An immense, sapphire-blue lake sitting astride the border with Peru at the northern end of the Altiplano, LAGO TITICACA is one of the classic images of Bolivia, and few scenes are more evocative of the country than the sight of a poncho-clad fisherman paddling across its azure waters against the backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Set at an altitude of 3810m, and measuring 190km by 80km, it’s by far the biggest high-altitude body of water in the world – the remnant of an ancient inland sea formed as the Andes were thrust up from the ocean floor. The surrounding area is the heartland of the Aymara, whose language and culture have survived centuries of domination. The lake itself is rich in fish, and the water it contains stores the heat of the sun and then releases it overnight, raising average temperatures around its shores, making the region one of the most productive in the high Andes. Lago Titicaca is fed by a number of rivers that carry rainfall down from the Cordillera Real and across the Altiplano, though none of its waters ever reaches the sea, and almost ninety percent of the lake’s water loss is through evaporation (the rest is drained by its only outlet, the Río Desaguadero). The water level in the lake fluctuates sharply with slight variations in rainfall; since 2000 levels have fallen to historic lows.
Titicaca has always played a major role in Andean religious conceptions. As the biggest body of water in this arid region, it’s considered a powerful female deity that controls climate and rainfall, and the Incas believed the creator god Viracocha rose from its waters, calling forth the sun and moon to light up the world. The Incas also claimed their own ancestors came into being here, and the remains of their shrines and temples can be seen on Isla del Sol and nearby Isla de la Luna, whose serene beauty and tranquillity is a highlight of any visit to the lake. Nor did Lago Titicaca lose its religious importance with the advent of Christianity: Bolivia’s most important Catholic shrine is in Copacabana, the lakeside town closest to Isla del Sol.
The pleasant little town of COPACABANA overlooks the deep blue waters of Lago Titicaca just a few kilometres from the Peruvian border. The town is an untidy collection of red-tiled houses and modern concrete buildings nestled between two steep hills. As well as being a good base from which to explore the Bolivian side of the lake, the town is the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the country, being home to Bolivia’s most revered image, the Virgen de Copacabana. Several times annually the town is overwhelmed by religious devotees who come to pay homage to the Virgin in colourful religious fiestas, while the rest of the year sees a steady stream of pilgrims seeking the Virgin’s blessing. Copacabana is also the base for visits to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, Titicaca’s two sacred islands, while a series of mysterious Inca ruins lie within easy walking distance.
Copacabana’s main religious fiestas are the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria (Feb 2) and the Coronación de la Virgen de Copacabana (Aug 5), which attract thousands of pilgrims from across Bolivia and southern Peru. The Virgin’s statue is paraded around town accompanied by brass bands and dance troupes and several days of festivities culminate in bullfights in the ring on the town’s northern outskirts. Semana Santa (Easter) is more solemn. Many pilgrims walk to Copacabana from as far away as La Paz in penance, and thousands more take part in a candlelit nocturnal procession up Cerro Calvario, where they pray for the forgiveness of their sins and success in the coming years. Far more mysterious, distinctly non-Christian ceremonies are staged on the night of June 21 to celebrate the winter solstice and Aymara New Year, when small crowds led by traditional Aymara religious leaders gather to perform ceremonies at the Horca del Inca and Intinkala, two ancient shrines on the outskirts of town.
The speed with which the Virgen de Copacabana emerged as the most revered religious image in the Altiplano after the Spanish conquest suggests that her cult was simply a continuation of previous, pre-Christian religious traditions associated with Lago Titicaca. Immediately after the conquest the Inca temples around the lake were looted by Spanish treasure-seekers, and their shrines and idols destroyed. These included, at Copacabana, a large female idol with a fish’s tail – probably a representation of the lake as a goddess. The town was refounded in 1573 as the parish of Santa Ana de Copacabana, but a series of devastating early frosts swiftly ensued, convincing locals of the need for a new supernatural protector. Santa Ana was abandoned and the town rededicated in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria, one of the most popular representations of the Virgin Mary during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
A locally born man, Francisco Inca Yupanqui, grandson of the Inca Huayna Capac (himself the father of Atahualpa, whose capture by the Spanish led to the fall of the Inca empire), began fashioning an image of the Virgin. After his first crude efforts were rejected by the Spanish priests he went to Potosí to study sculpture, eventually returning with the figure that graces the church today, the Virgen de Copacabana, who was immediately credited with a series of miracles. The town quickly became the most important Catholic pilgrimage destination in the southern Andes, and after independence, the Virgin was also proclaimed the religious patron of Bolivia.
Just off the northern tip of the Copacabana peninsula, about 12km northwest of Copacabana, ISLA DEL SOL (Island of the Sun) has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. In the sixteenth century the island, 9km long by 6km wide at its broadest point, was one of the most important religious sites in the Andean world, revered as the place where the sun and moon were created and the Inca dynasty was born, and covered with shrines and temples that attracted thousands of pilgrims. After the Spanish conquest the island was looted, and the cut stones from its temples plundered to build churches on the mainland. But five centuries later it’s still easy to see why it was (and is) considered sacred. Surrounded by the azure Lago Titicaca, with the imperious peaks of the Cordillera Real rising above the shore on the mainland to the east, it’s a place of great natural beauty and tranquillity.
Isla del Sol is the largest of the forty or so islands in Lago Titicaca and home to several thousand Aymara campesinos. The three main settlements, Yumani, Challa and Challapampa, are all on the east coast. Scattered with enigmatic ancient ruins and populated by traditional Aymara communities, it’s an excellent place to spend some time hiking and contemplating the magnificent scenery.
The remains of ritual offerings found by archeologists show that Isla del Sol was an important local religious shrine long before the arrival of the Incas. When the island came under Tiwanaku control around 500 AD, larger ritual complexes were built and pilgrimages to the island began. Under Inca rule, though, the island was transformed into a pan-Andean pilgrimage destination visited annually by thousands of people from across the empire. The Incas believed the creator god Viracocha rose from the waters of Lago Titicaca and called forth the sun and moon from a rock on the island. They also claimed the founding fathers of their own dynasty – Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo – were brought into being here by Viracocha before travelling north to establish the city of Cusco and spread civilization throughout the Andes. In fact, it’s very unlikely the Incas originated on the shores of the lake. This dynastic myth was probably an attempt to add legitimacy to the Inca regime by associating them with Lago Titicaca and the birthplace of the sun – from which the Inca rulers claimed to be directly descended – as well as providing a link with the pre-existing Tiwanaku civilization that was based on the shores of the lake.
After conquering the region in the mid-fifteenth century, the Incas invested heavily in building roads, agricultural terraces, shrines and temples on Isla del Sol, and establishing the town of Copacabana as a stop-off point for pilgrims. The entire Copacabana peninsula, as well as the sacred islands, was cleared of its indigenous Lupaqa and Colla population and turned into a restricted sacred area, its original populace being replaced by loyal settlers from elsewhere in the empire, who maintained the places of worship, attended to the needs of the astronomer priests and visiting pilgrims, and cultivated maize for use in elaborate religious rituals. A wall was built across the neck of the peninsula at Yunguyo, with gates where guards controlled access to Copacabana (nearly five centuries later the peninsula is still separated from the rest of the mainland by the border between Peru and Bolivia, which follows almost exactly the same line). Pilgrims entering Copacabana would abstain from salt, meat and chilli and spend several days praying at the complex of shrines here before walking round to the tip of the peninsula at Yampupata, from where they would cross over the water to Isla del Sol.
Part of the island’s religious importance was no doubt related to the fertility of its fields. Insulated by the waters of the lake, Isla del Sol enjoys slightly higher average temperatures than the mainland, as a result of which its terraced slopes produce more and better maize than anywhere else in the region. Maize was a sacred crop for the Incas anyway, but that grown on Isla del Sol was especially important. Though most was used to make chicha (maize beer) for use in rituals on the island, grains of maize from the Isla del Sol were distributed across the Inca empire, carried by returning pilgrims who believed that a single grain placed in their stores would ensure bountiful harvests for ever more.