¡Hola a todos!
Well, here we are again! I am currently sat in a wonderful little café here in the middle of Arequipa, a café with the best cake I have tasted in a very long time (woe to my waistline!) and, better still, free internet access upstairs! So, I thought it prudent to make inroads into my backlog of travel stories while I have such a glorious opportunity – I should no doubt add that I find myself at a loose end in any case, what with the Peruvians penchant for striking but, that is another blog entirely…
Let us wander back some two weeks or so to my flighty departure from La Paz. Climbing out of the lower, central section of the city, I was afforded some of my grandest views of the metropolis as I rose to one of its highest points, also home to some of the locality’s poorer inhabitants. We stopped briefly on a busy street at the edge of the city-proper to pick up more passengers – typically, buses in this country, and beyond, are unwilling to journey far without a packed contingent of paying customers and woe for those unsuspecting clients who have already paid up and await, impatiently, an already overdue departure to pastures new. This unexpected delay did at least provide me with some appreciated time in which to observe the city’s street-life a little more closely than had been possible previously during my stay. Street vendors crowded the pavements, surrounded by seas of their wares; one lady unable to move from her seated position in the midst of a veritable mountain of oranges. Young boys rushed past my window, lugging carts filled with all manner of purchasable goods. Old men tottered along, avoiding the crushing melee, their goal seemingly fixed yet unapparent from their gaits. Young ladies chatted together on corners, perhaps awaiting their own transportation out of the crowded concourse, oblivious of events around them. Ticket touts every bit as enthusiastic and vocal as those from home shouted destinations to all and sundry, locals and unwitting tourists alike and I, shamefully, found myself willing them on, absorbed in the knowledge that the sooner the seats were filled, the sooner we would be on our way. Finally, their hopes and time exhausted, the touts relented and we were able, finally, to set off. I settled back in my seat to idle away the time listening to my rejuvenated MP3 Player while gazing at the passing scenery.
The road to Copacabana (no, not the famous Brazilian beach destination, rather that of a smaller location in Bolivia, the best of that country’s locations from which to explore Lake Titicaca) was smooth and quick. I relaxed, happy in the knowledge that I was once more on my way to something new, undefined, at present unknown. The villages whistled by outside, a mix of hastily constructed recent buildings and older, crumbling predecessors. As ever, I found it interesting to note that by far the buildings in the best repair in all of these dwelling places were the churches – sometimes the only buildings to boast tiled roofs or glass windows. In the latter half of my journey, we were asked to disembark from the bus, to motor across a small river-mouth feeding the mighty Lake Titicaca: it was quite a sight to see our bus, alone upon a wooden barge, floating the short distance to the opposite bank, our own small vessel, with its outboard motor, having already safely deposited us on the lakeside. After this, the road climbed quite steeply into the foothills crowding the peninsula upon which Copacabana sits, the views over the lake being quite breath-taking. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in all of South America and also one of the highest. Armed with this knowledge I was nonetheless initially staggered by the sheer size of the body of water lying before me: it seemed less a lake than an inland sea. I was struck by a strong resemblance to the Mediterranean, as it winds around the Aegean islands off the western coast of the Greek mainland, the sea a shining reflection of the brilliant azure sky, dotted with verdant, small blemishes awaiting exploration. The shoreline, again, conjured memories of the Amalfi Coast below Naples on the western shores of Italy; quaint, tiny hamlets and tilled fields punctuating the bucolic, tranquil scene. Yet to draw such comparisons, as I have stated previously, is to do a disservice to all the places mentioned: each location is unique in its own right and while the lake certainly put me in mind of previous destinations and previous trips, it remained even then a new and unfamiliar quality to my eye.
Copacabana itself was a wonderfully whimsical, sleepy little town that boasted a brilliant, huge church, reminiscent of Moorish design, quite unexpected in such a backwater location. Although tourists seeking to visit the lake had brought their usual, transient mark to bear upon the town, it retained some of its original, local charm nonetheless – quite an achievement. The lakeside area was populated with the expected boat-based ticket touts but, it also yielded quaint seafood shacks, oddly designed peddloes and the occasional fishing trawler. Lazy trees lined the shore, casting cool, shaded reflections upon the shimmering water and all seemed quite still and at peace in this calm corner of the world. Such delights aside, the real attraction in Copacabana for me, besides the lake of course, was the superb, aforementioned church. It is, apparently, quite rare for Spanish colonial motifs to find an outlet in South American conquistador architecture yet, here in restful Copacabana, the local church boasts just that; a distinctly Moorish element to its design, mirroring that so prevalent in southern Spain and Andalusia in particular. Not so long ago, while still back home in beautiful Blighty, I was fortunate enough to catch a two-part television documentary written and narrated by the colourful character of Boris Johnson, detailing some of the immensely worthy cross-cultural exchanges between the Christian West and the East, still in its Islamic infancy yet ageless in its existence and intellectual heritage. One building that featured prominently upon the programme was that of the Grand Mosque at Toledo, with its sweeping arches and fascinating minarets. While not quite achieving the lofty heights of such a magnificent edifice perhaps, the church at Copacabana certainly succeeded in putting me in mind of such a structure; its huge, domed, colourfully mosaic spires in particular.
The day after my arrival in Copacabana, having felt that the town itself had been explored sufficiently the previous afternoon, I embarked upon a small cruiser to visit one of Lake Titicaca’s principal attractions; that of the Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun. This island is of immense cultural worth as a key site for viewing ancient Incan structures, seemingly religious in their context. Indeed, the lake and this island in particular held particular historical and cultural worth for the Incas, who believed that it was the site of the birth of the chief Incan gods, as well as the first Incan Emperor, Manco Capac, and his brothers and sisters. This leader passed into legend and has long since been shrouded in mystery as to his true existence or otherwise. Nonetheless, the island, and its sister, Isla de la Luna (the Island of the Moon), remain with their strange ruins to echo a previous age, one of Incan dominance across a vast empire, stretching from southern Columbia to northern Chile, encompassing some 30,000km of road-network; an immense civilization and a fantastic achievement considering that all of this occurred without the technology of the wheel.
I arrived upon Isla del Sol determined to spend the day visiting the unique heritage sites before walking the interior road from north to south, a good three-hour hike, at an average altitude of 3,800m with much climbing and descending, and then catching a boat back to Copacabana in the mid-afternoon. The town at which we landed in the north of the island was quite strange; very quiet, both in terms of the number of people on view and, amongst those who did make their presence known, in terms of their rather taciturn characters. I did eventually succeed in discerning the directions to the head of the trail up to the ruins from a street vendor and set off upon my route. I had travelled but a short distance when I was way-laid by an animated fellow who informed me that access to the road would cost me ten Bolivianos (a little less than one British pound). Although dubious, I paid up and continued on my way. Climbing steeply away from the lakeside, puffing as I went, I eventually came upon the settlement I sought, where my ticket was checked by two men – this did at least go some distance to convincing me of the need to pay for the privilege of seeing the ruins. The ruins themselves were magical indeed. My route took me past a strange stone circle of some twelve seats, four inner and eight outer, all revolving around a stone table. The four inner seats clearly corresponded to the four points of the compass and signified the site of ancient religious ceremonies conducted by the Incan priests. Adjacent to the circle was a rock which quite clearly resembled a puma’s head (clearly I tell you). Carved naturally over time by the elements, this rock was of importance to the spiritually minded Incas, who held the puma in especially high regard, much as the Egyptians worshipped the ibis, the crocodile and a young calf with special markings. Indeed, there is an argument for this rock holding the key to the contested etymology of the lake’s very name: in Quechuan, the ancient language of the Incas, ‘titi’ holds the meaning of ‘puma’ and ‘caca’ of ‘rock’. There are, however, many conflicting theories besides this and the likelihood is that the true origin of the lake’s name will remain a mystery forever more. This site was set a short distance from a labyrinth (my ticket-cum-guide employed this very term) of storage rooms which afforded quite stunning views out over the lake and down to a quite idyllic natural cove below the buildings. I spent a happy half an hour exploring these partially eroded edifices before continuing upon my route, now travelling from the north down the spine of the island to the southern harbour and my transport back to the mainland.
I had travelled little more than thirty minutes before I stumbled upon another couple of likely local coves, who popped up from behind a small rock wall to demand payment for walking the central section of the path. They also assured me that I would have no need to part with any further cash, once I had paid them their five Bolivianos asking price. Again, I paid for a ticket, reasoning that the whole enterprise had thus-far cost me a little less than one pound fifty pence, and proceeded to shoot a short film from this high vantage point over the island set against the brilliant backdrop of the lake, mountains and bowl-shaped sky. I was quite convinced that, here at this higher altitude, not only was the sun a little brighter, unimpeded by smog and travelling less distance through our atmosphere to reach me but, that also the sky seemed a slightly darker blue, quite close in fact to black, being nearer to the upper atmosphere and thus with less blue-coloured light-waves travelling back from the surface of the oceans, so far below us – idle fancies perhaps; science has certainly never been my strongest suit. It was while I was musing upon such topics, shooting my video, that a group of fellow hikers arrived on the scene. They became somewhat irate when asked for money and, following the lead of a particularly brash-sounding young Aussie, all refused to pay the asking price and continued on their way along the path. Surprised by their refusal yet not particularly interested by it, I too set off once more, meandering along the path southwards.
During a rest-break near to my goal, I struck up conversation with two young ladies who had also halted for a quick breather. It transpired that my new-found acquaintances were from Scotland, had travelled widely before and were now on a two-week holiday in Peru. They had recently hiked the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu and were full of sound advice, including details of what to take with me on the hike, what to omit and just how difficult the trail could become in places, particularly on day two, which sounds like a rather arduous slog, taking in the high-point of the trek; a mountain pass at 4,200m. Of course, I have since had ample opportunity to reassure myself that many travellers successfully tackle this trail every day and, even with my new-found fancy for decadent cakes, I do retain some small residue of fitness somewhere in my muscles and, failing physical fitness, I can always fall back upon sheer pig-headed, stubborn determination, which has rarely deserted me. Chatting amicably, we stumbled upon yet another pay-station, a further five Bolivianos. After some grumbling, I once again coughed up, as did my two companions, and we were finally at our goal of the southern tip of the island. I shall reiterate (for my own peace of mind if nought else) that the price was a small one to pay for such an enjoyable day of sight-seeing and hiking. It is only natural that the local islanders have cottoned on to such a lucrative enterprise, encouraged no doubt by the arrival of such vast numbers of paying tourists on a daily basis. Finally, I was slightly put out that we paid so often, at different stages, rather than simply for a single ticket at the trail’s head: of course, not everyone visiting the island wished to hike the entire trail – in fact, many visitors paid simply to visit the ruins before returning to the northern harbour and departing the island from there. While it would not be difficult to sell variously priced tickets all in the same northern location (and also at a southern location for those visitors hiking in the opposite direction) I can appreciate that it is perhaps easily for the locals to manage a structure whereby various stages of the hike demand a new cost. This method also maximizes the number of locals kept in some form of employment upon the route and simultaneously makes for added security, should anyone find themselves in any sort of difficulty and in need of aid. My sole cantankerous complaint is that I do wish these people would not lie so blatantly to me: if I need to pay for further tickets then so be it but, why assure me that this is not the case when such assurances are so patently untrue? It is rather exasperating!
Rushing down some steep steps to the harbour below, my knees screaming with each impact upon the harsh stone, I arrived back at the boat in the nick of time. While aboard, enjoying the journey back to Copacabana, I struck up conversation with some English travellers I had met on the outward voyage that morning and, new to their number, a chap called Cameron. It transpired that Cameron was headed in the same general direction as my intended itinerary and so we agreed to join forces to tackle the hitherto unknown qualities of Peru together. We landed back in Copacabana, gathered our travel gear and bought tickets for a bus to Puno, just across the border in Peru, though still on the shores of the lake, departing from town that very evening. Thus it was that we found ourselves holed up in a small café, enjoying a very early evening meal of fried trout and chips (just like home!) and becoming more familiarly acquainted with one another. Our meal ended and conversation briefly interrupted, we headed to the bus and on into Peru.
¡Saludos a todos!