After hiking out of Colca Canyon, we boarded a bus to climb even higher onto the Andean Plateau. We passed high-altitude herds of domestic alpaca and their wild vicuña cousins grazing on the great pampa plain. Set on this vast altiplano, we finally arrived at mythical Lake Titicaca, the big lake with a funny name.
Lake Titicaca in the aboriginal Quechua language means “grey puma” and is pronounced “Titi HAHA”. Maybe, even they think the name is comical? If that isn’t silly enough, Lake Titicaca’s only outlet flows through western Bolivia and discharges into murky Lake Poopó!
Once we stopped giggling, we found Lake Titicaca to be one of the most sacred places in pre-Hispanic Andean culture. In legend, the Inca believed that the lake was the birthplace of the sun and the origin of their civilization. Here, the sun god Inti sent his son and daughter, who emerged from the lake to establish an empire in his honor.
The Inca also believed that when they died, their souls would return to the shores of Lake Titicaca. To sense the mystical energy of the lake, we made a spiritual journey to the Sillustani funeral towers. In the light of the late afternoon sun, we admired these towers of rock entombing worthy ancients, whose souls only needed to travel mere footsteps to reach the afterlife.
Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America by surface area and volume. Straddling Perú and Bolivia, at an elevation of 12,507 feet (3,812 m), it is also the highest lake in the world navigable by commercial craft. We boarded one such vessel (e.g., tour boat) to visit two of the lake’s most remarkable islands.
Just three miles offshore, the Uros Floating Islands, made entirely of cut tortora reeds, are anchored to the lake bottom and buoy like houseboats. Stepping off onto one of these small manmade islands felt like plodding around on a big spongy waterbed.
On the floating island, an extended family of raft dwellers greeted us, demonstrated their lifestyle, and pushed overpriced souvenirs. Evidently, these floating families depend on both tortola reeds and tourist dollars! The island itself and most everything we saw was made of golden-colored plant stalks, including their homes, furniture, and flat-bottomed barges used to give sightseers amusing boat rides.
Disembarking the floating islands, we continued twenty miles toward the middle of the lake, and the hard rock island of Taquile. This hilly 1,400-acre natural island, covered in ancient agricultural terraces, supports a collective society of 2,200 inhabitants. Also beholden to tourists, these intriguing people performed a ritual dance and showed off their fine hand-sewn textiles.
Recognized by UNESCO, the woven handicrafts of Taquile Island are among the highest quality in Perú. Strangely, it is the men who are taught to knit at an early age, and use colonial era pedal looms to weave intricate wide belts worn traditionally by the islanders.
Before saying goodbye, the gentle denizens of Taquile Island served us lunch of freshly-caught trout and locally-grown vegetables. Fully satisfied, we sailed back across the clear waters of mythical and cultural Lake Titicaca, the big lake with a funny name.
Feature Photo: Wearing our alpaca souvenir sweaters on Uros Floating Island