Bolivia and Peru are two neighbouring South American countries that share as many similarities as they do stark differences. Both boast incredibly varied landscapes. From lush jungles teeming with plant and animal life, to baron deserts that stretch for miles, to gorgeous expansive beaches, to perilous, rocky snow capped peaks, valleys and mountains, some with cities and towns built right into them. If you travel by bus through either of the countries for a mere few hours, you’ll be bombarded with a shocking amount of different kinds of natural beauty.
On the border that the countries share lies the enormous, stunning Lake Titicaca. It is said that the very first Incans emerged from this lake, and this is more than just a myth, as ancient Incan ruins have actually been found on its floor, though it is likely that they were there before the natural wonder formed. Bodies of water so large at such a high altitude are a rarity, and the beauty of such a thing is not lost on the casual observer. Something about the way the still blue water sits between gigantic mountains is truly moving. When you see the lake while travelling by bus, its enormity becomes apparent as it stretches as far as the eye can see, and this is as staggering as it is humbling.
Uros Floating Islands
When you’re travelling south from Peru by bus as I was, your first experience of Lake Titicaca will generally be in Puno, and you’ll see it as soon as you arrive at the terminal. Perhaps this isn’t the best way to first experience the wonder of this great body of water, as the shore is covered in litter, there isn’t really anywhere to just sit and relax, and the smell of the aforementioned rubbish certainly leaves something to be desired. However, this isn’t a very good representation of the rest of the lake. As soon as we got off the bus in the freezing cold at 4 in the morning, we were met by a tour operator who offered us exactly what we came for; a tour by boat to the Uros Floating Islands. These islands, which really must be seen to be believed, are constructed out of thousands of dry reeds bound together, and inhabited by the Uros people. They live their whole lives on these islands eating fish from the lake and fruit from the mainland, living on the expenditure of visiting tourists like ourselves. There are dozens of islands all in a close proximity to one another, and each island has anywhere from five to more than fifty inhabitants on the capital. Each floating island has its own president, and entire families are born and raised on an individual island – though new islands are often built after one has been standing for twenty five years or so. The islands were initially constructed defensively, the thinking being that if the Uros people were attacked, the islands could be easily moved. The largest of the islands still houses a guard tower, also entirely constructed from reeds. When observing the lives of these humble, unassuming people, I am truly blown away by the simple, sustainable nature of their existence here in Uros. Not only are the islands made of the versatile dried out reeds that grow in the lake, but so are the houses, the beds, and the furniture. Each hut has power points, lighting, and even a television connection, but the power is provided by solar panels adorning the roofs, rather than burning fossil fuels. The natural world around them provides the Uros people with their food, their drinking water, their power, their furnishings and their homes. Truly, few modern cultures exist leaving behind such a minimal environmental footprint.
Although they are citizens of Peru, the Uros people have an entirely different culture to the Peruvians. They have their own language, their own customs, their own music, their own traditional dress, their own schools, their own governing body, and even their own passport stamp (more of a novelty for tourists than anything else.)
As well as men and women going about their lives, there are children who play happily amongst the bound dry reeds, running around with huge grins on their faces. While this sort of life may seem like one of seclusion and restriction, the children who have known their whole lives here show a distinct, remarkable joy. Perhaps there is something about the simplistic nature of their lifestyles that provides them with such happiness from the smaller things we often take for granted. When we go to the capital, we’re taken by a reed boat reminiscent of the Venusian Gondola, which is rowed by two local Uros men who sing as we float. The real real work however, is being done by the small fishing boat towing us with a motor. The capital is a glorious triumph, and features a bar, a restaurant, and a large fishing net right in the middle. Laying on the dry reeds is surprisingly comfortable, you feel as though you sink in just the right amount, and its like a memory foam mattress moulding to your body. The view out on the lake, the sun warming my skin along with the reeds, and the peaceful nature of the island all served to make it one of the most pleasant, relaxing things I’ve ever experienced.
Copacabana & The Isla Del Sol
After Puno, the next stop along Lake Titicaca is Copacabana, Bolivia. This was my first South American border crossing, and to tell the truth, it was rather underwhelming. Quite a quick, simple procedure. We disembarked the bus, walked across the border, answered some questions and got our passports stamped. Just like that, we were in Bolivia. We got back on the bus and continued around the edge of the lake. Truly breathtaking in every sense of the word, the water stretches further than the horizon, and it is really indistinguishable from an ocean for its sheer enormity. As the sun glistens over its surface like so many diamonds strewn on a blue sheet, one cannot help but be in awe.
Copacabana is a gorgeous little town that, while quite catered to tourists, has a certain charm to it. Situated right on the shore of Titicaca, it is home to a string of great restaurants, pubs, coffee houses and paddle boats galore. It is also the primary shipping off point for trips to the Isla Del Sol. An early morning boat takes us out for two hours on the water under the blazing sun to the island. Isla Del Sol is host to eighty ancient ruins dating back to 15AD and in the Incan religion, the island is thought to be the birthplace of the sun god. While walking around the island, which refreshingly has few shops, no roads and subsequently no cars, we encounter a plethora of free roaming animals. Piglets, dogs, donkeys and cows potter along the shores of the lake, and through the surrounding dirt tracks. We find our way to a tiny, somewhat dilapidated dock and sunbathe in absolute solitude. Staring out at the snow covered mountains on the horizon of the lake, feeling the warmth of the sun, and watching the water gently lap at the sandy shore as a donkey patiently strolls along it is one of the loveliest things I’ve encountered in South America. After a while, we decide to have a little dip in the lake. It’s freezing, as you expect a body of water at this high an altitude to be, but there is something about being in this lake which crosses international borders, is home to an entire community, and boasts some of the most fantastic scenery in South America, that is truly inspiring.
Crossing Lake Titicaca
Perhaps the most baffling, interesting thing I experienced on Lake Titicaca came as I left it it my tracks. Catching the bus from Copacabana to Uyuni offers even more incredible views of the lake and its surrounding landscapes. However, about half way into the trip, our bus stopped on the shore. Shortly after, we drove onto a large wooden vessel propelled by a motor that carried the bus and all of its passengers across the water. This was something I didn’t ever expect to experience, and something I didn’t even know occurred. It barley seemed like it would hold our weight, but the boat trudged it’s way across one side of the lake to the other, surrounded by other boats ferrying busses, trucks and cars along the water.
Lake Titicaca is a gorgeous triumph of nature, and a truly unmissable spectacle in both Peru and Bolivia.
Copacabana, Puno, Uros
Words By Andrew O’Connor