Sun, Sand and High Altitude Sea? Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol

Lake Titicaca defies all reasonable logic. It’s expansive deep blue waters go on for as far as the eye can see, with small waves crashing upon white sandy shores. You could be forgiven for thinking you are on a tranquil beach somewhere. The only problem is that the ‘playas’ of Lake Titicaca are at 3,800 metres above sea level and the blue skies beyond give way to a backdrop of massive snowy mountain peaks.

 

For an Australian, the confusion doesn’t stop there as tall eucalyptus trees grace the surrounding shoreline. Then you take a look around and see donkeys and alpaca grazing on the stepped terraces and that’s where the confusion ends.

 

Our first sighting of Lake Titicaca was on the way from La Paz to Copacabana. We had taken a local bus from La Paz’s Cementario one afternoon. After taking a siesta on the bus I was woken up by the descent onto what looked like several planks of wood held together and what the Bolivians officially call a ferry. The bus, which must weigh at least one tonne had slid onto the timber raft and was slowly making its way across the lake, swaying with the waves as it did so.   I sat white-knuckled for the whole 10-minute ride across as I pondered the clear blue water that was just outside my window seat on the bus.   One hour later we were in Copacabana, Bolivia’s lakeside treasure and tourism rival to Peru’s Puno on the other side of the lake. Copacabana is somewhat touristic but a good place to relax and take in the lake’s dramatic vistas. The small mountain that staggers over the town, Cerro Calvario is in prime position for magnificent sunsets. One evening we walked up there with our picada and sat and watched the sun go down in a spectacular rainbow of red, orange, purple and blue.   The place we stayed at was called Eco Hostel 6 de Agosto, on the street of the same name. When I asked the duena what exactly makes this place eco, she replied with a very firm, “la naturaleza”. There are a few critiques of the fact that in Bolivia, many hotels, hostels and tour companies call themselves ‘eco’ and do not have ecologically friendly practices (eco is often also used to mean ‘economical’).   This is where cultural awareness needs to be taken into consideration, as the Bolivian’s idea of ‘ecological’ is not like our own modern, Western conception of environment and sustainability. The Aymara have retained power in the region since the decline of the Incas. Their most important deities include the sun, the moon and Pachamama. It comes from their beliefs and their respect for Pachamama (mother earth) and living in harmony with their environment.   Despite appearances though Bolivia is one of the most advance countries we have visited so far in terms of their environmental awareness and understanding of the impacts of climate change. In fact, in various cities we have visited there have been so-called ‘climate change fairs’, with the aim of educating the local community on the environment, pollution, water usage and the potential impacts climate change will have on Bolivia’s natural environments.   One of these fairs was held in Copacabana during our stay there. The ‘Feria Multidisciplinaria Cambio Climatico’ involved a hundred or so school children that had prepared information, posters, songs, plays and games on all aspects of the environment and climate change.   Every restaurant in town sells the local speciality, trucha – delicious fresh rainbow trout fished from the lake’s high altitude waters. Almost every restaurant has the same menu of three courses for 20-25 Bolivianos (3 to 4 AUD) consisting of quinoa soup, a choice of trout or milanesa, and a desert of sliced banana with chocolate topping. It’s all much for muchness, but the trout is a must try!   Despite the delicious trout and stunning sunsets, most people come to Copacabana as a landing point to get to Lake Titicaca’s Isla del Sol. After a couple of days relaxing here, that is exactly what we did. Slow, choking boats leave at 8.30am and take a painstaking two hours to get there, despite the fact that the island is only hop away.     The Isla del Sol, according to the Inca cosmology believes that is the birthplace of the sun god, Inti. It’s easy to see where the legend comes from as the sun shines stronger and hotter here than in any of the surrounding areas.   Lake Titicaca is an vital ecosystem and one of South America’s most important acheological sites. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake was recently named as one of the new world 7 wonders. It is also the world’s largest high altitude lake at 3,800-4,000 metres above sea level.   The lake is named after Tit Kar’ka, a rock on the island that was used by the Incas as a site of human sacrifice, literally translated as ‘rock of the puma, or titi’.   Once we arrived at the island’s north end in a village called Cha’llapampa we were approached by a cholita for accommodation in her Hostal Pachamama not far from the north shore. We were surprised when we checked in to find that the hostel was absolute beachfront, with the room overlooking the sandy shore, with all its glorious views.   The accommodation on the island is basic. Even if a hotel or hostel states there is hot water, chances are there isn’t, as ironically water shortages are common here. The island lacks the basic infrastructure to source clean, safe and potable water from the Lake on which it bears. Water is a scarce commodity. Organic and industrial pollution, changing land use and habitat destruction threaten the health of these waters.   The most common way to see the island is to walk from north to south, which takes 3-4 hours. However, most people do this in a day. Considering the beauty of this place we decided that we needed at least two days minimum.   Not only that but staying on the island for a night or two helps the local communities boosting economic development, making tourism management more viable. These communities are some of the poorest in South America, and according to the World Bank poverty in the region has not improved since 1976.   So on the second day we did just that with another couple from the hostel. We took our time exploring the Inca ruins in the north and taking in the spectacular scenary that was before us.   There are over 80 Inca ruins on the island that date back to the 15th century AD. In recent years even more ruins were discovered off the coast of the island during an underwater archaeological expedition. The artefacts that were uncovered are now on display in a tiny museum on the north side of the island. Along with human remains.   The walk from north to south was about four hours, stopping plenty of times to contemplate the views before us. When we arrived in Yumani (the main village in the south), we found the perfect hostel called Puerta del Sol, overlooking the lake and it’s beaches far down below. Rooms were only 25 Bolivianos with vistas to die for. That is where we stayed for the rest of the evening, watching the sun go down over those expansive waters.   Then it was back to Copacabana the next day and onto our next destination…   Cusco, land of the Incas!!

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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