J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY Heads in the clouds
Judith Elen ventures into the hills above the world’s highest navigable waterway, Peru’s Lake Titicaca
T’S midnight and freezing. Stars blaze violently overhead. I’m on a rocky outcrop high above Puno, on the edge of Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes, with two or three dozen figures in shadowy, shifting groups, all locals. Jagged sparks from a bonfire stab the dark, fitfully lighting our faces. This late June night is the longest of the year, the winter solstice. Men muffled in heavy capes beat drums, blow breathily through pan pipes ( zamponas ) and dance a stiff-legged stomp. Cries punctuate the icy air, translated by my guide, Nolia —‘‘Help me, Pachamama; help me, Pachatata’’ — as the dancers call on the earth mother and father at this crucial hinge of the year.
The fire makes dark cut-outs of the Quechua musicians who take turns blowing through a conch shell, calling on the spirit of the lake. The shell represents one of the four elements; there is a condor’s plume for the sky, a bull’s horn for the earth, and then there is the fire. At solstitial rituals elsewhere in this land, rural elders will gaze at the constellations in a centuries-old practice to predict the agrarian year and the outcome for their crops.
Here an elder kneels in front of the fire, holding high the offerings we give him before laying them out on a blanket: coca leaves, special sweets, old coins, dried alpaca foetuses or alpaca meat, candies dissolved in water. In the earliest moments of morning, with the first glimmers of light, he will set the objects alight, releasing our hopes and wishes to the realm of the spirits. Each gift has a meaning. I’ve been given a handful of coca leaves for him to offer on my behalf, a prayer for health. I may need it, dizzy with the altitude and the deathly cold.
I have arrived in Puno, capital of the Peruvian Altiplano, the Andean high plains, a couple of hours ago, after a 21/ hour flight from Lima, via Cusco, to the airport in nearby Juliaca. It’s by happy accident that I’m here on the day of the solstice and Nolia has brought me up the precipitous hillside that overlooks Puno to be present at the annual ritual. I have a headache because of the altitude, and am breathless and a bit unsteady, but excited to be here.
In three days, Nolia says, small fires will be lit in the streets of Puno, at the door of each house, to welcome the rebirth of the year with dancing and drinking.
We do it in my family,’’ she tells me in response to a query about the beliefs of the young. I believe. It’s good for my business, for health.’’
The Altiplano, Peru’s poorest region, is a place with its head in the clouds and a thick carpet of dust at its feet. In this country of sublime sites — Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Amazon and Lake Titicaca — everyday life can be a rustic testing ground for survival.
Across Peru’s regions of tropical rainforest, snow mountains and arid coastal plain, a tiny proportion of land is arable. Villagers on Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca cook and work on earthen floors and till their small, steep patches of land to produce native potatoes, maize and quinoa. Fine dust coats their bare feet and legs just as it cloaks the streets of Puno. Even in Lima, Peru’s sophisticated capital, peripatetic shoe polishers are in constant demand.
Last year, the International Year of the Potato, the UN celebrated that dusty little standby for the hungry of the world. Potatoes were first grown in South America, probably Peru, and there is evidence that they originated near Lake Titicaca. What food could speak more eloquently of the earth? But the native potatoes that grow here are dirtencrusted gems, coming in hundreds of shapes, sizes and colours, from deep purpleblack to rose-pink and golden.
The lake, the world’s highest navigable waterway, is wreathed in myth and Inca legend; when I told people at home where I was headed, they were not sure it even existed. But here I am, almost 4000m up in the Andes, in the open back of a small ferry, chugging between water and sky of the deepest blue, from Puno to Taquile Island, which takes about four hours at a steady pace, so vast is this lake. The sun burns and glitters and waterbirds flock to the lake and its reeds.
Nolia and I will stay overnight with an island family on Taquile. We dock beside the packed-stone jetty with the rocky hillside looming above us, its steep sides darkly scalloped and hemmed in stones. Families farm small terraced plots and keep sheep, goats, chickens and the occasional cow. To reach the village we face our first challenge: 500 rough-hewn steps, angled and dusty, which in my breathless state are negotiated slowly and with frequent stops. I am happy to see the locals also take rests on their skipping, energetic trips up and down, often with large wrapped bundles on their heads or slung across their backs.
Everywhere the Quechua women and children are heavily enveloped in woolly tops and voluminous skirts of hot pink, purple, green, turquoise and red, more perpetual environments than clothes. Shawls, often black, fall from heads to the hems of skirts.
We reach the top to find steep, walled pathways threading through the village and between strips of land that are dry-stone bordered and marked off with bushy greenery. Views are precipitous and breathtaking in their wide expanses of sea and sky.
Our homestay is a mud-brick house with an upper level of bedrooms, where we and the family sleep. There are no comforts but the single wooden beds are layered with rugs, allowing us to sleep warmly, and the view from the small window of my shared room, and from the stairs that cling to the exterior wall, is of the lake, always spectacular, and mesmerising at sunset and dawn.
We eat an evening bowl of rice and fried potato chips topped with a fried egg, its yolk the colour of the setting sun. This chicken has been scratching the dust for blades of grass. Before we retire for the night we, too, stand in the dirt outside the mud wall that encloses house and courtyard and gaze at the stars.
While Nolia translates, the father of the family tells us about the harvests, the planting and rotation of the simple crops. Everything depends on the movements of the stars and everything seems of a piece, the black sky studded with spangled constellations, and the rough earth at our feet.
Homestays are easily organised and inexpensive, but they are a challenge to travellers used to creature comforts. There is no plumbing and the toilet is a corrugated-iron outhouse beyond the courtyard wall. There is no running water for washing and a pan of water is a precious commodity. Bottled water is one of the things the locals have to carry up those stairs.
Many visitors choose a daytrip to the island, returning to the comfort of a hotel in Puno, but the night sky seen from here, like the rising and setting sun, is memorable and worth the brief discomfort.
In the morning, we walk high, dusty pathways to the walled village square for breakfast. Sitting in the sun on what feels like castle battlements, we eat an unlikely jam pancake (eggs are also on the menu) and drink weak coffee and restorative coca mate, the tea
Local ferries to Taquile run daily from 7am (a four-hour trip) from the main port in Puno, with return trips until 5pm the same day; about 15 soles ($6.60). There are also regular trips to the Uros Islands. Piramide Tours organises stays on Taquile Island. More: www.titikaka.com. Casa Andina operates excellent hotels in Puno Plaza (Casa Andina Classic) and on the shore of Lake Titicaca (Casa Andina Private Collection). More: www.casa-andina.com; www.peru.info. Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns next month.
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