Monday, March 3, 2008

Bolivia: Lake Titicaca

Funny to be scrounging for blankets less than 24 hours after we were kicking off thin sheets in the heat. Such is the contrast of Bolivia. A whirlwind combo of small plane, free-wheeling taxi, and overcrowded minibus deposited us in Copacabana in the moonlight. The minibus segment was the most fun, as we were the only non-Bolivians (save for one Spaniard) en route (perhaps because the Lonely Planet mentions that minibuses are unsafe between La Paz and Copacabana--- a fact we didn’t read until *after* we landed. Oh well). We had a bag of peanuts with us that we offered around, and it’s always such fun to see how food invites a shared community. In no time, people are slapping you on the back, grinning widely, sharing stories, and little kids want to sit in your lap. Just think if we’d had beer to pass around!

Going from sea level to 13,200 feet meant that sleep did not come easily. The next day, we explored the town’s Cathedral, most notable for its Virgin.

Evidently she was carved by a descendant of one of the last Inca warriors. Albeit the artist’s first attempt was rejected and he had to go back for some schooling before providing the current Virgin. She is a sight to behold, mostly for the reverence surrounding her. Ever since she was brought to the altar, miracles have occurred and great mystery and spirituality surrounds her. She is known as the ‘black virgin’ although we must admit she looked pretty pale to us. In any case, she resides upstairs in the cathedral, in a beautiful room decked out with lights, flowers, and a hushed group of devoted believers. The thought is that if she’s ever moved, there will be a flood. Also of note, are the lines of decorated cars parked outside the cathedral. They come for the blessing of the automobiles, a ritual whereby alcohol is poured over the cars to ensure a safe journey home. Better than drinking it before hopping behind the wheel, we suppose.

We next set sail for the Isla del Sol on the world’s slowest motorboat. It’s quite possible we could have swum faster, but it was a lovely ride nonetheless as the snowcapped Cordillera Real came into view. As we disembarked off the gringo float, there were hoards of kids wanting to take your luggage and lead you to a hotel. They were low-pressure and harmless, but what was not so harmless was the gorgeous but STEEP Inca staircase that leads up to town. Bordered by a channeled waterfall (the Inca’s fountain of youth), the steps climb past terraced quinoa fields, handicraft sellers, braying donkeys, women doing their wash, and views that make you gasp from beauty as much as physical exertion. The island is resplendent with timeless Inca architectural ruins surrounded by the luminous blue lake. It’s quite striking. We enjoyed sunset views from a hilltop pizzeria, watching distant (for now) rain and lightning as the sky burned orange under the clouds.

Isla del Sol is a walker’s paradise, as long as you keep chewing coca leaves to ward off headaches. On the north side of the island are ruins with a labyrinth of rooms, nooks, crannies, sacrificial tables, and the sacred rock (Titicaca: crouching puma) that the lake is named for. Wending our way back home, we weaved through small villages and farms, stopped for lunch and to watch hippies trying to sell jewelry, and hit the island’s big museum. And by big, we mean in earnestness. It’s actually just one small room, and the caretaker had to send his 11-year old son home to find the key to unlock it when we showed up. That being said, it did have it’s charm, as it’s devoted to the ‘submerged city’ north of the island where excavations in 2000 revealed a massive stone temple and accompanying treasures 8 meters underwater. The stuff of Indiana Jones, really!

Upon our departure, the rain finally arrived. In full force. And just in time for our half hour walk back down the slippery stairs to catch the ferry. Thank God for the plastic rainsuits we’ve been lugging around since South Africa.

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