By Alli Sinclair
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for pristine lakes with snow-capped peaks. Not only are they a photographer’s and hiker’s paradise, they bring a sense of peace to this chaotic world, especially after visiting some of South America’s busiest cities.
The first time I visited Lake Titicaca, I traveled from the Bolivian side. I’d journeyed from La Paz and was looking forward to finding solace from the horns, pollution, and swarming bodies of a busy city. Being the girly-swat that I am, I’d studied the history of the lake, pored over countless photos (no Internet back then), and created visions of this majestic lake in my mind. I’d imagined a stunning body of water but no matter how fruitful my imagination, I wasn’t prepared for the reality – Lake Titicaca rivaled some of the most beautiful lakes I’d ever seen (and that was saying a lot, especially after hiking through the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas).
Straddling the border of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world and is rich in history, beauty, and politics. The name Titicaca translates as Puma Rock, a name given by the Incas who believed the lake looked like a puma chasing a rabbit.
Even though Bolivia is a land-locked country, the majority of the country’s naval force is based at Lake Titicaca. The navy employs 2,000 personnel, has a naval school, and they own 173 vessels that patrol large rivers as well as this gorgeous lake. Bolivians believe one day they’ll regain the land they lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) and this hope is so strong Bolivians celebrate the Dia del Mar (Day of the Sea) every year and ask Chile to give back Bolivia’s lost land. Perhaps one day, they might get a yes.
Copacabana is a village on the shores of the lake and is close to the Peruvian border. Sure, it has a beach, but it isn’t quite in the same realm as Rio’s Copacabana – there are no men or women wearing swimmers that disappear up their bottom, no tanned athletic bodies, and certainly no surf. But this sleepy town has it’s own uniqueness, especially when it comes to dining. I’ve never been a fan of trout but when I tried the fish pulled out from the lake only a couple of hours earlier, I quickly became a convert.
It’s worth staying in Copacabana for at least a couple of days to hike the trails leading to mountaintops that offer unsurpassed views of the lake and Andes, as well as discovering Inca ruins that can only be accessed by foot. And a must-see is the Basilica of Our Lady Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. It’s easy to overdose on beautiful churches in Latin America so if you only intend to visit a handful, put this one up the top of the list.
Framed by bright blue skies, the whitewashed walls of the church make a spectacular entrance into this gorgeous house of God. It is believed the church was built on the Incan Temple of Fertility of Kotakawana, reinforcing Copacabana as a sacred place well before the Spanish arrived.
Legend has it that in 1576 some fishermen were caught in a terrible storm on Lake Titicaca. They prayed for help and the Virgin Mary appeared, leading them to safety. To show their gratitude they built a shrine in her honor. Another story is about Tito Yupanqui, a man who dreamed about the sailors and the appearance of the Virgin Mary. He was so affected by the dream that he travelled to Potosi to learn how to sculpt. He hand-carved the Virgin from cactus wood and carried his creation on his back across the 400 miles from Potosi. The sculpture was placed in the church and it is said that those who didn’t believe in the Virgin’s powers soon experienced crop loss. In the 1800s, another image of the Virgin was created and taken to Brazil’s most famous beach – Copacabana.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood around February 2-5 (it happens every year), stay for the celebrations that attract people from all over the world. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria has Aymara dancers from the region, plenty of music played by traditional bands, and lots of dancing, drinking, and eating. New vehicles, including trucks adorned with bling, are blessed with beer out the front of the church. On the third day of the fiesta 100 bulls are placed in a stone corral and brave (ie very drunk) revelers jump into the arena and try to avoid being gored.
Luckily, I had enough sense to avoid the bulls, but being included by the locals and dancing the days away is an experience I’ll always treasure. It’s been ten years since my last trip to this beautiful lake and I’m well overdue for another visit. Perhaps 2013 will be the year of returning to my favorite places in the world. I guess I’d better buy that lottery ticket…