It’s one of these rare places on Earth as recognised as it is obscure. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of Lake Titicaca; a surprising number will reply, yes. Ask them where to locate it on a globe, and a fair few will struggle to point to that magical spot between Peru and Bolivia. I have no idea why, but since childhood I’ve been able to press my finger square on it. In hindsight, it was my way of saying,
‘don’t you go disappearing because one of these days I’m coming for you.’
Facts That Stick to Boyhood Dreams
The best factual odds and ends stay youthful as we reach adulthood. Random things conceal their true purpose until decades later. For as long as I can remember I’ve known Titicaca to be the highest navigable lake on Earth. It was family Christmases playing the board game Trivial Pursuit that taught me that. And this cool factoid remained lodged in my mind, planting a seed of fascination with this freshwater sea in the sky that would carry through to this day. And talking of trivia, Titicaca’s stocked with it in the way Lake Victoria used to be stocked with tilapia fish.
Unlike tilapia, you can’t eat facts, but you can regurgitate them. Titicaca is an epic of empirical fact worthy of bringing up time and again.
Since those days of board games played in the Scottish seasonal spirit, I’ve harboured a secret longing to see, with my own eyes, this vast inland body of water. Now a mere 8,370km2, during the Pleistocene – ending 12,000 years ago – Titicaca was reckoned to be subsumed under something much bigger. Back then the entire altiplano was a liquid landscape the size of Great Britain, stretching as far south as today’s Northern Argentina. But being, as we presently are, in the Holocene Epoch, all that’s left these days is a puddle of stupendous proportions, about the size of Puerto Rico. And that’s just the area. We haven’t dove down yet.
Deep, Wide, and Barely Comprehensible
Titicaca is as deep as it is wide. At its deepest, on the Bolivian side, the lake bottoms out at nearly 300 metres (nearly a thousand feet). That’s not far off average bathymetry around the British Isles. Never mind its surface elevation is a staggering 3,847 metres (12,507ft) sobre nivel del mar, as the local Spanish speakers say, which is by no means everyone in an ancient polyphonic region that plays host to the Aymara language (on the Bolivian side) and Quechua (you got it! on the Peruvian side). So, aside from the dizzying altitude, you’ve also got communication to contend with. If you’re struggling with your Castellano when you get there, you’ll leave head-spinning once you’ve been exposed to these other two autochthonous languages.
These are but minor inconveniences when finally, after forty years of not trying hard enough, one finds oneself there on a beach on an isle ringed with clouds in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Standing on a subtropical sandy beach at 12,507ft? Or glimpsing mountaintops so distant I’m not even going to guess how? Or sleeping on a double bed in a lodge atop a huge, anchored raft of totora reeds 3 metres (15ft) thick that’s continuously waterlogged and needs building up every fortnight to avoid sinking? Or watching a storm front gather over starboard waters when on the port side hills are bathed in pure sunlight? No, the lake doesn’t add up. And that’s precisely why it does. And that’s why I want my ashes scattered there, but not any time soon, I pray.
Heroic Landscape – Or is it?
I entered from Puno, a day’s bus ride from Cusco, passing through Montana-esque high plains landscape. Toward journey’s end the lake’s a shimmering tease. You see it, then you don’t. You round bends on the bus, stealing glimpses over dozing, double-masked passengers, all the while knowing the sky above is stretched thin. The cloudscape populating this sky is itself a mountain range of vapour pressing down on the Andean high plateau beneath. Titicaca is there. Or is it? The billiard table land rushing by you glimmers grey-silvery, but that could be just the sky above mirroring the earth below. You’re on the altiplano now and gone is the intimacy of Cusco’s mountain-drenched surrounds. Distance now morphs into something else. It’s vast and continental.
The high plains perform a trick of the light few other topographies do – how the jagged crown encircling the far horizon could be mountains or clouds, or both. Driving across the continental U.S. years back, the landscape was an illusion of features real and imagined. I loved that magical feeling, the ego death. Never has a person felt so good for standing so small amidst all the grandeur of something so large.
Storms Gathering on Two Fronts
With an air of the unfinished, the city of Puno is no fairy tale on the lakeside. But to give it credit, it commands one heck of a view. Where it lies the lake takes a bite out of the shore, giving it that safe-harbour-in-a-storm aspect. The five days I spent there were stormy, both literally and figuratively. And to be fair, Puno, for all its shortcomings, was that safe haven: not once but twice. The lake itself is the embodiment of inner peace, weighed down by nothing but pure light. But not outwardly. Not always. Even heaven comes wrapped in a black shawl. But back to my tale of two storms.
Figurative one first.
Walking down to Puno’s port from my hotel off the Plaza de Armas, the crowds were milling. The annual festival had been cancelled due to – you guessed right – Covid. Yet. That didn’t stop masked gatherings. It was a Sunday and a bright one at that. Kids rode their pedalos with glee in the shallows while their parents fawned over them, snap-happy mobile cameras in hand. A gloved woman held aloft a great raptor, leaving the day-trippers to swoon around the blindfolded bird. Where the falconer is also the hawker, the kids posed with the raptor while their parents parted with their hard-earned cash.
The Legend of Uros
Down by the jetties, many pleasure boats. I boarded and before long we were making waves. This section of the lake is littoral: shallow, reedy, and cut through with navigation channels. Before long it opens out into a vastness the likes of which I had never seen, least of all at 3,850 metres up. On the far horizon was our objective: the floating island community of the Uros people. With an island of braided honey-yellow reeds improbably floating on 20 metres (60ft) of dark water, a sky of azure and the rest of heavenly emptiness, this was going to be a photo opportunity way too good to resist. Evidently, it would seem others on the boat were finding something similarly hard to resist.
The boat moored and we disembarked on this bouncy mat of totora – an aquatic grass that is the lifeblood of these lake people. Even the creation—origin-myth stories of the Inca and the legend of Tiwanaku on the Bolivian shore feature strongly this boat, house, and island-building material. Hell, its reputation extends so far and wide that 2,000kms away on the Pacific coast near Trujillo you can still witness totora canoes cresting on the breakers. At least, I did.
Reed the Warning Signs
So, there was me snapping happily away with my expensive Nikon when two fine young fellows from the boat ride over started displaying a lot of interest in it. I know enough Spanish to realise that they were from neighbouring countries to the north. I wasn’t unduly concerned until two women from the boat approached me, looking serious, speaking Peruvian Spanish.
‘These men are going to rob you unless you get off this island.’
I looked at the women, I looked around. How immediate was the threat? How was I going to get off the island of reeds? They explained that Puno and Titicaca were hotspots for camera thieves, never mind local, from all South America. They swore that it was so rife as to be a quasi-industry, organised at the port and in the town’s seamier quarters. They went on to say that these usual suspects would dare not rob me here, in plain view, on a huge reed mat anchored in 20 metres of water. Rather, it would happen back at the port where their cohorts would be waiting in ambush.
‘Get off the island now,’ they repeated. ‘Don’t return to port on the same boat.’
No News Like Bad News
Spooked, I put the camera back in the bag and wandered to a stall where a local artisan was displaying his colourful handicrafts. We talked. He too had noticed these shifty sorts eye-balling me and my camera. To my surprise, he reiterated what the women had warned me. He said that well-meaning gringos descend on the lake from far afield with their $2,000 cameras, blissfully unaware that for South Americans with nothing to lose the sell-on value of a stolen camera is worth more than a half a year’s wage. The temptation is too great to refuse. I asked if they get violent.
His reply was oblique yet sinister enough.
‘Often it doesn’t need to come to that.’
‘Why is that?’ I asked.
‘Because your camera will be gone before you even know it.’
By now I was genuinely spooked. I watched them watching me, the two of them. We were on an island prison and our pilot was in no hurry to return to port. Short of swimming like some desperado fleeing Alcatraz I analysed ways of holding onto my camera by making a graceful exit. Another cruiser was moored up. I asked if I could join, but the pilot answered that it would be hours before they returned. So, I did what any exasperated fool would and rolled up to an Uros islander who was sitting in his motorised canoe just waiting for a crisis to unfold.
The Not-So-Great Escape
‘How much to get me off this island?’
He paused then asked for s/10 (soles), about $3.
Forbidden from running impromptu taxi services back to shore, the best he could do was to drop me on a neighbouring isle, in reality another giant totora raft anchored in a daisy chain to the one I was on.
Two minutes later there was I on another giant, floating totora mat, alone. Looking pleased and prepped for the great escape, I sat and waited for my ship to come in. As sure enough one did, carrying the two shifty types plus the other passengers from the journey over.
Oh no! Of all the lousy luck.
Playing the Fool Playing it Cool
I had found myself not primed for a discreet escape, but instead with egg on my face on the one island among dozens in the Uros archipelago that catered for every one of the armada of boats ferrying day-trippers daily to this UNESCO wonder. They all spilled off, a good few smiling at me knowingly as they paraded past. They must have thought,
‘What’s the token gringo doing here before us?’
I spotted the women who had originally raised the red flag. Their faces combined pity and a suppressed giggle. Last to disembark was the sum of all our fears: the two likely lads who had this little island archipelago in the grip of fear. They eyed me again before wandering around, intentions unknown.
Storms Real and Imagined
Uncomfortable minutes passed before I gate-crashed another vessel. I sat on the open top deck and, to forget my surrealist escapades, fell into conversation with a young Peruvian sitting opposite. The late afternoon was overcast. A chill had settled on the water. Receding into the vanishing point was Shutter Island, where a storm of uncertainty had raged in my mind. Glancing ahead I noticed the boat in the navigation channel ahead of us contained – you guessed – the very people I was trying to escape.
As I chatted to the young man opposite about paradigm shifts in human thinking necessary to save a faltering humanity, I realised we create storms in our minds. When we travel to distant lands these storms can feel like a Force 9. Yet we can drink these storms away from our fragile psyches because they do exist for the most part only in teacups. To be honest, the only gathering storms worthy of worry are those that incubate over the high Andes before hatching over Lake Titicaca.
The Wrath of the Weather Gods
Now onto the second tale of two storms: the literal one.
Earlier in the article I mentioned my Titicaca storms were both literal and figurative. While fear gave rise to the figurative storm, the literal one arrived riding on a chariot with bugling trumpeters not one day after my bungled great escape.
Right Place, Wrong Season
I decided to return to Uros, this time to experience nightfall on the lake. I chose a nice bobbing retreat. Though I was told this was not the best season for staying, on the day I arrived the sun blazed high in the sky. Few, if any, tourists were visible. Gone was the dread of being robbed. Serene was the feeling of lying on a divan on a veranda overlooking the wide water. That is, until I was awoken from a daydream by an abrupt change in the weather. A veil of grey, curdled cloud had drawn a blanket over the blue yonder. Throughout the day the low pressure built, and the wind picked up.
Watching clouds intensify over the peaks away to the Northwest was impressive enough. Tempestuous as a Turner painting, photographically the conditions were perfect. However, my glee was short-lived. When evening fell the creeping storm front found the lake where – similar to a hurricane feeding voraciously on the Atlantic – its destructive energy ramped up a notch or two. We were in for a rough ride, and no anchor was going to stop la isla de totora from listing.
Gale Force Fun
As the night went on, rain bucketed against the glass façade, hammering the pane until I thought it could take no more. Pools started running under the door and under the bed. Fork lightning flash-bombed the big sky. The atmosphere rumbled in deafening decibels. The whole bedroom swayed from side to side. I felt like I was in the belly of some great leviathan. I went out and could see great waves now lapping against the thick edge of our totora raft. The cold descended and before soon I was cocooned under half a dozen blankets. I fell into fitful sleep, or at least think I did. I kept waking up from dreams of going under by sitting bolt upright and gasping with sleep apnoea on account of the high altitude. So not only was I seasick on a lake, of all places, I was also mountain sick far from the mountains. Only on Titicaca, where our sea-level lives stop making sense, could this happen.
Sleep disruption aside, for the adventurer this was riveting stuff. Titicaca delights where other places disappoint. The worse the conditions, the more a sense of boys-own adventure overcomes you. A Shakespearean weather drama unfolds over your head in skies so endless, for the sake of sanity the mind needs to limit them.
A Place Called Eternal Home
On the third day I was relieved, admittedly, to return to safe harbour at Puno. Happy to leave the lake, I knew there and then the lake would never be happy to leave me. I had breezed into town from Cusco with two Liverpudlians, one of whom was there to fulfil his father’s dying wish to have a vial of his ashes scattered on Titicaca. His father had never been to Perú, and yet still considered the lake sacred enough. Me, I now had, so planning to have a portion of my desiccated self tipped into the lake I thought was the least I could do, to offer to eternity the dust of my bones. I waited forty years to float on the world’s highest navigable lake, and I’ll spend another forty years alive, I hope, before my earthly remains sink into that deep water. Pachamama, she’ll wait.