Heading south to the highest lake in the world

At 3812 m above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is the ‘highest navigable lake in the world’. It’s more than 1200 km south from Lima by road, and was the destination of a trip that Steph and I made in November 1974. Our first idea was to drive to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, some 256 km southeast from Puno. However, we decided that would be one sector too far in the time we had available.

Most of the drive follows the Panamericana Sur for 850 km through a coastal desert, one of the driest in the world.

The highway crosses the Nazca Plain about 450 km south of Lima, and is the site of the world famous Nazca Lines (yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru!), ancient geoglyphs that can only be appreciated from the air. Sadly, we never took the opportunity for a flight over the Lines¹.

The Nazca monkey. Photo taken by renowned archaeologist Maria Reiche in 1953.

Much further south, at Camana, the road branches north towards the southern city of Arequipa, some 180 km away, and at an altitude of around 2330 m. Puno is reached from Arequipa after a climb to well over 4000 m before dropping to 3800 m on the shore of Lake Titicaca, crossing (among other locations) the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca (and its flamingos).

We had already decided to drive ourselves just as far as Arequipa, then take a colectivo (a communal taxi) for the rest of the journey to Puno, and use taxis to move between the various sites we wanted to visit around Puno. On reflection we could have taken our VW the whole distance given some of the other trips we made around Peru and the state of some of those roads. From Arequipa to Puno we left the asphalt behind, travelling on a graded dirt road.

We spent the first night in Nazca, traveling on to Camana and its turista hotel on the second day. Like most of our travels there were frequent stops to admire the landscape, take photos, and investigate the local flora, especially the various cactus species, a particular hobby of Steph’s at that time.

This cactus, possibly an Echinocactus species, was less than 3 inches in diameter.

The highway crosses quite a number of rivers that flow down from the Andes. In the desert, and along the valleys themselves, irrigated rice cultivation is quite important. I had no idea when looking at these rice paddies in the 1970s that I’d be working on that crop across the other side of the world two decades later².

In Arequipa, we found a garage where we could leave the car safely for a few days while we traveled on to Puno. And then spent the next day and a half walking around the city to enjoy some of its sites.

Arequipa, founded in 1540, is (was) an elegant city, with a skyline dominated by the symmetrical cone of the Misti volcano, rising to over 5800 m. It is seasonally snow-capped, but with the effects of climate change affecting so many mountain ranges in the Andes today, I wonder to what extent Misti now has any snow cover at all during the year.

There were two sites we wanted to visit: the Basilica Cathedral, located on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa’s central square. It has a facade of beautifully carved white stone, like the cathedral in Cajamarca that we visited in June 1974.

It was constructed over more than two centuries beginning in the 1540s. Progress was interrupted many times by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the church had to be reconstructed several times. As recently as June 2001, one of its towers was toppled by a powerful earthquake that shook southern Peru. It is a building of great beauty, and dominates the Plaza de Armas.

A short distance north of the Plaza de Armas, the 16th century Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine (Monasterio Santa Catalina) is a quiet haven among the bustle of a busy city, and open for tourists to visit. Well, that was the situation four decades ago, so it must be even more so today. It has the feel of a small Spanish village, with winding streets, open doorways off to the side, and colonnaded hidden courtyards. And all decorated in a glorious umber.

The nuns could not receive visitors inside the convent, but could communicate with the outside world through grills. Natural light brightens the visitors’ corridor through skylights hewn from rock crystal. Inside the convent there are beautiful murals dating from as early as 1516. That’s interesting, because in the article about the convent on Wikipedia linked to above, the founding date is given as 1579, and Arequipa was not founded until 1540. Maybe some early buildings were incorporated into the convent. Nevertheless, there are some date inconsistencies I need to check further.

In Puno, there were three attractions we wanted to visit: the harbour and its large steamships; the floating islands made from the local totora reeds (Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. tatora), and home to a community of indigenous Urus; and the pre-Incan archaeological site of Sillustani, some 32 km northwest from Puno towards the airport town of Juliaca.

Some of the vessels that ply (or used to ply) Lake Titicaca are remarkable for their size. So how did they come to be sailing around the lake? The SS Ollanta was built in 1929 in Kingston upon Hull in England, in kit form, and sent out to Peru in pieces. The original Lego! Transported from the port of Mollendo to Puno by rail, it was riveted together on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and launched in 1931. It is still sailing today, but no longer on any scheduled services.

Tourism was, and must still be, a significant source of income for the Uru community that lives on the totora reed islands just offshore from Puno. Steph and I took the short motor boat trip from Puno to spend a couple of hours there. It is quite a remarkable community, seemingly self-sufficient, and getting around on their beautifully-crafted reed boats (the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition).

Given my interest in potatoes, I was fascinated to come across this brilliant example of potato hydroponics. Now that’s a good use for an old totora reed boat. Ingenious!

Although we didn’t make it into Bolivia, we did head out along the south shore of the lake towards the border, as far as Juli, just over 80 km southeast from Puno. As with so many small communities in the Andes, the town is dominated by a Catholic church, that we took the opportunity of visiting. The opulence of its interior was quite unexpected.

Our final visit in the Puno area was to the pre-Incan cemetery of Sillustani constructed by the Qulla people on the edges of Lake Umayo, and comprising a series of round towers called chullpas. The stones making up the chullpas are smooth and regular is shape, and one is left, yet again, with a sense of awe, at how such beautiful pieces of architecture were actually constructed. Interestingly, the Qulla are an indigenous people of western Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Chile. Sillustani must have been at the northern limit of their territory and range.

And then the vacation was over and we were headed back to Arequipa, to pick up our car and drive to Camana on the coast for an overnight stop. I think we made it back to Lima from there is one very long day of driving.

Besides this visit, I’d been in Puno on two previous occasions. One of my abiding memories was to seemingly acquire a taste for the algarrobina cocktail, made with Pisco. While I love a delicious Pisco sour, the thought of this rather sweet concoction now sends shivers down my spine. Happy days!

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¹ The Greenpeace delinquents who staged a protest on and defaced the Lines in December 2014 should have faced the full force of the law.

² In about 1996, the then President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori (now disgraced and serving a prison term for various human rights crimes, among others), visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. I showed him around the genebank, and then joined discussions with IRRI’s Director General George Rothschild about rice production in Peru. Peru grows a number of IRRI varieties that have fallen out of favor in other parts of the world because of their susceptibility to pests and diseases. These, including IR43 and IR48 were less affected in Peru.