Travel Story 

The islands and rafts of Lake Titicaca

On satellite photographs Lake Titicaca shines like a bright translucent sapphire set into the spine of the Andes. Its clear blue water splashes across 9,000 square kilometres of the Altiplano, that vast barren upland between snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Real. The lake is shared about equally between Bolivia and Peru but the Bolivians like to boast that they got the "Titti" while Peru got stuck with the "caca."

Having spent most of a week exploring the shoreline and islands on the Bolivian side of the border we were intrigued to see the difference. But before leaving Bolivia we took a boat to Isla de la Luna, and spent most of a day wandering around this tiny companion of Isla del Sol.

A group of Aymara women, the native Indians of the Altiplano, was waiting for us on the dock. Their traditional costumes of brightly coloured shawls and full, petticoat-stuffed skirts, were toped off by bowler hats perched on thick, waist-length black braids. Determined to sell us their handicrafts, they followed us up to a terrace where an Inca ruin known as Acllahuasi – "House of the Chosen Women" – has been partially restored. This is where the cloistered "Virgins of the Sun" brewed beer and wove fabrics for Inca royalty. They also entertained and served at ceremonies and were a source of wives and concubines for the Inca aristocracy. I couldn’t help thinking that the Aymara women following us with their intricately woven handicrafts may well be direct descendants of the "chosen women."

Accompanied by our entourage of persistent ladies we continued up to the summit. A fellow tending an outdoor clay and brick oven sold us some hot bread and we settled down to lunch surrounded by spectacular vistas east across the lake to Isla del Sol and west to the snow-capped peaks of Illampu and Ancohuma, each over 6,000 metres high. A small purchase from each of our local hiking companions left everyone smiling as we waved goodbye and headed down the opposite side of the island to our waiting boat.

On the long, slow trip back to Copacabana I couldn’t help thinking how different this place would have been if the Incas had seriously resisted the small band of Spanish conquistadors who spearheaded the brutal destruction of their civilization. The Inca leader Atahualpa, captured and held for ransom by the Spanish in 1532, was killed after the ransom, a room full of gold and two of silver, was paid. According to tradition, a life-sized silver woman and golden man once stood in alcoves on either side of the door to the "House of the Chosen Women" on Isla de la Luna. Like so much in Latin America they probably ended up in the Spanish melting pot.

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