At 3,812 metres (12,507ft) above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. Within easy-reaching distance and shrouded in Inca legend, is Isla del Sol, the highest island in the world, said to have been the birthplace of the first Inca King, Manco Capac. Subsequently the Isla del Sol is regarded as the most sacred of places in Inca legend.
To get to Isla Del Sol from La Paz I catch a bus from the cemetery (Cemeterio). There are numerous buses leaving from here and the place is pandemonium. Fortunately, the taxi driver helpfully drops me exactly where I need to be. Men and women call out destinations. The first I hear is, “Copacabana, Copacabana.”
A small, chubby Bolivian in a yellow polo shirt and retro Adidas tracksuit top comes over.
“Copacabana?” It is almost like I have a hitchhikers sign round my neck.
“Si,” I say.
He takes my rucksack and guitar and guides me along the side of the bus where a woman is selling tickets.
“Uno, por favour,” I say.
“Quinze Bolivianos,” she says, flashing the fingers of both hands, ten, followed by the digits of just one hand, five. I slip 15BOB from the bundle of notes I have stuffed in my pocket and give her the money. My bags are bundled into the hold.
Seats on the busses are designated. The downside of this system is you can´t choose who you sit next to. I get a scruffy Bolivian youth listening to pop music on his mobile phone. And he had the window seat. He had the same smell of poverty I had noticed on my first day in La Paz. Mind you, given my hostel did not have hot running water, I had not had a good shower in four days, so was hardly smelling as fresh as morning coffee myself!
In front of me is a man playing low-end pop music through his mobile phone. He is balding and, I surmised, in his 40´s – old enough to know better! The music is horrendous, and if that is not bad enough, the bass-less, tinny din of poor quality speakers make it even worse. I don’t know if he’s in love, but he insists on playing Chris de bloody Burgh. If I hear Lady in Red one more time I will have to rip my ears off!
The journey to Lake Titicaca is non-descript; rundown neighbourhoods where women in traditional dress sell their Alpaca woollies and home-made soups by the side of dusty roads. People (mostly men in western clothes) stand idly in the streets, seemingly with nothing to do other than loiter. The scene is a familiar sight in Bolivia.
Lake Titicaca is still a sacred region for indigenous peoples. Many Aymara still inhabit the region. En route are dozens of partially built houses which show no signs of completion. There are no builders or building equipment to suggest construction is still a work in progress. It´s a common trend in Bolivia! People start building homes, but run out of money during the building process and can´t afford the materials. It’s also rainy season at the minute which may be disrupting development, but today the sun is out and is perfect conditions for slapping some bricks together. I don’t see many builders at work, but I do see a lot of building work that needs doing!
Breathing through my mouth in an attempt to quell the sickening whiff from my unwashed road buddy, I look out the window to see Titicaca shimmering beside us. She looks magical. The immediate change in scenery is like traversing into another world.
Spanning 118 miles, the sprawling lake feeds from 37 rivers that run down from the Andes. One of the deltas is San Pedro, a tiny village on the shores of the lake at a point known as the Tiquina Straits. The bus pulls to a stand-still and the co – driver babbles something in Spanish. The other passengers get up and off the bus so I follow. It is a relief to get some fresh air and escape the nasal insult and audio torture.
I asked the co-driver what is happening, but predictably he doesn´t speak English. I am mildly concerned my bag is going to leave without me. The driver calms his hands to reassure me it is okay. After a bit of miming and a lot of finger pointing it becomes apparent that the bus will cross the lake on a barge and I have to board a small boat.
And it is small. About 40 of us squeeze into a tiny space where there is barley room to put my feet. I was the last to board and could only see a fraction of seat between two typically rotund Bolivian ladies. I try to wedge in, but it is impossible to fit both cheeks on the bench. It is pointless to even try putting the life jacket on. I´ll take my chances swimming if we capsize – I’ve won medals for swimming. And a trophy!
Other than the slight buttock discomfort, the boat ride is rather pleasant. The water ripples with calm and laps the side of the boat, the air is fresh and the mountain scenery is simply stunning. Behind us, our coach is boarding a tug boat. It is very slow moving so gives me time to grab a drink and a bite to eat on the other side.
There are only a handful of shops, none of which appear to sell anything more appetising than a packet of crisps so I wander off into the local market where women are selling food – nothing of which I recognise. Chopped white leafs mingled with something green bobs in boiling water. Something else that looks vaguely like a potato is thrust up on a bubble jet. I´m thinking vegetable soup! Whatever they have cooking is not appealing to my appetite so I point at something that looks familiar and vaguely edible – pastry. An old, leather-skinned lady hands me a plate complete with a limp looking corn-on-the-cob and two boiled potatoes that could have been shat out of a Llama for all I knew. The pasties are minced meat and vegetable – and are actually quite tasty. I eat most of it and put the rest on the floor for a waif dog. He sniffs at it and walks away unimpressed. He must have eaten it before! I sense another bout of traveller´s trots beckons.
The bus eventually arrives so I re-board for another hour of nose and ear assault.