Wanderlust: Lake Titicaca

Felicity Williams, The Yorker:

Photo by Paul Summers on Unsplash

In a world where leaving the house has become a novelty, travelling abroad has become but a distant memory. Yet, the world is still an incredible place to call home, though we cannot see it in the flesh. To help kickstart your post-Covid bucket list, here is everything you should know about Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca is one of South America’s most beloved treasures. Situated 3,830 metres above sea level, it is best known for being the world’s highest navigable lake, constituting two bodies of water which straddle the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is as impressive in size as it is in beauty; 25 rivers continuously replenish the waters of this 3000 square mile basin. Only one small river drains it; the rest of the drainage work is left to the fierce sun rays which vaporise the lake’s surface. Behind the brown, sun-beaten boundaries of the lake stretch the snow-dusted peaks of the Cordillera Real, offering a spectacular taste of the Andes to lakeside onlookers.

As well as being a geographical wonder, the lake is of great cultural significance. Visiting tourists can see the same the mountains reflected in its waters that the Incas admired in the 15th century. It was during this period that, after a series of intense battles, the Incas finally achieved victory at the Desaguadero river in Bolivia, bringing Lake Titicaca under their conquest. The Incas then brutally robbed local tribe leaders of their heads; however, they were less critical of local mythology, and even incorporated it into their own beliefs. Andean mythology proclaimed that the creator god, Viracocha, had originally placed stone giants on Earth; however, they had caused only chaos, so Viracocha replaced them with human beings. However, the humans were as greedy as the stone giants had been chaotic, and so Viracocha flooded the world, sparing the lives of only three humans. At this point, Viracocha saw the world was in darkness, and so he fashioned the sun, moon and stars from Lake Titicaca. The sun, resentful of the moon’s brightness, threw ashes at her to dim her light. In response to these legends, the Incas declared Lake Titicaca to be a holy site, and constructed temples to worship the Sun and Moon.

Today, the Uru people inhabit the lake, living on manmade, floating islands made from reeds. Each floating island houses a family and, according to a family I once met there, a novel method of settling disputes has been established; in the event of a familial row, an island can be sawn in half and one’s adversaries left to float away. The Uru people make their living by travelling to the mainland every Sunday, where they exchange fish for other goods. Nonetheless, they are modernising and have established a tourist trade in textiles which brings in a significant income. Solar panels even pepper the rooftops, allowing the inhabitants to weave textiles in the evenings whilst the children do their schoolwork. Life on the lake has come to embody a curious mixture of centuries-old tradition and modern innovation. With advancements in trade and lifestyle as well as the efflux of children to schools and universities, who knows what life on these floating islands will resemble in years to come.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s