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Lake Titicaca

Thursday, April 24, 2008
Lake Titicaca sprawls for 21,500 square kilometres across the border between Peru and Bolivia at the northern end of the Altiplano basin, high in the Andes. It's South America's highest lake at 3812 metres above sea level and is also the world's highest commercially navigable lake. Lake Titicaca's average depth is over 100 metres and its deepest is 281 metres.

Lake Titicaca is fed by rainfall and melting snows from the Andes. Five major and 20 small river systems feed into the lake, which has 41 islands, some densely populated.

Composed of two, almost separate, sub-basins that are just connected by the Strait of Tiquina, the lake's mere name conjures up images of Incan legends, sunken gold and buried cities.

Its sun-baked shores and brilliant blue waters gave substance to the Incans belief that the sun sent his son, Manco Cápac and the moon sent her daughter, Mamo Ocllo, to create Cuzco, so beginning the Inca dynasty. Remains of temples dedicated to him can be seen on the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon.

Previously, the lake and its islands were holy for the Aymarÿ Indians, a civilization centred at the Tiahuanaco, now a complex of ruins on the Bolivian side of Titicaca. Once a revered temple site, it has advanced irrigation techniques.

During the Spanish Conquest, it was said the lake became a secret depository for the empire's gold. Jacques Cousteau spent a couple of months there in the 1970s using mini submarines to explore Titicaca's depths, but found no gold. He did, though, discover a 60 centimetre frog, previously unknown to the scientific world. The tri-colour creature never surfaces.

The endangered Titicaca Water Frog's colour can be anything from olive green with peach-coloured bellies, to grey with black mottling on the backs. Some are even entirely black with or without white marbling. Once in great numbers, villagers would place them in large clay pots and their croaking was interpreted as pleading to the gods for rain. Once the pot filled, the frog would float to the top and hop away.

Their place in South American culture has threatened their existence with thousands and thousands being sacrificed in the hope of boosting male libido! The poor creatures are skinned and blended with additives, but efforts are being made to stop the practice.

Thousands of subsistence farmers make a living fishing the lake's icy waters, growing potatoes in impossibly rocky land or herding llama and alpaca at altitudes that would leave most of us gasping for breath.

The city of Puno is the capital of Peru's Altiplano. At an altitude of 3827 metres, its harsh highlands are suited to wandering alpacas. In the 17th century, it was one of the continent's richest cities, thanks to its proximity to the Laykakota silver mines.

For centuries, Altiplano Indians worked hard and celebrated special days with gusto. It is difficult to find a month in Puno without at least one elaborate festival of music and dance.

It offers a rich array of handicrafts, costumes, legends and more than 300 ethnic dances, many recalling the days of cruel land and mine owners. Dancers perform in lavish and colourful outfits of multi-hued and layered skirts, fringed shawls and bowler hats.

Puno is a starting point for exploring Titicaca and its islands and also for visiting Indian inhabitants and their colourful traditions. Small motorboats take tourists on trips for sightseeing or to fish for the huge trout, which make it one of the country's popular angling destinations.

Most transportation is by motorised launches or totora-reed boats, which were studied by Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, when preparing for his legendary 7970 kilometre journey from Peru to Polynesia. His amazing 1940s journey was on the reed boat Kon-Tiki.

The traditional totora-reed boats take three days to build and last for around eight months. Wooden boats take much longer to build but last up to eight years.

The area's floating islands are things of curiosity to outsiders. Inhabited by around 2000 descendants of the ancient Uros people, they believe they have been around long before the sun.

Stepping onto a typical totora-reed island is quite disconcerting. The sinking feeling takes time to overcome. When the bottoms of the reeds decay, they are replaced from the top with new layers, creating a spongy walking surface. The soft roots of the reeds are part of the local diet, so the plants have many uses.

The islands are moving, living things, floating in over 15 metres of water and can be relocated with the aid of long sticks. Their original purpose was for defence as they could be moved if a threat arose. One island still has a watchtower, largely constructed of reeds.

Amantaní is around four hours by sputtering motor boat from Puno. The 16 sq km island is home to around 800 families in six villages.

Residents have opened their doors to those willing to live, as they do, for a few days — and that means sleeping on beds made of long hard reeds and eating potatoes for every meal. There is no running water and a small amount of generated electricity lasts just a few hours a day. Night temperatures drop to freezing, even in the summer.

Those happy to rough it, catch a glimpse of an Andean agricultural community that has maintained the same traditions for centuries. Some Amantaní residents live and die without ever leaving the island.

At the end of the trip, visitors are registered as guests and assigned to a host family. They are taken to a mud-brick home, built around an open courtyard decorated with white pebbles spelling out the family name.

Visitors usually take welcome gifts of fruit, a rarity on the isolated island. Socialising begins when a family member who speaks English offers a guided walk around the island, which offers spectacular views.

Women wearing traditional black-and-white lace dresses pass by with slingshots in their hands to kill scavenging birds. Guinea pig is considered a delicacy on the island and visitors are expected to take the first bite, so be warned!

Location

Peru

Cost

Kumuka Worldwide has five-day tours of Lake Titicaca from Lima. They include accommodation, breakfast, return flights between Lima and Juliaca, airport transfers and lunch and dinner on day three. Sightseeing is with an English-speaking guide. Tours cost $1120 per person twin share.

Aerolineas Argentinas has flights to Lima.

Fares from:

  • Sydney $1899
  • Melbourne, Brisbane $2199
  • Adelaide $2299
  • Perth, Darwin $2699

Valid for sale until May 15, 2008 and for travel until November 30, 2008. Conditions apply.

Prices correct at April 24, 2008

For further information

Kumuka
Level 4, 46-48 York St
Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: 1300 667 277
www.kumuka.com.au
adventuretours@kumuka.com.au

Aerolineas Argentinas
3/64 Clarence Street
Sydney 2000
Ph: (02) 9234 9000
Fax: (02) 9234 9020
www.aerolineas.com.ar

Peru It is recommended travellers to Peru see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended for Peru. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information visit www.welltogo.com.au

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