Lake Titicaca: That's the Spirit!

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004

Through the window of the Ormeno bus, water somewhere between the color of lapis lazuli and blue hyacinths stretched as far as I could see, with a sweep of mountains in the background. Later, during a walk along the shore, I watched as women in shawls and straw bonnets fished from hand-thatched canoes. That evening, I dug deep into a feast of fresh lake trout and grilled alpaca steak at a waterfront restaurant in the Peruvian city of Puno. My first day in the Lake Titicaca basin was almost complete.

But I had traveled across two continents for more than just scenery and a taste of local cuisine. When the mighty Incas staked a stronghold in this corner of South America in the mid-1400s, they declared it the most sacred place in their empire. The waters had given rise to no less than the creator god Viracocha, by their account. Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the mythical founders of the Incan empire, were also said to have risen from the lake. Did that sacred spirit linger here? I had come to find out

It was not a journey for the weak-spirited. After an overnight flight from Washington to Lima, my companion Eddy and I took an hour-long flight to Arequipa in southern Peru, then a four-hour motorcoach ride to Puno, at the northern end of the lake. A flight into the Bolivian capital of La Paz, 45 miles from the lake, would have made for a less complicated trip. But strikes in Bolivia had closed the airport when we were making plans for our sojourn.

Many visitors devote only a couple of days to the lake, then move on to Machu Picchu or other sights in the Andes. Our five-day stay was just enough time to begin to grasp the history and depth of the place. And the climate in January -- sunny days peaking in the low 70s and crisp nights -- could not have been more pleasant.

Tititica owes its striking allure to geography. Straddling the borders of Peru and Bolivia, at more than two miles above sea level and 120 miles long by 50 miles wide, it is by far the highest large lake in the world. The surrounding Andes add to the grand vistas.

But it's the bold colors, remindful of the strokes Matisse splashed across his canvases, that make this scene one of the wonders of South America. Enhanced by the unremitting Andean sun, the lake's waters were starker than fresh blueberries, the wildflowers along the shore redder than blood. And the reeds shooting up from the water were greener than a field of shamrocks.

Puno, where we stopped the first night, did not live up to these exalted standards. This city of nearly a million people is a hodgepodge of concrete structures sprawling along the lake's edge. Even Jiron Lima, the main shopping street, was little more than an unsightly stretch of storefronts and cafes.

Advised that the town of Copacabana in Bolivia offered a more appropriate entree to the grandeur of Titicaca, we hopped a minibus for the two-hour trip there.

What a difference. With a population of 4,300, Copacabana is a neat enclave of low-rise buildings with red-tile roofs spreading from the edge of the water and up the side of a mountain. Along the lakefront boardwalk, strollers and vendors selling snacks and crafts make for a festive mood. At Snack 6 de Agosto, a popular local restaurant, we savored a lunch of grilled lake trout, roasted potatoes and fresh-squeezed orange juice -- standard fare in these parts.

Later, we visited the town's biggest attraction, the Copacabana cathedral. Built by Spanish missionaries in the post-Inca era of the late 1500s and early 1600s, it is an impressive Moorish-influenced structure with whitewashed stone walls and domes decorated with deep blue tiles. Inside, worshipers were gathering for midday Mass.

Around the corner is a chapel dedicated to the Virgen de la Copacabana, a major pilgrimage destination for Bolivian Catholics. Her portrait is visible through a vaulted door, encased in glass. She's dressed in a flowing robe, and her slight brown face seemed to stare directly at me.

Back in the sun, as I sat under towering palms in the Plaza 2 de Febrero, my desire to explore the spiritual depths of this region was stronger than ever. And so early the next morning, we climbed aboard the Titicaca, a rickety boat crowded with tourists, bound for Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). At 13 by 5 miles, and with several thousand inhabitants, it is the largest and most populous island in the lake. A religious shrine for local tribes as long ago as 500 A.D., it was transformed by the Incas into a major pilgrimage destination in the 15th century.

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