After a difficult week in La Paz while Quinn received medical care for his stomach flora, we were finally able to leave the big city on Saturday morning (the 16th) to go to Lake Titicaca. Our four days on Lake Titicaca were to be among our best days on our trip so far. Just getting out of La Paz, with its constant barrage of noise and diesel exhaust, and cold wet weather, was a relief. And Lake Titicaca is a spectacular and generally sunny place.
In landlocked Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is closest you can get to the ‘coast’. The lake is huge, about 8,400 square kilometers, with approximately half of the lake in Peru. At 3,800 metres above sea level, and surrounded by mountains and terraced hills, the lake is clear, cool, and beautiful. The water reminded me of Kootenay Lake. It was even the same temperature!
The small Bolivian town of Copacabana is on the south shore of the lake, and that is where we headed first. At only 4 hours from La Paz by bus, it is apparently a popular weekend destination for Pacenas (folks from La Paz). But the restaurants and shoreline are largely populated by gringos seeking the closest thing to a sandy beach resort in the country (wear your tuque in the morning though).
We were lucky to have been advised to stay at La Cupula, a funky hotel built on the slope above town. (Thanks, Susan!) For the first time on our trip, we ran into other travelling families (no less than three of them!) with kids about the same ages as ours: one family from Chilliwack on a package tour; one family from Houston, Texas who were nearing the end of a two-year stay in the country working as missionaries in Cochabamba; and, surprise, surprise, a family from Nelson, who live not ten blocks from us. We had a great dinner with them at La Cupula, sharing our stories and experiences. Photo below shows part of the grounds of La Cupula where a campesina was grazing her sheep.
We wanted to go to Isla del Sol, which is just a few miles off shore. Isla del Sol is best known as the mythical birthplace of the Incan sun and moon gods. First though, we took a boat to Isla de la Luna, a much smaller island nearby. Isla de la Luna is a small agricultural island that in Incan times was apparently populated entirely by girls and young women, while Isla del Sol was populated entirely by men (more on that later).
Isla de la Luna, like Isla del Sol and much of the surrounding mainland, is almost completely covered in ancient agricultural terraces built in pre-Incan times.
These terraces are a remarkable feat of engineering and hard work. The soils in the area are generally poor and stony, and the slopes are steep. Terracing the hillsides and building up the soils on the terraces is the only way to grow crops. We saw crops of maize, beans, potatoes, quinoa, oca, peas, and oats. There are also llamas, alpacas, donkeys, pigs, sheep, chickens, and a few cows on pasture all over the island.
After a brief stop in Isla de la Luna, the boat then took us to Yumani, a small village at the southern end of Isla del Sol. Our plan was to walk to the north end of the island, a distance of about 8 km. When we went up— and up—and up—the pre-Incan stone steps to the ridgetop, we were wondering if we had it in us to go the distance (at this altitude). But once we were on the ridge, the trail leveled off and it was a great walk.
We arrived at dusk in Challapampa, a village in the north of the Isla. We had arranged our trip to Isla del Sol with Apthapi, a local community tourism co-operative working primarily with families in Challapampa. There are several families in the co-op that rent out basic but comfortable rooms. We stayed with Don Armando and Dona Rosa, a sweet older couple with 9 grown children. They raise guinea pigs for food in a small pen beside their outdoor cooking fire. They also served us dinner at the village co-operative restaurant (not guinea pig, in case you’re wondering!).
We had a whole day to spend on the north tip of the island, where many of the most important Incan and pre-Incan archaeological and spiritual sites are located. As we walked out of the village toward the sites, Juan, a local guide, offered his services. Juan also works with Apthapi, the local tourism co-op. We count ourselves very lucky that Juan showed up and that we had a guide to explain the rich history of the area.
The history of the area is too long and complex to explain here. However, to summarize: there have been three major civilizations that have been based in the area near Isla del Sol. First, there was the Chiripa civilization from about 10,000 years ago until 1,500 BC. Then the Tiwanaku civilization from 1,500 BC until the Incans moved in from the west around 800BC. Finally the Incan civilization ruled until the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. All inhabited Isla del Sol and considered the area as sacred ground.
We collected fragments of ceramics from all three civilizations (there are thousands of small pieces of ceramics scattered all along the cobblestone trails on the island). The ceramics can be distinguished by their thickness, colour, and painted decorations: Chiripa ceramics are the darkest and oldest and weren’t painted; Tiwanaku ceramics are the most painted and often show flecks of gold; and the Incan ones were the thickest (often as thick as your thumb).
The archaeological sites on the island include a stone table on which the Incans ‘sacrificed’ virgins from Isla de la Luna to the sun god. They also sacrificed llamas and other animals, but it’s the mental image of young girls (ages 2 to 16) being sacrificed at this alter that lingers.
The sites also include a rock that was sacred to both the Tiwanaku and Inca. The rock is facing the sacrificial stone table. On the rock is the image of a man’s face.
Off the north tip of Isla del Sol are three small islands.
In the middle of these islands is a submerged Tiwanaku city whose rumoured existence was confirmed in the 1980’s by Jacques Cousteau’s diving team. Lake Titicaca’s water levels have fluctuated significantly over the millennia, and there may be other submerged cities in the lake. When Cousteau’s team examined the site, they found ceramic vessels filled with gold and silver figurines and other precious items.
What struck us most on Isla del Sol, other than the stark beauty of the place, is the depth of history and the magnitude of cumulative human effort displayed in the agricultural terraces. To think that this steep, challenging land has been cultivated for 10,000 years, and continues to be cultivated by hand in a similar way, is awe-inspiring.