Arch above Lake Titicaca (Dreamstime)
Article Words : Chris Moss | 28 August

A spiritual trip to wild Bolivia and Peru

From fashionable La Paz to the ruin-scattered islands of Lake Titicaca... Explore the spiritual home of the Aymara on a trip across Bolivia and Peru’s wild altiplano

Back in the beginning, the world was populated by stone giants. But they were too unruly, so Viracocha, the creator god, made humans. Sadly, they proved little better, and so the god – who had himself risen from the waters of Lake Titicaca – sent a flood to start afresh.

Standing at a lookout, on my way into La Paz, my gaze was inevitably drawn to a stone giant – Mount Illimani – as it loomed over the sprawl. It brought to mind another local legend, one that tells of a lake that once filled the great bowl of the Bolivian capital until the stars fell into it. The water evaporated and a city was born. As one lake fills, another empties…

All journeys across the mythic altiplano (Andean high plains) should begin at La Paz. At a lung-busting 4,061 metres above sea-level, nearby El Alto airport is the natural gateway to the region. More importantly, this is where the Aymara (the native people of the high plains) live, and where their culture and that of the Spanish settlers have mingled, and clashed, for five centuries.

La Paz (Chris Moss)
La Paz (Chris Moss)

If La Paz isn’t quite beautiful, it at least tries to be. Big blue skies, towering fairweather clouds, Illimani’s still splendour and the broad sweep of redbrick houses clinging to cliff and canyon cannot fail to impress. Down in the bowl there is a tangible commercial energy and – since Evo Morales took the presidency in 2006 on a ticket that demanded more rights for Bolivia’s indigenous groups – a new confidence, too. Downtown is is the province of the cholitas, the bowler-hatted Aymara women who sell clothes, drinks, peanuts, phone calls and, in the mornings, sweet pasty-like salteñas filled with meat, egg and olives. They chatter and smile and barter and jog about, gaudy rucksacks slung over their shoulders, their small hats cheekily cocked.

It doesn’t stop there. On Calle Sagárnaga, Andean-inspired boutiques stand out amid the touristy tat. In La Paz’s trendy Zona Sur, I sipped organic coffee from the Yungas, drank wines from Tarija, and dined on ‘New Bolivian’ cuisine at a community restaurant established by Claus Meyer, the Danish gastronomic guru behind Copenhagen’s two-Michelin-starred Noma restaurant. By a happy (if disruptive) coincidence, my visit coincided with the festival of El Gran Poder. Though ostensibly a popular celebration of the ‘great power’ of Jesus, it has evolved into an annual blowout in which the Aymara dance, sing, drink and generally take over La Paz, turning the event into one more to their liking.

In the year of our lord 2016, it has become an 18-hour parade in which 69 local ‘teams’, known as fraternidades, supported by noisy brass bands, dance down the main streets. It was a happy, neighbourly, exhilarating spectacle, with more devilish masks and joke costumes than saints and virgins, and everyone was invited to join in. Still breathless and dizzy with the altitude, I managed to dance a couple of times before turning in. La Paz (The Peace) has never lived up to its name and should really be renamed El Ruido (The Racket) for this mad weekend.

Out on the water

Drowsy with lack of sleep, I passed El Alto’s airport again the following morning. A protest by, among others, transport workers had been scheduled to close the roads, so I had to jump in a small bus at 5.30am to make the three-hour trip to Lake Titicaca.

El Alto’s population grew exponentially in the 1950s and ’60s as the marginalised Aymara gave up on agriculture in the face of drought, frost, flood and unpredictable heatwaves. It now lingers around the million mark, providing La Paz with its workforce.

Where the city ended, the altiplano began. Golden grasslands shimmered in the dawn, with cattle, llama, sheep, donkeys and pigs breakfasting around patches of frost. Tall peaks slowly appeared: first their snowy tops – jagged points, anvils, tabletops – and then the broad base of the Cordilla Real (Royal Range). From the shadows emerged cholitas, shepherds and ploughmen pushing oxen, as well as others arranging little pyramids of chaff and waste grass to keep their recently harvested crops from freezing. Beyond lay the shimmering embrace of Titicaca.

One of the most beautiful things about the lake is the absence of development along its shoreline. In many countries, such a beautiful body of water would probably be sold off to second-home owners and hotel builders. Titicaca remains the Aymara’s inland sea and its edges are still occupied by farmsteads and well-worked fields.

I stopped at a place called Huatajata for breakfast by the lakeside. Before sitting down to scrambled eggs and mint tea, I set off to admire the lake. Birds flitted around the stunted trees and a man poled a tortora reed boat past the jetty on which I stood. A small museum-park close by had a display of these crafts; these were the same kind of reeds used by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon-Tiki fame) to build the vessel Ra II for his 1970 voyage across the Atlantic. The boatbuilders were the Limachi brothers of Lake Titicaca and one of their sons still runs the museum.

Isla del Sol, Bolivia (Chris Moss)
Isla del Sol, Bolivia (Chris Moss)

I crossed the lake in a modern motorboat. The other half-dozen travellers piled into a narrow cabin but I sat outside, enjoying the cool wind, the warming sun and the all-embracing blueness of lake and sky. Titicaca is big, but you can always see its banks – tall, bare cliffs and grassy hillsides; mountains and sandy pinnacles – while waiting for the next island to appear. There was plenty to look at as we zipped along, the Bolivian flag flapping wildly all the way.

At the Copa…

Copacabana, my next stop, is the largest Bolivian town on the lake and has been a backpacker hub for decades. It serves as a way to see Titicaca without spending carefully budgeted cash to actually cross it. As a result it’s a bottleneck of gringo cafés, souvenir tat and hostels offering fast, free WiFi. On the upside, it has a beautiful white-walled church visited by motorists from across Bolivia, who come here to have their cars blessed. Old and new motors come and go all day, festooned in flowers and ribbons like wedding limos. It was cool in the church, which has a miracle-working Virgin statue crafted in 1576 that is widely venerated as the ‘Dark Virgin of the Lake’.

Back outside, the sun was shimmering. I got a drink and a salteña at the market and idled back down to the dock. Fifteen minutes later, my boat was pulling into Isla del Sol (Sun Island), said by the Aymara to have been formed when Viracocha summoned the sun into being. The island is long and dotted with ruins. Old staircases and the remnants of an Inca-era training centre for priests share the slopes with pre-Inca terraces and Aymara sites. But a community also lives here, and some 800 families work its terraced slopes.

Archaeologists love the place, as do scores of New Agers, who come here to find energy vortices. The joy for me, however, was walking the ribbons of narrow paths. I watched the sun set over the lake, the cloud-smeared sky turning slowly from grey to blue to peach to almost silver. The following morning, I rose at dawn to see the sun come up again, with just the hummingbirds and doves for company. After lunch overlooking the bays, I took a boat to Isla de la Luna (Moon Island). Its recent history holds bad memories for some, as it was used as a concentration camp during the 1970s dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer Suárez. Today, it is simply a quiet, off-the-beaten-track spot, with only a handful of families still living there. Few visitors arrive, but those that do make for the ruins of an Inca site that once housed nun-like women known as the ‘Virgins of the Sun’. I expected little but found the old adobe walls and small, shady rooms of the ‘convent’ deeply tranquil and quite moving.

Knitting together

Crossing from Bolivia over to Peru, on the lake’s western bank, took five minutes. It involved no fuss, no fees, no queues. This was only right, of course, as the border is a political one; the Aymara nation doesn’t recognise the straight lines that cut across its lake and hinterlands.

The drive on to Puno began close to the water, and in the shallows I could see pink Chilean flamingos that had recently arrived from the high Andes. We then veered inland, cutting through stark, arid steppelike plains on the left and pastures and croplands on the right. Puno, a large, car-clogged city, was fine for a pizza and a cold beer but seemed to have turned its back on the loveliest lake in South America.

Thank Viracocha, then, for Taquile, perhaps the loveliest of the islands I visited. At the tiny port on its western flank, I was greeted by one of the island’s elders, an old man dressed in traditional garb. I tried out my Aymara – “Kamisaraki!” (“How are you?”) – and got a wry smile and an earful of crisp consonants and chewed vowels.

It was a short but steep climb to the heart of the settlement. I was still breathless, so broke up the journey by stopping to study a couple of old dwellings en route, adobe (mud mixed with straw) structures with tiny doors – designed to keep the heat in during the colder months – and no windows. At the top, the plaza was busy with visitors and locals.

The virgin 'convent' of Isla de la Luna (Chris Moss)
The virgin 'convent' of Isla de la Luna (Chris Moss)

Among the Aymara, hats and hairstyles vary according to whether someone is single, looking for love, engaged, or married. But the men on Taquile lure women not with their looks but with their knitting, and can be seen walking around click-clacking with their needles as they go. The women carry bobbins, spinning while chatting to friends.

At Taquile’s centre lay a rather ostentatious town hall, built after one of its grandees travelled to the mainland and saw that other towns had grand municipal buildings. The large glass façade of his folly looked out of place amid the brownish mud walls and warm pastels of the older structures.

I’d read in a guidebook that the island was poor, but that wasn’t obvious at all. Tourism brought in hard cash, and, anyway, every spare patch of earth was planted with healthy-looking crops: fava beans, quinoa, maize, wheat, native herbs and many varieties of that most sacred of altiplano foodstuffs – the humble spud.

I walked the 500 or so steps from the top of the island down to the mooring on the eastern side. I took it slowly, so as to soak up lake views and green slopes. Titicaca changes colour all the time, and now it looked like the sea off Mallorca’s Cap de Formentor – blue and inviting, flickering with sunlight.

A shore thing

I spent my last few days at Titilaka, Peru, one of the lake’s few upscale resorts. My room looked out on a huge cloudless sky as the pellucid lake below lapped the shore. I spent hours staring at it, sometimes going outside to sit in the sun or shade – so much cooler, it was almost startling – and watching boats criss-cross en route to the islands. I took walks along the shore, meeting dogs and livestock and saying hello to anyone passing by. Rural Peru and Bolivia are convivial; almost everyone has the time to greet a stranger, and usually with a warm smile.

Local boatbuilder, Mr. Limachi (Chris Moss)
Local boatbuilder, Mr. Limachi (Chris Moss)

I hired a kayak and paddled around the tiny islets and reed beds beside the hotel, studying noisy coots and flightless grebes. Andean gulls squawked if I went too close to their guano-capped rocks. I liked to put the oars down and let the current slowly move me. Time drifted, nothing happened. The light, and the lake, if they changed, did so by invisible degrees.

For the Aymara, La Paz and El Alto are commercial hubs. But Titicaca is their natural and spiritual home. The cities and the lake represent the twin forces that inspire and drive these tough, dignified people. But for all that it brims with myths and legends, Titicaca remains inscrutable to mere visitors. It’s as wide as a sea and as deep as a canyon; as enticingly blue as the Mediterranean but as cold as a Scottish loch. You can’t swim in it, you can’t really sail across it (unless your Thor Heyerdahl), and you can’t ever quite know it. Yet it’s one of the most peaceful places on Earth, providing solace, hope and stability.

While everything else on the altiplano is constantly shifting – politics, society, economy, travellers, locals, buses, even time itself – the lake just sits there, gentle and vast. And all the while the stone giants still look on, jealous of its timeless beauty.

The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881) who can book tailormade trips to Bolivia and Peru, and other parts of Latin America.

Main Image: Arch above Lake Titicaca (Dreamstime