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!


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.

Potatoes – the real treasure of the Incas . . .

Home of the potato
The Andes of South America are the home of the potato that has supported indigenous civilizations for thousands of years. As many as 4,000 native potato varieties are still grown. The region around Lake Titicaca in southern Peru and northern Bolivia is particularly rich in genetic diversity, and the wild potatoes from here are valuable for their disease and pest resistance [1].

For three years, from 1973-1975 I had the privilege of living and working in Peru (fulfilling an ambition I’d had since I was a boy) and studying the potato in its homeland. My work took me all over the mountains to collect potato varieties (for conservation in the germplasm collection of the International Potato Center (CIP), and to carry out studies of potato cultivation that I hoped would throw some light on different aspects of potato evolution [2].

I joined CIP in January 1973 as Associate Taxonomist, charged with the task of collecting potato varieties and helping them to maintain the large germplasm collection, that grew to at least 15,000 separate entries (or clonal accessions), but was reduced to a more manageable number through the elimination of duplicate samples. The germplasm collection was planted each year from October through April, coinciding with the most abundant rains, in the field in Huancayo, central Peru at an altitude of more than 3,100 meters.

Potato collection at CIP, grown in the field at Huancayo, central Peru, at 3100 m. Taken around mid 1980s.

When CIP was founded in 1971, several germplasm collections from various institutes in Peru and elsewhere were donated to the new collection, but from 1973 CIP organized a program of collecting throughout Peru – and I was fortunate to be part of that endeavour. In May 1973 I joined my colleague Zosimo Huaman to collect potatoes in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad, to the north of Lima. The highest mountains in Peru are found in Ancash, and our route took us through into the Callejón de Huaylas (between two ranges of the highest mountains in Peru, the Cordillera Blanca on the east, and Cordillera Negra on the west), and over the mountains to valleys on the eastern flanks. This was my first experience of collecting germplasm, and it was exhilarating. I think we did quite well in terms of the varieties collected, and the photograph below illustrates some of  their  immense genetic diversity.

Genetic diversity in cultivated potatoes

The following year I traveled with just a driver, Octavio (who was unfortunately killed in a road accident a couple of years later) further north into the Department of Cajamarca during April-May 1974. The photograph below shows the view, in the early morning sun, south towards Cajamarca city. The mist hanging over the city comes from hot springs that were utilized centuries ago by the Incas to build bath houses.

We collected potatoes in the field at the time of harvest, but also in markets (here is shown the market of Bambamarca), and from farmers’ own potato stores. Incidentally, the tall straw hats are very typical Cajamarca, as are the russet-colored ponchos.

In January 1974 I made a trip south, with Dr Peter Gibbs, a taxonomist from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, who was interested in the tri-styly pollination of a minor Andean tuber crop called oca (Oxalis tuberosa). We went to the village of Cuyo Cuyo, more than 100 km north of Puno in southern Peru. Dropping down from the altiplano, the road hugs the sides of the valley, and is often blocked by landslides (a very common occurrence throughout Peru in the rainy season). Along the way – and due to the warmer air rising from the selva (jungle) to the east – the vegetation is quite luxurious in places, as the white begonia below shows (the flowers were about 8 cm in diameter). Eventually the valley opens out, with terraces on all sides. These terraces (or andenes) are ancient structures constructed by the Incas to make the valley more productive.

In Cuyo Cuyo, I studied the varieties growing in farmers’ fields, and their uses [3].

Getting to some locations by four-wheel drive vehicle was often difficult. Then it was either ‘shanks’ pony’, or real pony. I do remember that I became very sore after many hours in the saddle. Incidentally, I still have that straw hat and it’s as good as the day I bought it in January 1973.

But studying potato systems, and working with farmers was fascinating. Here I am collecting flower buds, and preserving them in alcohol ready to make chromosome counts in the laboratory, back in Lima.

The next photograph shows a community we visited close to Chincheros, near Cuzco in southern Peru. While farmers grew commercial varieties to send to market in Cuzco – the large plantings of potatoes in the distance -closer to their dwellings they grew complex mixtures of varieties, with different cooking and eating qualities.

Most farmers do not have access to mechanization, apart from manual labor and oxen to pull ploughs. In any case, much of the land in these steep valleys is unsuitable for mechanization. For centuries, farmers use the chakitaqlla or foot plough illustrated by Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala in the early 17th century. There are many different foot ploughs in used throughout Peru. The foot plough shown below in one of Poma de Ayala’s illustrations is the same as that used by farmers in Cuyo Cuyo. The photograph underneath shows farmers near Huanuco in central Peru.

I never collected wild potatoes as such, but it was fun on two occasions to accompany my thesis supervisor and mentor, Jack Hawkes (a world-renowned expert on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes, and one of the founders of the genetic resources movement in the 1960s) on short trips. In January 1973 we visited Cuzco, and Jack found Solanum raphanifolium growing among the ruins of the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman.

Early 1975 (during one of his annual trips to CIP)  Jack, Juan Landeo (then a research assistant, who later became one of CIP’s potato breeders), and I traveled over four days through the central Andes just north and east of Lima, in the Departments of Cerro de Pasco, Huanuco, and Lima. It was fascinating watching an expert at work, especially someone so familiar with the wild potatoes and their ecology. We’d be driving along, and suddenly Jack would say “Stop the car! I can smell potatoes”. And more than nine times out of ten we’d find clumps of wild potatoes after just a few minutes of searching. Here we are (looking rather younger) about to make a herbarium collection just south of Cerro de Pasco (I don’t remember which wild species, however).

Markets are always fascinating places to collect germplasm of many different crops. The next two photographs show colorful diversity in maize and peppers.

Among the many you can find in the market is chuño, a type of freeze-dried potato, made from several varieties of so-called bitter potatoes, which have a high concentration of alkaloids which must be removed before eating. This is done by first leaving the tubers on the ground on frosty nights to freeze, and then thaw the following morning. After several cycles of freezing and thawing the tubers are then soaked for several weeks in fast-flowing streams to leach out the bitter compounds. Afterwards, they are left to dry in the sun, and in this preserved state will last for months. This photograph was taken in the Sunday market at Pisac, near Cuzco.

Clearly the potato is an ancient crop in Peru (and other countries of the South American Andes), and domesticated several thousand years ago. It was revered by ancient civilizations, as these anthropomorphic potato pots (or huacos) show. The national anthropological museum in Lima has a fine collection of these pots showing a vast array of different crop plants. It also holds an extensive collection of erotic ceramics for which the Incas, Moche, and other coastal civilizations were equally famous.

After the conquest of the Incan empire by Francisco Pizarro González in the 16th century, the Spanish plundered all the gold and other precious items they could find, and sent everything back to Spain. It’s often said, however, that the value of all this gold fades into insignificance compared to the value of the potato crop today worldwide. The real treasure of the Incas has certainly been put to better use.


[1] Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes, B.S. Male-Kayiwa & N.W.M. Wanyera, 1988. The importance of the Bolivian wild potato species in breeding for Globodera pallida resistance. Plant Breeding 101, 261-268.

[2] Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783.

[3] Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113.