Copacabana: At 3810 metres above sea level and covering 8500 square metres, Lake Titicaca is the world’s largest high-altitude lake and, after driving through hundreds of kilometres of desert altiplano, the sapphire expanse of water feels rare indeed. It’s not difficult to imagine why impressive Tiwanaku civilization seated their empire here, building a city of 200,000 people, or why the Incas that came after continued associate this lake with mystical events. The water shimmers like silk after the dust and grit and monotone of the mountains – Titicaca (meaning ‘puma of the rock’ rather than ‘boobs and poo’, as Nick would have it) is remnant of the vast inland sea that once reached from the Atlantic Ocean.
To get to the pretty lakeside town of Copacabana (afterwhich the more famous Rio beach was named) we have to cross the lake’s Straits of Tiquina. We climb off our bus and take a small, overcrowded motorboat across and wait on the other side for our bus, which, like all the other vehicles, has to embark a dodgy looking raft of swaying timbers.
The Tiwanaku people built their city – complete with complex road systems, irrigation canals and enormous pyramids – in around 1500 BC (although the Empire was at its height from 700 BC) on what was once the lake shore. It is thought that climate change, which caused the lake to recede such that their city and agriculture was tens of kilometres from the water, led to the demise of this once-great civilization.
The Aymara people, who came after and worshipped an Earth Goddess, Pachamama, also made the lake their base. Their Sun God and Moon Goddess were two islands in the lake, the site of several human human sacrifices. The Aymaras believed their bearded, white god-king had somehow risen from the lake’s depths (currently, half a kilometre deep).
But it was the Incas, whose vast empire lasted for just a century (collapsing in the 1500s with the Spanish invasion), that created much of what we see today. The Incas believed that the Sun Island was the birthplace of their people – that the first Incas, Manco Capac and his sister wife Mama Ocllo had appeared there on the Sun’s orders.
From the Copacabana beachfront, we take a small boat out to the Sun Island. The boat is packed with high-season tourists who selfishly sprawl over the seats, so that two local cholitas have to sit on the floor with their bundles for the 2-hour journey. Everyone is staying on the boat as it travels to the north of the island, except me, Nick and the cholitas who alight at the southern end and consequently have it all to ourselves.
It’s a ridiculously pretty island, striped with Incan ridges for agriculture that cover the entire rocky surface so that it looks like an armadillo. A flight of stone, Incan steps leads steeply up from the beach, lined on both sides by three seemingly miraculous streams of gurgling water from a natural spring. The three streams apparently represent the Incan motto: ‘ama sua, ama llulla, ama kella’ (don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy), and the spring is as essential today for the island’s 2500 residents, who carry its water on llama or donkey back to their homes and businesses.
We spend a lovely, lazy day walking around the island, getting sunburnt despite the chill (it is the Sun island) and visiting the ruins of an Incan palace.
Back in Copacabana, the Festival of Independence is already underway, even though Bolivia’s independence day is not until 6 August. It’s an important time for ‘cha’lla’, a pilgrimage to receive blessings ostensibly from the Catholic Church, but in reality from Pachamama (who has become a fusion with the Virgin Mary for many worshippers). Hundreds of pilgrims from elsewhere in the country and across the nearby Peruvian border have arrived in town.
There’s music all day and night, fireworks until the early hours and market stalls have sprouted selling everything from donkey heads to fish. Fortune tellers have lined up along 6 August Street, with their bowls of ‘molten silver’, decks of cards and other witchy wares including llama foetuses. It’s a pickpocket’s paradise and we’re extra vigilant.
This is also the time of Benedicion de Movilidades, a bizarre ritual that involves car, truck, bus and bike owners coming from as far afield as Cusco for a priest blessing outside the cathedral. The line up of vehicles is miles long and each is decked out in party tinsel, paper decorations and their hopes and dreams in miniature kitsch form – this means that car and truck bonnets have a toy bus stuck on them (if the owner is hoping to go on a long-distance bus journey), a doll’s house (if the owner aspires to a new house), bunches of paper money, etc.
The vehicles get blessed one by one (cheaper than car insurance) and then the owners get riotously drunk and drive away. Tomorrow, we’ll join them on our way into Peru.