Lake Titicaca: soothing the scars of a lost sea

The 23rd March marks the Day of the Sea in Bolivia. As a landlocked country it might seem a bit strange to celebrate a sea that doesn’t exist, but there is actually a long history behind Bolivia and the sea, and so, in honour of Bolivia’s Día del Mar, I thought I’d post an old article I wrote on the topic a while back.

Feliz día del mar everyone!

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Boat moored by the beach on Isla del Sol

As one of the only two landlocked countries in South America, Bolivia has a unique identity that separates it somewhat from its ocean-dwelling neighbours. Bolivia almost has it all: tropical jungle in the north, stark altiplano in the east, temperate climes in its centre, and southern regions that are Mediterranean in nature. The only thing you might say it lacks is a coastline.

Bolivia’s relationship with the sea

Bolivia has had a long and tumultuous relationship with the sea as well as with neighbours, Peru and Chile. Tensions arose between Bolivia and Chile after the War of the Pacific and the subsequent Atacama border dispute during the 19th century when Bolivia’s entire coastal territory was transferred to Chile. It was never reclaimed, and Bolivia’s access to the sea has been blocked for over 100 years.

There are many Bolivians who feel strongly about this maritime isolation and many consider the dispute to be on going. For instance, if you pass a naval institute in Bolivia you will likely see the words “El mar nos pertenece” (The sea belongs to us) sprawled across its outer walls. And, in the last year, Bolivia filed a lawsuit against Chile at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in an attempt to regain access to the Pacific Ocean.

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A naval base Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, expressing Bolivia’s right to regain access to the Pacific Ocean

But until that day of reclamation comes, Bolivia will have to make do with the next best thing: the unfathomable Lake Titicaca. And that doesn’t seem to be so bad, really.

Bolivia’s largest expanse of water

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, and, at 3,182 metres above sea level, its immense blue waters stretch out as far as the eye can see, leaving a strong impression that you could be standing at the edge of an ocean. From the provincial and peaceful town of Copacabana this view of the lake is something very special: dozens of small boats bob in the harbour waiting to take you to the Islas del Sol y de la Luna where you can spend the night in a homestay in order to soak up the tranquillity and mystique of the ancient islands.

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View of Lake Titicaca from the north of Isla del Sol

By staying with a family or at a small hostel on the island, you have the opportunity to give something back to the community that welcomes tourists so readily. Young children run around the island, making the most of its beaches and bays while their parents tend to the various farm animals and agricultural tasks that are the island’s principal source of income before tourism. Traditionally dressed women with long braids and bowler hats line the walkways between the archaeological sites as they sell artisanal products for reasonable prices.

A small island with a rich history

Although it is the biggest island on Lake Titicaca, it is still possible to hike around the Isla del Sol in less than a day and visit all of the archaeological sites that abound on the island that is said to be the birthplace of the Inca Empire. It is believed that the deity Viracocha sent his two children, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, down to the islands with the sun and the moon and, from there, the Inca Empire was born and its power spread across Latin America.

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Clear waters of Lake Titicaca

Archaeological sites are dotted around the north and south of the island, with the north being home to the Chincana building complex, a maze of ruined rooms perched on the edge of a hill looking out across the dazzling lake. And sitting next to these ruins is the sacred rock, which is said to be where the name Titicaca originated.  Titicaca can literally be translated as Rock Puma (Titi – Puma, and Caca – Rock), and as you walk past the sacred rock the face of a puma appears almost magically on its surface. The south of the island boasts the ruins of the Inca stairs and Pilko Kaina, and can be reached from the north either by boat or by a 3-4 hour hike over the ridge of the island.

Accepting illusions

When I visited Lake Titicaca I was in awe of its size and it was hard to believe that this was a lake and not the sea. My eyes deceived me at every opportunity, tricking me into thinking that if I looked out into the horizon another continent would eventually be at the other side. The black-headed gulls that circled above me, the stretches of white sandy beaches that lay before me, and the expanse of dazzling blue water whose waves would lap against the shore, all made me certain that I was at the sea. And, after living in this landlocked country for three months, I was more than ready to let myself believe that Lake Titicaca was Bolivia’s sea.

And so, Bolivia may lack coastline, but the magic and mystique of Lake Titicaca will still be enough to sate any ocean-loving traveller’s appetite for sun, sea and sand. And the knowledge of the difficult relationship between Bolivia and the sea makes this beautiful expanse of water all the more special.

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Boats bobbing in Copacabana harbour at sunset

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