Land of the Spirits: A Journey to Lake Titicaca
by EVELYN KANTER
The highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca is the legendary birthplace of the Incas. In Quecha, their ancient language, "titi" means puma, and "caca" signifies rabbit - describing the shape of the lake. There's only one problem - the lake was named more than 1,000 years before aerial photography could confirm its shape. How did that happen?
"The Incas were able to rise out of their bodies and look down," explained our guide, Mauro, a descendent of those mysterious and spiritual people.
Land in the Sky
Located at 12,625 feet in the Andes, Lake Titcaca borders southern Peru and western Bolivia. The lake covers over 3,000 square miles, is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and is located in a region so remote that the local llama population likely outnumbers the human one.
Archaeologists have traced small communities in Peru back some 4,000 years, and there were several thriving cultures - Chavin, Nazca and Moche - before the so-called Children of the Sun, the sun-worshipping Incas, came to dominate around 1,000 years ago. The Incas were master builders, goldsmiths and textile weavers, and had developed complicated irrigation systems for farming. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1530s, Inca civi- lization had spread as far as today's Colombia and Chile. It took 30 years for the conquering Spaniards to decimate the determined people and melt down their gold-paved cities and temples.
Today, a community of some 650 Uros Indians lives in the middle of Titicaca, much as their Inca ancestors did, on floating islands built of coiled bundles of the reeds that grow in profusion along its shores. In times past, the islands were moved around the lake to follow the fish. There are about a dozen islands, each about the size of a football field, each supporting about a dozen one-room, igloo-shaped structures, shared by an individual family (though all 650 Uros are related by marriage). One island holds the community's school.
Past Meets Present
The Uros still speak Quecha, and the men are still fishermen. Some continue to travel the lake in flat-bottomed boats made of those same bundled reeds - the design unchanged since the Incas. Others use motorized skiffs, one of the few modern encroachments the Uros have allowed into their traditional lives. Solar energy is another.
As our own motorized launch neared one of the islands, I noticed a small forest of black poles, each topped with square black panels, about the size of my flat computer screen at home, marring the otherwise timeless scene in my camera lens. Each family has a government-issued solar panel, which provides their hut with enough electricity to run a single light bulb, a TV or a radio, although only one at a time.
Ballpoint pens are another modern concession, and make a much better token gift than coins or candy for the children, who were too well-behaved to overrun us with outstretched hands. Despite primitive living conditions, education is a top priority here, and ballpoint pens are scarce and valuable in this remote locale.
A Touching Farewell
The islands are slightly spongy underfoot, like a super-luxurious carpet. New layers are added to the top as the underside melts back into the lake. The wife of the tribe's best boat builder also makes the best miniature souvenir boats.
When it was time to leave, a young girl shyly handed me a note-sized sheet of paper with a drawing of the mountainous landscape around the lake, made with the pen I had given her earlier. Although I speak no Quechua, not even "thank you," such a moment does not need a common language.
The largest city on the lake, Puno, marks one end of a fertile, 250-mile valley which is a major agricultural hub of Peru. (It ends in Cuzco.) The farmers in the highlands around Puno grow potatoes, barley and fruits half the year and work the salt fields the other half. Located a few miles from the colorless village of Maras, the salt fields are terraces of earth carved out of a steep, narrow mountain canyon. The terraces are flooded with about six inches of water to leach the underground salt to the surface, and then left to dry in the strong sun. The process takes about two weeks.
Every few days, farmers sift their puddles with reed baskets, dumping salt clusters on a dry patch of ground. The salt rocks are packed in burlap bags, then carried about a half-mile up the canyon to the weighing station. From there, a truck takes the bags to the processing plant in Maras.
I watched a man and his wife work one of the ponds, their toddler playing alongside. He said this land had been in his family for nearly 1,000 years, and the backbreaking salt-mining technique seems not to have changed in the interim.
While Peru's most famous landmark is the mountaintop Inca city of Macchu Pichu, it is just one of the country's many archeological wonders. I was just as awestruck by Sacsayhuaman - which is pronounced "sexy woman" - an engineering marvel of massive stones, some ten feet square and weighing more than 100 tons. The jigsaw shapes were cut and placed with such precision that mortar was not needed.
The Sacsayhuaman fortress guarded the valley entrance to the sacred Inca city of Cuzco against ancient invaders. The double zig-zag walls are 50 feet high in spots, and the center plaza is bigger than a modern football field. Archeologists haven't decided whether the space was a water reservoir or a field for games. In 1536, Inca warriors managed to hold off the Spanish here for nearly one year, until succumbing to their superior weaponry.
With narrow shaded streets and sunny plazas ringed by col-orful Spanish colonial buildings, Cuzco is an architectural gem. The city is well known for its downtown sidewalk market - block after block of hand-made alpaca sweaters, woven serapes, ceramic figurines, embroidered wall hang-ings and other handicrafts ... definitely a shopper's paradise. There's also a small artist colony, ranging from modern art painters and high fashion jewelers to traditional craftspeople, such as the family who makes papier-mâché masks and figures for religious festivals.
Mysteries of Time
The road between Cuzco and Puno took us past Tia-wanako, a pre-Inca city of three-story pink stone columns that once supported a thatched roof, also the size of a football field. Was the structure a temple, the village marketplace, or both?
Alongside, dozens of stone silos stood over ten feet high, made of black volcanic rock. This was a granary, the ancient shipping center to feed the city dwellers, and the fields around this ancient ruin still produce bounties of corn, wheat, barley and quinoa, a grain that looks similar to Middle Eastern couscous.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at La Raya, a dot on the map at the top of a high moun-tain pass, surrounded by snow-capped mountains that feed a sacred Inca river. A group of women in colorful traditional dress sat by the roadside, selling the ubiquitous handmade alpaca sweaters.
One, a broad-faced woman wearing the high-crowned, black bowler-style hat that identified her as a Mestizo, had coca leaves dotting her forehead. "Mal de la cabeza," she told me, tapping her forehead - she had a headache, and coca leaves are the local version of ibuprofen.
We were above 12,000 feet, where an altitude headache is not uncommon. It's wise to spend a day or two to acclimate at the slightly lower altitude of Cuzco, before head-ing south and inland to the heights of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Most hotels offer guests a mid-afternoon carafe of coca tea, which is mildly diuretic and caffeinated. Far from making you "high," coca tea helps minimize the body's reaction to the thin air.
Even in summer, it is cool, even chilly, at these heights. But don't pack an extra swea-ter - buy it in Peru. For a sweater freak like me, Peru is absolute heaven. Sweaters range from silky soft and delicate to sturdy and scratchy, and colors and styles range from the folklorish-sixties-hippie to modern and stylish. But the hand-workmanship is uniformly superb and prices are nothing short of astounding. An intricately-patterned hand-knit baby alpaca cardigan I bought cost just $35, and if my Spanish were better, I surely could have negotiated for less.
Though architectural and agricultural fragments of the mysterious Incas survive, we are left to wonder about the mystical aspect of the enigmatic people. Though we may never know the answers, the questions associated with the vanished society add to the mystique. How were they able to move 100-ton boulders? And just how did they know the shape of Lake Titicaca?
Bolivia's Crillon Tours offers trips to Lake Titicaca and environs. Crillon has participated in a number of reed boat expeditions in which local boat builders have crafted boats that are sailed on historic waterways worldwide. For information about tours to Lake Titicaca, go to www.titicaca.com.
Sonesta Hotels & Resorts operates several comfortable Posadas del Inca inns in Lima, Yucay, Puno and Cuzco. The Yucay property is a converted 300-year-old Franciscan monastery, with gardens, a small cha-pel and hiking trails. Sonesta will customize a posada-to-posada trip of highlights along the Sacred Valley of the Incas with English-speaking guides; Phone: 800-766-3782; Website: www.posadas. com.pe.
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Kanter.