- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

COPACABANA, Bolivia — The driver rammed the throttle with all his might, but the boat would hardly budge. As he wrestled the engine’s controls — nothing more than a wrench welded to a piece of rebar — we slowly propelled back into the choppy waters. Countless islands and baby-blue waters lay ahead of us, but the ice-cold breezes and snowcapped mountains were stark reminders that I was far from the ocean.

We were lost somewhere in the choppy waters of the highest navigable lake in the world. Perched well over two miles above sea level, Lake Titicaca is an odd place for a boat adventure. Nestled in the Andes on the border of Peru and Bolivia, this 3,000-square-mile lake is home to more than 30 islands, one of which is believed to be the birthplace of the Incas. It was formed during the ice age.

From the northeastern shore of the lake, the Cordillera Real stretched back into Bolivia with peaks taller than 21,000 feet — some of the highest mountains in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s all surrounded by the loneliness of the altiplano, a barren, windswept land of red rock and lifelessness where one can drive for days without seeing another person. Titicaca is a world of contrast and contradiction where Caribbean-blue waters lie encased in miles of scorched red earth that runs straight up to the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It’s easy to see why the Incas called this place the “womb of mankind.”

I could hear boys pacing back and forth outside my door before the sun came up. Emerging from my room in the frigid breezes of the Bolivian morning, I discovered half a dozen children in alpaca sweaters eager to lead me to the docks for a small tip. We shuffled through the dusty streets of Copacabana to the shore, where a few rotting piers stretched out into the baby-blue waters. An old man in a colorful bowler cap gave me a stern look and nodded for me to get in the boat.

Within minutes, armies of campesinos emerged from the shanties and made their way to the dock. As they piled into the small craft, it began to bang violently against the crumbling dock, with waves crashing upon the hull. Every 15 seconds or so, we rammed the pier, and bodies went flying as a loud noise ripped through the boat.

A few concerned men stood near the edge with their hands in their pockets and casually watched the boat’s crack grow larger. As water started to seep in through the cracked hull, a couple pigs ran across the floor and started to drink.

Copacabana slowly disappeared in the haze of fumes that was coming from our boat. All that could be heard was the hum of the engine, occasionally interrupted by the squeal of a pig. We bounced off into the rough waters of Titicaca toward Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun.

Inca legend has it that Inti, the sun god, created Manco Capac — also the name of the last Incan emperor — and his sister, Mama Occlo, and placed them both on Isla del Sol. Giving them a golden staff, he commanded them to found an empire on the spot where the staff would vanish into the earth. Their journey eventually would lead them to Cusco, Peru, where the staff disappeared and — according to Inca legend — the area became known as the “navel of the world.”

Pulling up to the shores of Isla del Sol, it mattered little that it was the birthplace of the Incas. Families washed clothes in the blue waters of the lake while a couple of mules kicked dust clouds into the air.

Locals disembarked and raced up the mountainside as I headed off to explore the island’s stone sights and rocky paths. Around every bend and past every hill, I found old women with llamas in tow. These docile creatures are the ultimate Andean beast of burden — they make great traveling companions, they are easy to take care of, they can bear heavy loads and, as I would later find in Copacabana, they also are quite tasty.

With a full belly of llama, I boarded a rickety bus to go through the Peruvian border and on to the port city of Puno. In comparison to the surrounding villages, it is a metropolis, the “urban” capital of Titicaca. Its bustling streets are filled with taxis, discos, restaurants, Internet cafes and shops selling everything from laptops and cellular phones to llama fetuses (for witchcraft rituals) and bundles of coca leaves.

While it retains an interesting Third World ambience of dusty streets, wandering livestock, skyrocketing crime rates and nervous soldiers and police, it’s one of Titicaca’s main hubs.

When the weekends roll around, Puno is the hub of Titicaca’s bare-bones night life. People come in from the islands and small villages to suck down beers, soak up the atmosphere and dance the night away. The central pedestrian-only Lima Avenue is lit by dim rows of Old World street lights that shine down upon the bustling bodies. Families, romantic couples, travelers, giggling high school girls and teenage punks all wander the streets in search of a good time.

I only made it a couple of blocks down Lima Avenue when I was grabbed forcefully by a waiter and pulled into a private anniversary party, where I became the gringo of honor. As the band played, my bizarre and comedic dancing moves attracted the attention of everyone in the room — women began to fight over who was going to dance with me while husbands bought me shots of aguardiente, a fiery liquor made from the juice of sugar cane, and asked me about my travels through Bolivia.

I found Peruvians to have a very intense sense of hospitality, as I was barely allowed to leave the premises. Every attempt to escape to my hotel to sleep off the hangover was interrupted by a barrage of men who insisted I have another drink.

I was released from the hospitable care of my joyous captors the next morning and sent off back into the lake’s rough waters in search of a place some of the locals called the “water beds.” Constructed entirely of strands of reeds, the floating islands support entire communities.

Tribuna, the largest island in the area, is more than 13,000 square feet and has a population of about 150 residents and even its own soccer field.

There are about 70 islands in all, each carefully made and maintained from the tortora reeds that thrive along the coast of the lake.

The bed of reeds lasts only about three months before the reeds start to rot away. As a result, the islands are in a constant state of repair and refurbishing, with new holes appearing and being fixed every week. When I wandered too close to the edge of an island, my foot penetrated the soft ground and plunged into the frigid waters of Titicaca.

To me, it was a laughing mater, but not to the Uros, who apologized profusely; every once in a while, a resident will fall through a hole and be devoured by the reeds. Some mainlanders treat the Uros with suspicion — according to local legend, they have black blood in their veins, which allows them to survive freezing nights on the lake.

The island moved and shifted with the waves and currents of the lake, and I could feel the pushing and pulling with every footstep on the reed base. It was nothing more than a giant raft, but it held an entire community — there were chicken coops (some animals have their own islands), pigs, children running and playing, men building fires and groups of fishermen coming and going in reed rafts made into the shapes of animals.

In the world of the Uros, reed is used for just about everything — when it is still fresh, the soft hearts are eaten, and when it is all but useless, it is burned as fuel.

We left behind the reed islands in the wake of our boat, which literally rocked the whole community. I looked back on shore to find a man bracing himself for the impact of the waves. The endless journey to Isla Taquile left plenty of time for me to contemplate such a unique existence.

Known as the “island of weavers” for its inhabitants’ textile work, Taquile is a world lost in time, far from the bustle of Puno. After a strenuous hike up more than 500 stone stairs to the top of the mountainous island, I found a quiet plaza where curious locals came out to greet me. Men wore black pants, white shirts and colorful waistbands, while the women strolled the dusty paths in black skirts and shawls. The colors of hats and other garments indicated a person’s age, marital status and social rank.

Because of their isolation and autonomy, the people of Taquile have been running their own form of tourism since the 1970s to ensure that the culture is preserved. There are no ritzy hotels, cars or even electricity, but locals open their homes to visitors who want to learn more about life on the lake.

That night, my host family cooked me a wheat pancake, showed me a few knitting tricks and put me to bed on a mat of reeds in a candlelit room. The average cost for a room on Taquile is $1, but the experience is priceless. Titicaca is more than a destination — it’s an experience.

Travelers find low rates in a high altitude

La Paz, Bolivia, is one of the highest cities in the world, so its thin air often causes mild cases of altitude sickness. A

day of rest, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco and a hot cup of coca tea usually has most travelers acclimated within a day or two.

From La Paz, a number of bus companies make the four-hour trip to Copacabana for less than $5.

Two tour operators that offer cruises and hydrofoil routes among Puno, Peru; Copacabana, Bolivia; and Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca are:

• Crillon Tours, phone 0102-2337-533 (305/358-5353 from the United States); www.titicaca.com.

• Transturin, phone 0102-862-2284; www.turismobolivia.com.

Public boats are cheap and go just about everywhere, but English is rarely spoken. Sometimes even Spanish isn’t understood — a number of indigenous languages are used on some of the islands.

Accommodations around Lake Titicaca are among the cheapest in South America. Small, yet clean rooms with shared bath can be found in Copacabana for less than the price of a couple of beers, and even the ritziest accommodations in the area can be had at bargain prices.

Hotel Cupula, Calle Michel Perez 1-3, Copacabana, Bolivia, 00591-2-862-2029, www.hotelcupula.com, has 17 clean and comfortable rooms with a beautiful patio area and a view of the lake. There is also a restaurant on premises. Suites start at $20.

In Puno, the Best Western-run Hotel Colon Inn, Calle Tacna 290; 0051-51-351432; www.titicaca-peru.com, offers three-star accommodations with a bar and restaurant on premises. It is centrally located near the Plaza de Armas, and there also is a knowledgeable and helpful concierge.

Sonesta Posada del Inca, Sesquicentenario 610, Sector Huaje, Puno; 5151-364111; www.sonesta.com/peru_puno, offers 62 rooms with spectacular views of Titicaca and the surrounding mountains. All rooms are equipped with modern amenities, and there is a restaurant. Rooms start at $70 per night.

Bolivia and Peru aren’t known for their cuisine. As a matter of fact, food can occasionally be downright horrible. Nevertheless, larger cities in both countries have a number of fine restaurants serving Chinese, Italian and Mexican cuisine. Some local delicacies include llama (tastes like chicken), coi (guinea pig) and lechon al horno (pork marinated with white whine, lemon and red pepper). Trout from the lake is the most popular specialty in the area.

In Copacabana, La Orilla, Av. 6 de Agosto, one block from the beach, has great views of Titicaca and specializes in lake trout. Occasionally it has live music on the weekends.

The Sumaj Untavi Restaurant at the Inca Utama Hotel & Spa, Huatajata Island, Bolivia 2; 2-233-7533, in Huatajata is a great place to catch a folkloric pena with dinner.

For information on paleoclimatology research on Lake Titicaca, visit www.nsf.gov/sbe/nuggets/022/nugget.htm.

There have been occasional disturbances and blockades near the border of Bolivia and Peru. Protests are for the most part nonviolent but can delay or prevent border crossings.

Street crime is becoming a serious concern in Puno, but travelers who exercise caution shouldn’t have any problems.

Check the U.S. Department of State at www.state.gov for more information and updates.

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