Peru and Bolivia’s        Ancient Sea          Exploring Lake Titicaca

Simona Taylor, Clare, Ireland

08 / 11/ 2016

When I was a teenager longing to travel to wonderful, distant lands, I imagined Lake Titicaca to be one of those remote, enchanted places where the boundaries between reality and legend, between past and present become less clear. Maybe I was inspired by seeing photographs of its limpid, deep blue waters surrounded by snow-capped mountains; even the word ‘Titiqaqa’, meaning ‘the grey puma’, which refers to its shape, fascinated  me.

Now that I have been there in real life, I am not disappointed. Of course modern tourism has had an impact, but nevertheless this ancient inland sea continues to reflect the beauty of the Andean landscape and of its indigenous people. 

Lake Titicaca is situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, on a high plane basin in the Andes. At around 4,000 metres above sea level, it is considered to be the highest navigable, fresh water lake in the world. It is 160 km long and 60 km wide, with a maximum depth of 300 metres; to me it felt more like a sea than a lake, and in prehistoric times it could well have been connected to the sea. Its shores are littered with fossilised seashells and some of the fish living in it are the oceanic type. I was told that the indigenous people still regard it as a sea; to this day they make offerings to the Sea Mother, Mama Qucha, who protects sailors and fishermen.

One of the many legends tells us that near the Island of the Sun the bearded god Viracocha emerged from the waters with his children. He commanded the sun, Inti, the moon, Mama Killa and the stars to rise. He created human beings from stone and sent them with his children to populate the world. Using underground caves the children travelled to Cuzco, in South Peru, where they founded the first Incan dynasty. 

 The Andean tribes have always farmed the land, despite the high altitude, poor soil and freezing temperatures at night. They built raised fields, terraces, sunken gardens and irrigation canals. Some of them are still used today and more are being reclaimed by the Aymara and Quechua people. The main crops are certain types of corn, potatoes and the ‘food of kings’, quinoa, which was sacred to the Incas. All around the lake and on the islands farmers still plant and harvest their crops by hand. I was told that communal and organic gardening is widely practised.

A bridge made of reeds

There are only footpaths on the islands, and therefore no motorized vehicles. Llamas and donkeys are used to transport goods. A feeling of tranquillity and purpose prevail, as the islanders go about their business in the same way they have always done.

 First I travelled to Puno, a Peruvian town on the western side of the lake. I explored the countryside around Puno and visited a tiny homestead, where I was offered alpaca milk cheese, flat corn flour cakes, boiled potatoes and a sauce made with edible mud, mixed with water and salt. It was rather tasty.  From Puno I took a boat ride to the floating islands, which the peaceful Uros tribe have been building for centuries, originally to get away from more aggressive mainland tribes. The islands are built from several layers of ‘tutora’ reeds which are abundant in this part of the lake and just as well, since the Uros make everything out of them, their homes, boats, furniture, baskets- they even eat them! 

An Uro lady on her reed island

Daily life on Isla del Sol

These islands are tiny, with only space for 4 or 5 family units, so it’s not possible for visitors to stay overnight. Each island lasts a maximum of 30 years, after which a new one is built alongside it. Belongings are then transferred to the new island, and the old one is left to rot. Stepping on one of the islands was like walking on a sponge. While I was there, I saw people gathering reeds and laying them on top of their island. From our boat, the lush reed swamps looked like a miniature, shiny yellow green forest.

I then visited the island of Amantani, where there are about 4,000 inhabitants. They descend from the Tiwanaku culture, c.200 BC, but they speak Quechua, the Incan language.  The islanders make their own traditional clothes which they wear every day.  On the island’s stone footpaths, I met several women who walked while spinning alpaca wool with wooden spinning tops. When they sat down their hands were not idle either; they usually started knitting.  I stayed two nights; the islanders take it in turn to host paying visitors in their homes.

The view from the temple of Pachatata on Amantani island

I went on a beautiful walk up the hill, to the Temple of Pachatata, (Father Earth), and got there just before sunset. From the top, I could see the Temple of Pachamama, (Mother Earth), on another hill directly opposite. Both temples are ruins, but the energy radiating from them is powerful. The concept behind them is that the Earth has a feminine and a masculine aspect and both of them need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

The last island I visited on the Peruvian side of the lake was Taquile where I saw bulls used to turn the soil and men and women who worked the land wearing their traditional costumes.  Women wore multi-layered skirts and hand embroidered blouses; men had striped woollen hats and everybody wore sandals made out of recycled rubber tyres!

The quality of crafts on Taquile is exquisite; men are the main knitters, while women weave. Boys start at the age of five by knitting their own hats.  To knit the perfect hat is a matter of pride and there is fierce competition amongst the boys.  However alcoholism can be a problem; when I stayed with a family, a crowd of friends and relatives visited one evening and everybody consumed incredible amounts of beer and liqueurs.

Knitting away on the island of Taquile

 Men wearing their own hand knitted hats on the island of Taquile

 Local women on Amantani island

Crossing the border to Bolivia, I reached the little village of Copacabana, (not to be mistaken with the glamorous one in Brazil!), on the eastern side of Lake Titicaca. From there, I took a boat ride to ‘Isla del Sol’ on a glorious sunny day.

The island is the largest on the lake but you can still walk from one end to the other in a few hours, following an ancient footpath. There are many Incan and pre–Incan ruins; the whole island is an ancient Incan holy site.

Jacques Cousteau came here in 1968 with a small submarine, looking for the Incan ‘pot of gold’ some of the legends referred to.  But all he found was ancient pottery.  Archaeological expeditions discovered a mysterious, submerged temple and a huge collection of statues, precious stones, bones, gold and silver pieces.

At the times of the Aymara culture, pilgrims would come here from all over South America, especially during religious festivals.  On the north side of the island, I saw the original sacred door, through which the ancient priests would pass, on their way to the ‘roca sagrada’, the sacred rock, where religious rituals were performed. It is believed that this rock has magnetic powers and a transmission of positive energy can be felt when touching it. Of course I had to touch it.

                      Inca sanctuary in the north of Isla del Sol

          Agricultural terraces on Isla del sol

I also explored the labyrinth-like stone building which faces the lake; this was an Incan sanctuary and it is said that once upon a time it was covered in gold. Many golden human and animal figures have been found here. This sanctuary is meant to be spiritually aligned with other Incan sacred sites, like Cuzco and Macchu Picchu. Holy women lived here; they performed rituals dedicated to the sun and lived like nuns, but wore elegant clothes and exquisite jewellery. Inside this ruined temple, was the fountain of youth, a well of healing waters, fed by a spring which still flows today. It was good to drink from it.

There are no chemist’s on the island and everybody cures themselves with local herbs, avoiding conventional medicine whenever possible. Without motor vehicles, industry or factories of any kind, there is no pollution.  Also, as all the vegetables are grown organically and little processed food is available, the inhabitants have a pretty good diet.  The stress of modern living doesn’t really apply here either, so is it any wonder that there are NO cases of cancer?  People tend to die of old age.

The main foods are potatoes (45 native varieties!), oka (a native tuber), greens, corn, quinoa, tauri, (a cereal), and fresh fish.  In fact, everywhere around the lake, the traditional menu in restaurants is quinoa soup, (delicious!) and fresh lake trout. 

As soon as I left Isla del Sol I started daydreaming about returning.  A farmer had pointed out a little cottage up a hill where an Irishman had lived for two years. I had also met a young mother from Bogota, Colombia who had taken her two children to live on the island. She told me that it seemed like paradise, after the craziness of city life. She had also lived on the much smaller, even quieter Isla de la Luna.

Lake Titicaca and the islands intrigued me and inspired me.  I felt privileged to witness some of the traditional lifestyles and the strong connection to the land of a people who manifest their spirit, creativity and resilience.

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