Published: August 24th 2007July 3rd 2007
It took quite some time to come down to earth from the high of climbing Huayna Potosí, and almost no time to decide that the sapphire waters of Lake Titicaca were a more appealing place to spend our last days in South America than the grey streets of La Paz. Copacabana, on the southern shore of the lake, is only a few hours' drive north of La Paz, and we set off crammed among the locals in a small van, a common form of public transport in Bolivia.
For part of the way the road ran parallel to the Cordillera Real (Royal Range), giving us good views of Huayna Potosí and two other 6,000m-plus mountains that stand high above the rest of the range. We could see clearly the western face of the mountain, which had, once upon a time, blown out in a volcanic display of geological power to leave a semicircle of almost vertical rock in a drop of several hundred metres from the summit. It seemed more hyper-real than real, a fantasy backdrop out of Lord of the Rings
Lake Titicaca is famed for its central location in the creation myths of pre-Inca and Inca cultures.
It is also a place of Spanish colonial pilgrimage that continues today, as we soon discovered. A chola
(Indigenous woman who lives in the city but still wears traditional dress) sitting next to Claire in the van began a ritual of crossing herself from the moment Copacabana came into view until we alighted at the town square 15 minutes later.
Even with the weight of so much cultural importance and history, Lake Titicaca was a laidback place. And, once again, one of stunning beauty. Our pace slowed as we absorbed the local energy and we took in the local activities, which are few. We wandered among the canoes and swan-like pedal boats, several of which were called 'Titanic'. We tasted a beer, drank a coffee. And walked into the hot action in town: the daily blessing of new vehicles, which takes place in front of the beautiful, moorish cathedral with the help of the local priest. The road in front of the cathedral becomes a car park full of shiny vehicles decorated with garlands and good luck charms, as if a blessing is all that is needed to ensure safe passage on Bolivia's roads. Still, it was endearing to
see whole families out celebrating enthusiastically, so proud of their new purchase they have come out in their best clothes. Bolivians are generally camera shy, but in this ritual, their excitement fuelled by beer and champagne, several lost their reticence and asked us to take photos of them, and then to join them in a celebratory beer. We did, chinking glasses in gladness that we weren't going to be on the road with them as they drove back home in the afternoon.
We happened to be in Copacabana for the winter solstice on June 21. This is the most important date in the Aymará calendar, their new year. It is celebrated here on Niño Calvari, one of the small hills that bounds Copacabana, where stands a pre-Inca lintel that is struck by the sun only at the solstices. As though she hadn't had enough of pre-dawn starts up hills, Claire got up in the dark to join the celebration, and found herself in a flow of people sleepily weaving up the hill, their way marked candles burning in the necks of up-ended plastic drink bottles with their bottoms cut off. The hill top is a fitting site for a
ritual, with seams of rock exposed at steep angles where softer material has been washed away. As new year parties are, this was a social occasion. Adults made offerings to Pachamama, drank the rest of the offering themselves, chatted with friends, received the blessings of local priests. Small children hung around older siblings or their mothers in the crowds. Older children hung around together out of the sight of the adults, setting the few bushes alight and throwing homemade crackers into the fires, then suddenly remembering the adults, sneaking guiltily looks over their shoulders to see if they had been sprung. As the eastern horizon lightened, the atmosphere became expectant, and people gathered and fell silent, waiting for the sun. As the burst over the horizon, each person faced it and raised both hands, palms flat and open to the sun. A local said that this was an ancient ritual to ask for benediction, and for warmth and health for the coming year. As the sun climbed some people crowded under the lintel, waiting for the sun to strike it. Not all, though: others were in a partying mood by now, and were welcoming the new year in a time-honoured
Offerings for Pachamama
Aymará New Year, winter solstice, Copacabana
tradition - having a few drinks with their mates. Even women were drinking alcohol in public, a rare sight. Someone had lugged a salteña
stand up the hill and was doing almost as brisk a business as those who had brought up crates of beer.
That afternoon we decided on a change of pace — even slower — and took a boat to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), the southern end of which is visible from Copacabana. It was a gentle journey there: the boat, which could take perhaps 80 people, was powered by a single outboard motor designed for dinghies. It is said that Isla del Sol is the birthplace of the first two Incas, who left the island to people Cusco, the Inca capital, further north. The Aymará name for the island is Titi'kaka
, which is thought to mean puma rock, also the name of a prominent, and sacred, rock at the north end of the island. Near the rock is a ceremonial table that was perhaps used for sacrifices, and the famous and mysterious ruin known as Chicana, a labyrinth that these days is mostly fallen stones that support flowers.
You can walk
The women's circle
Talk, companionship and coca leaves to celebrate New Year. The beer was opened later.
the length of Isla del Sol in a day. We spent one night on the top of the ridge that is the spine of the island. It was a suffering task, to sit in the late afternoon blue, looking across the lake to the Cordillera Real. From here, we could see that it wasn't just Huayna Potosí that seemed unreal: this afternoon the whole range was a myth. Clouds, sky, mountains, snow, water, flowing from blue to white to blue, and not a definite line anywhere.
Tourism is increasingly important to the tiny economy of Isla del Sol, where the people have traditionally scratched a subsistence living from the arid soil and from the lake, which is much richer. There are no vehicles on the island, and no made roads. It makes for a peaceful environment, and emphasises the slow pace of life here, which seems to have changed little in hundreds of years. Donkeys and people and, occasionally, llamas, are used to haul goods around. The crop terraces built onto the slopes follow a tradition that predates the Incas. In Cha'llapampa, villagers were sitting in the roadway along a bay, chatting while they stripped long leaves into lengths
Aymará New Year, Copacabana
that they twined into rope to be used in a building going up next to them. The women worked on one side, with girls doing the same work and keeping an eye on the toddlers. On the other side of the building, four men were also making twined rope, while another ten or so stood around chewing the fat and watching two men erect the frame for the roof. Between the two groups ran several boys who had somehow evaded any work. What brought the scene into the 21st century were the chainsaw being used to split logs, outboard motors to be heard in the distance, and the fluoro colours in some of the women's clothes. And the tourists watching them over a beer.
There are hundreds of Inca ruins and sites on Isla del Sol. We wandered around several of them, admiring again the Inca stonework and their understanding of how to use the local environment to lend presence and power to public buildings. In Cha'llapampa, which has a population of perhaps 200, we wandered around the tiny museum that contains local Inca and Tiwanaku artefacts that would do a big-city museum proud. Many of them were recovered
from an underwater site during archeological dives in the early 1990s. The door stood open and the villagers, trusting, had no-one on duty inside. Dust and artefacts were displayed in cabinets that look to have been begged or borrowed. A glass panel missing in one locked cabinet had been replaced with a sheet of taped-on plastic, and it would have been no effort to punch a hand through it and steal a priceless bowl.
We returned to the tumult and smog of La Paz to box our bikes for the haul home. The slowness of life at Lake Titicaca had made itself felt in our reflective moods. We'd surprised ourselves a few times in recent weeks as we realised our talk was increasingly of home: reuniting with family and friends, wondering, somewhat fearfully, how grand the house might seem after life in a tent and hospedaje
rooms, what work there might be, how grim our bank balances were. We were excited, yes, and also sorry to farewell the year. We would miss the mountains and a temperate climate; we would welcome walks through the rugged ranges of south-east Queensland. We would miss cheap Chilean and Argentinean wine; we would
Dave checks out the various varieties of popped cereals at a street stall, Copacabana
enjoy variety in our meals and tea made on boiling water. We would miss freedom; we would welcome an income. We would miss the wind blowing through our hair as we coast down a hill on the bikes; we would welcome a shower with hot water at the end of a ride.
And so, on to Santiago de Chile, where we spent a couple of days with our friends, Australian Lavinia and Chileno Fernando, who we had met near the start of our trip in South America in Pucón. It is a circle completed. On our last day in South America the four of us hiked on the outskirts of Santiago, in the Andes that have been so much a part of our year. From the top of the small peak, we could see, looking west, hints of Santiago under its blanket of smog, and, looking east, snow-covered mountains bathed in clean air, and issuing a sparkling invitation to come and explore. Beneath our feet the occasional patch of snow crunched, and Fernando told a story from his youth about how deep the snow used to lie here at this time of year.
At the airport, Claire picked
The well-and-truly-blessed vehicle
A La Paz family celebrates the blessing of their shiny new bus... just before they drive home
up a Paulo Coelho book, The Pilgrimage
, to read on the plane. He wrote:
When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don't even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favour from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.
At the other end of the book and the flight, it was time to take up other responsibilities again — and there were beaming faces full of love to greet us. How warming! And how strange to have so many people around us again that we know so well. It will take time, past the excitement of seeing loved ones and the flatness of returning, to feel the impact of the year, and how it will flow through the rest of our lives. It has made both of us see life in a different light. Some things we have discovered from the seat of a bicycle
* things always have a way of turning out right
* you never quite know what's over the next summit: it might even be a long, paved downhill!
* sometimes you can be without a map and still arrive where you intended to
* there is always enough time to pause and smell the wildflowers
* it is unwise to believe distances non-cyclists give you
* however heavy your panniers, there is always room
Across the blue
Looking across Lake Titicaca to the Cordillera Real from the ridge top at Yumani, Isla del Sol
for chocolate: it never fails to lift your spirits
A big thanks to our fan club of family and friends that has avidly read our stories. We've appreciated knowing that you were there for us when we needed your support, and we've enjoyed your cheers from the sidelines. Don't be surprised if we pass around the hat soon as we prepare for the next adventure...
There are more photos below