Ga-ga for Titicaca. Bolivia

August 21, 2010 at 11:36 pm Leave a comment

Lake Titicaca is the kind of place that you cannot help but enjoy despite sunstroke, stomach bugs, dehydration, borderline starvation and crippling altitude sickness. Nonetheless, we went out of our way to ruin it for ourselves. Plan A was to follow Lonely Planet’s advice to shun ferries leaving directly from the tourist mecca of Copacabana (a tacky town which is the unlikely home to one of my favourite churches ever) and walk 17km to 20km down the road to the next ferry point. We were in training for the Lares Trek so we reckoned that if we wanted to make it to Maccu Picchu we needed to stop eating so much and start hauling ass, and where better to start it than at one of the highest lakes in the world?

Maybe a few laps around Copacabana might have been a better idea. Or perhaps we could have run around our closet of a room for a few hours. It wasn’t all bad though. We did walk through a few quaint little villages where we marvelled at little girls dressed as mirror images of their mothers in ankle length skirts, woollen cardigans and wide-brimmed straw hats skipping home from school or walking their puppies on long lengths of rope. Perfect little ladies. There were a few nice views too, points where the long, dusty, hot road turned into a cliff path and offered vistas of the impossibly huge, impossibly blue Lake Titicaca and its floating islands. And we did get to see the Virgin in a Cave, surrounded as it was by prostrating women and llamas.

For the most part though it was an uphill climb along a main road, me threatening to vomit due to altitude sickness/lack of fitness/a vicious La Paz stomach bug and Gary complaining of crippling hunger as we passed closed restaurant after closed restaurant and later, as our water supplies ran low and we failed to find an open shop, extreme dehydration. So we walked and complained and walked and collapsed and then just for a change of pace we walked some more. Just as it seemed that we couldn’t possibly go any further without fatalities, we arrived in the promised land where we found more closed restaurants and a man with a boat. We paid eight times the going rate for a water taxi to Isla del Sol and finally, we were away.

Now came Plan B. In our ignorance we decided to head to Yumani village in the south of the island – this afterall, was where all the accomodation on our 2007 Lonely Planet map seemed to be clustered. The evil, and now very rich, ferryman told us that it would be easier for us (read ‘for us’ as ‘for him’) to get off the boat further south of the village and walk from there and so, he docked in the middle of nowhere and booted us out at, yipeeee, another ridiculously steep hill. Operating on bruised knees and hands we crawled up the terraces, breaking fingernails and sizzling under the harsh sun until we reached a little man demanding an entrance fee and an Incan ruin. Far too exhausted to be even slightly impressed by one of the ancient sites we had come to see, we persevered, spurred on by thoughts of a cold beer, a soft bed out of the sun and a warm meal. One hour later and, thanks to obscene amounts of overpriced chocolate, we had finally made it to our guesthouse and were devouring a three course meal in Gary’s case, and toying with some weak broth in mine.

The next morning we woke up in what we realised with a start, was an insanely beautiful location. Partially recovered from the day from hell before, we ate breakfast out on the patio listening to herds of donkeys and llamas clip clop their way up and down the hill to the port. How could we not have noticed the night before that we were in heaven, not hell afterall? Spread out before us was a landscape of ancient terraces, dark blue water and easily discernable in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of La Paz hundreds of kilometers away. The sun was shining and our ailments had eased. How could this not be a much better day?

As sweeping statements go, I think ‘life is better on Isla del Sol’ is a pretty acurate one. Following paths along the terraces through fields full of lambs, past brick houses, up cobbled hills, over sandy beaches and bobbing boats, it would be hard not to feel an almost unsettling level of calm. In this tiny time capsule near the top of the world, old women lead their llamas along dusty paths, young girls glide across fields with precious packages wrapped in blankets tied to their backs and everyone stops to say buenos dias to the tourists who have been admitted to their self-contained little world. Here there are no cars to break the contemplative silence and, even at the height of the on-season, very few outsiders following the three rudimentary paths that snake across the island.

According to the Incas, Isla del Sol is the birthplace of the sun and as such, was a significant religious site for the ancient civilisation. Even today the island holds pride of place in Bolivian and Peruvian mythology (Lake Titicaca is on the border of both countries) and no trip to either Andean nation would be complete without a visit to the immaculately preserved ruins and the interesting museum that is housed there. I guess then that our round-the-world trip is doomed to forever have a gaping, Inca ruin sized hole in it. Our second mistake – staying in the south of the island rather than the north – meant that we arrived in the northern port of Cha’lla just in time to catch the only boat sailing to Copacabana that day so we had no time for museums, no time for ruins, no time for viewpoints and no time for lunch. Had we gone the other way around we would have had until 4pm and not 1.30pm to see the sacred sites and marvel at what is apparently one of Bolivia’s highlights. Not being even slightly interested in archaeology Gary was not-so-secretly thrilled at getting away with just a late breakfast, a nice walk and roof-top boat ride. Oh well, karma being what it is bad timing meant that we also missed the floating islands on the Peruvian side of the border that Gary so desperately wanted to see and I so desperately wanted to avoid. Funny that…

Despite our self-destruction, only glimpsing one site, getting absolutely sizzled at that altitude and having one of the most miserable days of my life, Isla del Sol was absolutely breathtaking and worth every hardship. And that’s not even considering the gorgeous sunsets that the endless Lake Titicaca throws up every now and then.

There are more photos from Lake Titicaca available in the gallery

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