Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Copacabana, Bolivia - Island of the Sun

Tigger, Shirley and I pulled up a few feet short of the water´s edge. Behind us rose the spectacular snow-covered Andes and spread out before us was beautiful Lake Titicaca. Arriving on the shores should have been the climax of my bicycle journey through South America, a moment of joy and elation. But instead I found myself upset to the point of tears.

I had eventually rec
eived my visa and had eventually left La Paz, cycling north until I left the main route and took a quiet back road down to Puerto Perez, a sleepy village on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It was a beautiful ride. Dotted across the landscape were simple, little houses surrounded by small plots of crops in varying shades of green with quinoa adding splashes of red here and there. In Scotland this would be crofting land. Indian women in brightly-patterned skirts and colourful shawls worked the plots by hand or moved cattle and sheep across the road in front of me. To the west the Altiplano stretched to the horizon but to the east it ended abruptly at the breath-taking Cordillera Real de los Andes, a jagged range of snow-covered mountains. Ahead of me were the sparkling waters of Lake Titicaca where little boats with colourful sails bobbed on the waves. Along the shore humming birds hovered on red-hot poker plants. Later, a red hot sunset gave way to a starry night sky with Orion centre-stage. Lying in bed I could hear the water lapping against the moored boats, the squawks of waterfowl disturbed by some night-time predator and the distant bark of a dog.

It was idyllic but I was feeling a little bit down. My trusty camera had died on me just as I was taking photos of the triumphant arrival at Titicaca. I was really upset as the camera had been a very special gift some years ago that meant a lot to me. I was miserable at its demise. It also meant that I had to go all the way back to La Paz on the bus for a repair (not possible) or a replacement (big dent in the budget).

I might have ended my journey at the peaceful, pretty spot of Puerto Perez but I got back on the bike to cycle a
little further north. I wanted to take a boat to the island in Lake Titicaca that was worshipped as the most sacred site in the Inca Empire. The Incas believed that Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun, was the birthplace of Manco Kapac and Mama Huaca, the very first Incas.

At the Straights of Tiquina the land almost pinches Lake Titicaca in two, leaving just a narrow channel. I crossed this channel on what I can only describe as a raft - planks of wood
roughly nailed together with an outboard motor attached. After I crossed, another raft came over carrying an entire brass band in full swing. I have no idea why! I cycled high above the lake to well over 13,000 feet but before my lungs burst in the thin air, a sweeping descent took me to the end of my road in Bolivia at the pretty, waterfront town of Copacabana - bang in the middle of carnival! What an incredible spectacle it was - wave after wave of brass bands, dancers in colourful costumes, a crowd of thousands and fireworks after dark. On the Sunday trucks, buses and taxis adorned with fresh flowers and scattered with petals, filed through the plaza to be blessed in front of the cathedral. Given the way Bolivians drive, they need all the help they can get!

When the town had settled down after carnival, I wande
red down to the waterfront early one morning and boarded a boat for Isla del Sol. A couple of hours later, I was in paradise. Isla del Sol is one of the most beautiful, serene places on earth. It´s easy to see why the island was so significant to the Incas and why it remains so to Andean populations today - it rests in the midst of such a powerful landscape. There are no roads on the island, just ancient worn paths that pick meandering routes through Inca terraces still used today to grow quinoa, beans and maize. As I wondered along the paths, I looked down on bays of white sand and clear, aquamarine water. In the south of the island, I climbed up the Inca Steps, a steep cobbled pathway that ascends from the shore through narrow terraces with all around the sweet smells of flowers and aromatic bushes. In the north of the island, I walked to the Temple of Chincana, a labyrinth of ancient walls perched on a hillside above the lake. On a high plateau a sacrificial altar faces Peru on the far western shore. On the temple path I saw large, oval markings in the rock that the Incas believed were the footprints of the Sun God, Wiraqocha. Then close by was the Sacred Rock itself, believed by the Incas to be the very birthplace of Manco Kapac and Mama Huaca. And all around were the azure waters of Lake Titicaca and vast views that stretched to the majestic, snow-covered Andes.

If that moment of elation escaped me when I first pulled up on the shores of Lake Titicaca, then I found it here on this little island in the sun, as I soaked up the beauty and ancient magic of Isla del Sol.

More photos and words on my Flickr page - click on the logo on the right.

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