) between either side, and it averages at about 107m deep.
The name of the lake has been translated as ‘rock puma’ as if you squinted a little and applied a cloud watching philosophy the shape of the lake is said to look like a puma chasing a rabbit. Another translation that has been put into the pot is ‘crag of lead’ which is not quite so romantic.
The lake is host to no less than 41 islands in total, the largest is on the Bolivian side and is the Isla del Sol or Island of Sun. It is flanked by the smaller Isla del Luna or you’ve guessed it – the island of the moon.
Steph and I had a wander around the Isla del Sol as it is easily reached from the Bolivian lakeside town of Copacabana. Copa is smaller and more peaceful than the town of Puno, which is the bigger lakeside community on the Peruvian end. Both sides will argue that their side is better, and ‘caca’ can be used as a slang term meaning ‘crap’ so it is a long-running and popular joke of whose end is the ‘titi’ and who is the remaining ‘caca’.
Some of the islands are quite densely populated which you would not necessarily expect from an island in a lake. One problem they face is that the water level in the lake is going down and this is perversely due to the global issue of warmer climates melting the ice reserves.
It is because these glaciers are melting that less water from them is being fed into Titicaca via its five tributaries. The lake also faces difficulties regarding the pollution from surrounding cities including El Alto, which is home to approximately 1 million people. Whilst a high percentage of people have safe water to drink, their sewage systems are inadequate so wastewater and other industrial pollutants run into the lake.
The Islanders and land dwellers rely on the water for daily life, fishing and agricultural purposes. One farmer even claimed that he had calves born with defects and would no longer allow his livestock to drink from the lake edge. When a licence was granted for the Canadian Bear Creek Mining Corp to mine silver in the area, 10,000 protesters marched in the streets of Puno for weeks to get it revoked by their government. The fears that the mine would pollute the lake were largely justified as toxic cyanide is used to separate silver when it is mined.
A free trade agreement gives Canada the power to challenge Peruvian laws, not to mention that the Peruvian government have thrown in access to the Amazon to the US and Canada as well. Puno is a special economic zone, meaning labour and environmental regulations are lax so ripe for exploitation by the countries who invest in them. The plans were delayed due to elections and political strife, but it certainly looks like the FTA conditions mean favour will be given to the richer country so expect regional rioting every step of the way.
The lake would certainly deserve a greater level of protection against such developments as it has historical and environmental importance due to its Incan ruins and endemic wildlife, not found anywhere else on Earth. There are more than 180 ruins on the Isla del Sol and they date back 500 years. Incan mythology states that it was the birthplace of the sun god Inti. Isla de la Luna is said to be the birthplace of the moon goddess Mama Quilla so both islands are prominent in the legends of the Inca people.
From an environmental perspective, the diversity of the waterfowl species means that it became a designated RAMSAR site back in 1998. Its endemic residents are the Titicaca water frog and the flightless Titicaca grebe. It was also home to the freshwater Titicaca Orestias fish, now sadly extinct. It became extinct due to the introduction of various species of trout to the lake, which meant that there was too much competition for food.
Bolivia has a naval force and they practise their training exercises in the lake, they don’t let the fact that they are a landlocked country stop them, but potentially they could protect themselves from Peruvian invasion if they decided to only attack on the water.
I really liked the Bolivian side of Titicaca but we wanted to stay on the islands themselves which is easier to do in Peru. We got a bus to Puno and at the border they wanted us to pay an exit fee from Bolivia, we had no money as there was no cash machine in Copacabana and we’d spent it all. We got an American guy to translate and offered them English pounds, which they, of course, did not want. Anyway, we got away with it and got to leave without paying the fee regardless of whether it was legitimate or made-up. I think they just wanted to be rid of our gormless faces.
This country gives us so much history (they ruined us with it…) and is of great importance at a respectable number 20 in the world’s largest countries. So let’s start our journey on the banks of Lake Titicaca.
Puno is not as charming as Copacabana. It does, however, have a fine set of sights as well as great access to the lake. Our first touristic ruin adventure – the first of many in Peru – was Sillustani.
Sillustani is an ancient funerary tower known as a chullpa. The Aymara speaking Colla people buried their noble leaders here. The tour guide got us all to stand around and stick our arms out in order to ‘meditate’ to enjoy the scenery. Steph took a photo of me and I look thoroughly unimpressed with it all.
At our hostel, we booked the two-day island trip that other travellers had recommended to us and there were quite a few tourists’ onboard representing Europe and Israel so we all got chatting. One man got on and greeted us in 7 different languages, now that’s the spirit.
That’s where I met Greg. There was nothing sexual about my love for Greg, I just admired his spirit. He was young, only 18 and he was full of enthusiasm for the world. He was travelling South America and then flying to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to follow the trade wind through the South Pacific. His aim was to get to French Polynesia by hopping on the trading boats that slowly travel between the islands. Every time I drank aguardiente (the local firewater) I would drink a toast to Greg and his trade wind as well as the Pachamama.
An interesting postscript to meeting Greg was that he had told me that through a poster in his Cuzco hostel looking for backpackers he ended up being cast in a film by a German filmmaker. This film was called ‘My son, my son what have ye done’ and it features a sequence with backpackers canoeing on the Urubamba river and I watched that film and remembered him being in it, even though his contribution was cut.
What was even more interesting was that I ended up studying the work of Werner Herzog and writing my dissertation on him for my Master’s degree on my return from South America (which was why I was watching the film in the first place). Then I connected the dots and concluded how small the world is – Herzog filmed in other locations that I visited but more on that later.
Islas Flotantes de los Uros
The first stop on our trip were the floating Uros islands. The inhabitants of these islands are the Uru people. There are three groups that live on the Uros islands – Uru-Chipayas, Uru-Muratos and the Uru-Iruitos. There are around 50 manmade floating islands in Titicaca. They are made from the highly buoyant totora reeds that grow in the shallow end of the lake. These reeds are like a non-sweet sugar cane and parts of them can be eaten.
Some joker at the Lonely Planet referred to the floating islands as ‘reed Disneyland’. On a serious note, the reeds are constantly rotting and being replaced so avoid making the faux pas of falling through someone’s floor in the polluted lake water. Hundreds of people still live on these islands and through lack of space and time spent mostly building and making crafts they do tend to become very overweight so the islands must be sturdy.
I saw a cat on one of these islands, it seems an odd choice of animal considering they don’t like water, there are presumably no mice on these rafts and there isn’t really anywhere for them to go. It wasn’t fat yet but I imagine it would be when it grew up.
They also have boats, which are like elaborate canoes made out of reeds that I can only describe as looking like dragon boats in order to see their neighbours and get to land. The more traditional Uru people keep away from tourists whereas some really embrace the added source of income and have become very entrepreneurial about it.
One of the reasons they built these islands was to escape the violent Incas and Spaniards. They had good reason to fear the Spanish as they enslaved island dwellers for the silver mines of Potosi that we visited in Bolivia.
The biology of the Uru people has been altered by assimilation with the indigenous Aymara people and they all speak the Aymara language also. Some academics believe their lineage is Amazonian so they adapted their rainforest lifestyle for life on the water. Others believe they are Polynesians who swapped the coast for the mountains after migrating to Peru. Either way, it is a tribe who drastically changed their surroundings and this need for innovation was accelerated by the dangers they faced from colonisers.
After the floating islands, we popped over to Amantani, a more traditional island made out of land.
The island of Amantani is very peaceful with a fairly sparse landscape; there are no cars or hotels on the island, which adds to the serenity and sense of the traditional. We walked up a hill to the Pachatata (Father Earth), a place of worship for local people, where you can look across the water to the other islands.
There was an Israeli girl who shared our homestay, Steph offered it to her as she was alone and Steph is nice. I found her pretty annoying. We all went to what I can only describe as the Peruvian version of a ‘barn dance’ at the ‘salon communal’ (local hall). We all held hands and swung each other around while wearing traditional clothing over our backpacker gear.
We bought our Amantani mother a beer and I remember that she shared it with her group of friends and they took about an hour to drink it, which is a far cry from British drinking habits. It was something that I was taken with as I saw it as being a positive way to treat alcohol, as a thing to savour and enjoy with friends as opposed to being chugged down your neck and brought back up at the end of the evening.
Another day, another island and we set sail for Taquile in the morning. It has 40,000 tourists a year and has set up its own travel agency in order to regain control of the cash generated by visitors which is collected by mainland operators.
Taquile is a collective community and the Quechua moral code they live by is ‘ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla’ (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy).
It must have worked because UNESCO awarded Taquile the ‘Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ due to its textile industry. I’m sure that ‘important cultural site for textiles’ would have sufficed as keeping things simple is better in a world where we share all data with academics, scientists and historians around the globe.
Arguably cultural heritage as a whole has many intangible elements and that surely textiles is the most tangible of all cultural artefacts as you can study the product and processes like you would a piece of art. This evolution would also demonstrate outside influences and you could study how cultures feed into each other depending on historical context.
I looked at the UNESCO list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Register of Best Safeguarding Practices’ and I can honestly say I enjoyed it immensely despite myself. From beer culture in Belgium to the tahteeb stick game of Egypt – all life is on that list. I particularly enjoyed that in 2015 the coaxing ritual for camels in Mongolia was in the ‘urgent safeguarding’ category. All cultural life is here on Earth and we know so little of it.
We all had lunch together at the top of a hill in Taquile and a French couple were talking ‘selfies’ with their digital camera with the landscape behind them. The other Europeans at the table were ripping on them and asking if they wanted help taking the pictures and they said no as they preferred taking them themselves. Little did we know that they were so ahead of the trend and that selfies were the future – nobody would even question that nowadays.
I went and sat on the side of the hill and pondered what age I would live to – nothing like a scenic view to make you question your own mortality. It also begs the question of why large bodies of water beckon us to sit and ponder, arousing something so key within the human spirit.
Read more about Bolivia in my book, Backpacker Confessions: Girl vs Latin America: Bad behaviour from Chile in South America to Nicaragua in Central America.