Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lago Titicaca & Isla del Sol

I have to say that my time spent on Lake Titicaca was some of the best I've ever spent. It was so rich with culture, with uniqueness, with absolute stunning beauty.  It is the largest lake in South America, found in the Andes between Peru and Bolivia (60% on the Peruvian side, 40% Bolivian). The translation is Titi which means puma and Cala which means gray, pronounced in Spanish as Lago Titicaca. Many consider this body of water the highest navigable lake in the world, with an altitude of about 12,500 ft.  It was created during the formation of the Andes, trapping water from the Pacific ocean, which is apparently how all lakes in the Andes were formed. Now all the salt has settled into the earth and it is a beautiful fresh water lake consisting of three different parts (the bahia, the big lake, and the small lake) and with Spanish, Aymara, and Qechua spoken on and around the lake.

Las Islas Flotantes outside Puno.

Our first encounter with Titicaca was upon arrival in Puno, Peru after a 6 hour bus ride from Cusco. We picked up another friend from the eco-village, Anjah, and got to Puno just in time to find a hostel before the major Carnaval celebrations started. Luckily they weren't until later in the weekend, so we still got to experience some of the camaraderie, parades, music, and festivities without having to pay ridiculously sky high prices and be amongst an obscene amount of drunken revelry (not that it's bad! it's just not what we were looking for).

An overview of the Floating Islands.
Our first day on the lake was heading to the Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands), about a 15 minute boat ride from the shores of Puno. I've heard many things about how touristy this has become and many people on the backpacker route now choose to skip it altogether.  But boy am I glad we went!  There is nothing else quite like it!  The islands are inhabited by the Uros tribes, which outlasted the Incans as well as Spanish invasion.  In fact I was told that they started living on these reed islands as a way to escape from invasion and devastation. Successful indeed. They use totora reeds to build their islands, construct their homes, and provide sustenance (tasted pretty good actually!). The reeds must be replenished often during the rainy season and tend to last longer in the dry, winter months.

Traditional weave work being sold.
The Uros tribe now speak Aymara and have about 2,000 inhabitants, living in a style mixed between their old ways and some new. They continue living by means of fishing, weaving, and now tourism, although our guide told us that outside of tourism, replenishing the reeds every 15 days or so is the only real work they have left to do. Some of the people on the islands did seem a bit deadpan, so run down by either their lifestyles or doing the same touristy charade everyday. But if you ask me, we shouldn't go into a place, make them change their lifestyle in order to accommodate foreigners, and then decide it's too 'touristy' to go. What a shame. So as I said, I was glad I went and supported them and got a glimpse into one of the most unique and diverse ways of living I've ever experienced.

Our Copacabana hostel.
After this we crossed the border into Bolivia and landed among the small town of Copacabana. As soon as we arrived, my relaxometer went up about ten fold- what a lovely beach town. Oh wait, lake town! It's easy to forget you're not by the ocean when you're alongside this paradise. The views, the laid back vibe, the water, the clean mountain air. We only spent a day here but made sure to eat some of the delicious local trout, check out the gorgeous church (built in 1,550 AD), unlike any I've ever seen, and also peruse the Sunday market.

La Basìlica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana

Sunset from our hostel on Isla del Sol.
From there we took another 2 hour boat ride to Isla del Sol, one of the most magical, remarkable, transcendent, and beautiful places I've ever been to.  It was like a time lapse oasis where you lose all memory of where you are (wait, I'm on a lake? in the Andes? in the 21st century?) and just settle in to a way of living that has been around for over 15,000 years. It was known to the Incans as the birthplace of the Sun God and is also considered the sacral chakra point of the Earth. Most people take the boat over to the island for the day and do the 3 hour long trek from the north side of the island to the south. Not a bad day trip as there are spectacular views, decent hiking, and over 180 ruins on the island, most of which date back to the Incan period around the 15th century. We however made sure to stay for a while and really soak in the vibe of this place and went straight to Challapampa, which is much less developed and pretty rustic part of the island indeed.

Pig encounter on our way into town.
Picture cobblestone streets that turn into dirt walkways which transition into rocky paths, often with waterfalls and rogue pigs to cross along the way. Views of the Andes and the serene lake that take your breath away. People who look like they are from another lifetime, speaking a language that sounds so foreign and exotic, yet are still so warm and inviting and work to speak Spanish in order to communicate openly with you. They're native language is Aymara and many scholars believe this to be the oldest language in the world, even older than Sanskrit. It's mystical indeed. Everything about the island is, especially because there are no roads or cars so a large majority of the culture and ways of life remain intact.

The holy water spring.
The people of Isla del Sol (or islanders as we called them) survive mainly off of agriculture, fishing, and yes now also tourism, with about 800 families living on the island. Tourism only came to be about 10 to 15 years ago and the only tourists we encountered were other South Americans, primarily laid back Argentines for some reason, which of course brought me back and made me very happy. On our first full day we took in the landscapes, enjoyed petting the donkeys, drank from the holy water, which comes from a natural spring up in the hills, and meandered down to an isolated, highly energetic beach to spend the day. Good thing we did! There we found caves to meditate in and Malada, a beautiful spirit living there for 6 weeks, as well as Pablo, an Argentine artist who lives there most of the year.

Our beautiful beach paradise.

Our hostel decorated for Carnaval.
On this day it was their very own special Carnaval celebration, El Dìa de la Papa, a day solely for celebrating and commemorating the potato. Yes, the potato.  From the beach we had the privilege of watching the islanders go about their sacred festivities, blessing the potato, and asking the heavens to be good to them as they are just humble people here with their potato asking for rain not hail. The women were dressed in skirts so bright they looked like little gems walking around the fields, and the men went around putting up streamers in the field and playing their staccato flutes and pipes. It was truly magical.

These people are so humble, so in tune, they are an absolute part of their ecosystem in every sense of the word. From where we were on the beach you could just see and feel their actions functioning so harmoniously, like the interconnected nature of an ant tribe or a bee colony. While harvesting their potatoes, they worship and bless the sun, the sky, all parts of nature (and although they are technically also Christian, I never once saw a church). They practice crop rotation (other years there's onion, corn, and carrot as well), only fish in times of the year when the fish are big enough to produce, and make their homes out of adobe and materials found on the island, always working.

Pablo's home, Anjah drawing in front.
This way of life has survived for over 15,000 years, sustainably, happily, humbly. I will never forget this unique experience, a chance to truly take in and observe something that most humans in this world will never even fathom, care about, or have the chance to partake in. So as Pablo the artist put it, most people are in the cities celebrating and drinking the warm beer, while the people of Isla del Sol are truly commemorating, truly living. They are more connected and have more awareness in their festivities than any amount of mindless revelry could ever begin to attain. Pablo studies these people, is in love with them, is passionate about learning Aymara and making connections.  He told us that the reason they are never nude is because the potato flowers may be offended to see a body more beautiful than their own and it may also offend the celestial deities, who may then send hail. We were also informed that the large, heart wracking booms that are so often heard throughout the island are yet another tradition asking the thunder gods not to send hail, just rain. Sigh.

Dìa de la Papa celebrations.
I must say, the days I spent on Isla del Sol were some of the best and most remarkable days of my life. I will never forget the sound of the flute going through the fields, played by the elder who had a stroke but is now joyfully able to make music once more.  I will never forget El Dìa de la Papa, everything for the glorious and nourishing potato. Here, just as with the old men working the gardens in the eco-village, I also saw my grandfather, my beloved Grandpa Jack. A man who was one with his environment and the land. He embodied so much of the same hard-working, diligent, in tune, straightforward, humble, and happy nature that most of the traditional cultures I've encountered in my travels represent and I am happy to be reminded of him in these special places.

My time on the harmonious Isla del Sol has changed me for good. I found perspective, I fell in love with Bolivia and I fell in love with myself and the world all over again. As Anjah sat on the beach, tears streaming down her face, saying 'this is it, this is everything', I could only agree. I felt more at home than I have in a very long time. And I must admit that I am now happily a papa (potato) worshipper too.

I'm currently in Bolivia's capital city of La Paz, traveling solo once again (although backpackers never really seem to be alone, do they?). It's a wonderful city but I still have the glowy haze of the island surrounding me and I will leave soon to head back to nature, my yoga, and smaller cities of even higher altitudes (getting to around 13,000ft). I really have little to say regarding any yoga poses, meditations, mantras. All I have to say is make the time in your life to connect to the source, whatever that may be for you. Be inspired to turn off the TV, go a day without using electricity (or maybe do the best you can if you're in the middle of a Montana winter), read a book, work the land, enjoy the strength of your capable body, go out into nature and simply observe your surroundings.

Isla del Sol living.
Find something in your life to say a prayer for or show some true humble gratitude for. 
Do it often, and notice the innate enjoyment, modesty, and happiness that it is guaranteed to bring into your refreshed and blissful being.


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