This edited article about Lake Titicaca originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia is the highest navigable stretch of water in the world, Lake Titicaca. This inland sea, 120 miles in length and 45 miles at its widest (193 x 72 km), lies at an altitude of approximately 12,500 feet (3,810 m).
In the dry winter months, when no crops are growing and the sparse vegetation fades, the rocky surroundings of the lake are desolate, with mountain spurs running down to the water’s edge. Only towards the southern end are there low shores. There a part of the lake is almost separated from the rest by the Copacabana peninsula.
While the temperature is never excessive in this lofty region, in the summer the rain brings life to the lake’s shores.
In spite of its remote and rugged situation. Lake Titicaca is a busy place. It has been a centre of life since beyond human memory. Tradition says that it was the birthplace of the Inca empire, but massive stone remains on its shores and islands belong to a civilization far older than the Inca kingdom destroyed by the 16th-century Spanish invaders.
The Aymara Indians who still catch the lake’s fish and cultivate the thin soil on its shores are direct descendants of this pre-Incan people.
The lake’s high level of evaporation gives it a higher salt content than most inland waters. It is prevented from becoming a “dead sea” only by the existence of its single outlet. This is the Desaguadero River, flowing from the lake’s southern end into Lake Poopo, 200 miles (320 km) away to the south. There the water is 20 times as salty as in Titicaca.
The northern and western shores of the lake are in Peru, the rest in Bolivia, the frontier running through the lake. As a waterway, it today provides a link between the Peruvian and Bolivian rail terminals at Puno and Guaqui respectively.
A striking contrast between ancient and modern is offered by the craft that sail the lake. Tourists who want a swift sightseeing trip can now do so in a hydrofoil. On the other hand, the Indians are still making reed boats in the same way as their ancestors many centuries ago.
The long totora reeds are cut and dried, and bound into thick bundles with grass thongs. Tied together, these bundles form the keel and hull, with upturned prow and stern. Slimmer bundles are used for the gunwales.
The square sails, originally made of reeds, are now generally of canvas. The boats are called “balsas” – a name given to them by the Spaniards, because of a supposed resemblance to the balsa-wood rafts built by Pacific Coast Indians.
There is a similarity between the balsas and ancient Egyptian papyrus boats. Some see this as evidence that such boats once crossed the Atlantic. When Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer, wished to prove that it could be done, he brought Indians all the way from Lake Titicaca to North Africa to build his vessel, which he called Ra II. He succeeded at his second attempt.
As well as the hydrofoil, outboard motorboats are in use. All these motor-powered craft suffer from a serious drawback: at this altitude the air is so thin that their engines can only develop about half their normal power.
Another type of vessel provides a ferry service across Tiquina Strait, which joins the two parts of the lake. Here wooden boats, clumsily propelled by large square sails, are used.
Over a century ago the lake’s first steamer was launched. This 200-ton ship, built in Scotland, made the long voyage round the Horn to the Pacific Coast. There it was dismantled, and the parts transported by mule-train over the mountains. It was put together by Indians, directed by a Scottish engineer – a hard task, as he could not speak their language.
Bigger steamers, also built in Britain, were later brought to the lake. These, too, were carried there in sections, but by more modern means of transport. Five still operate on the run between Puno and Guaqui.
For tourists and archaeologists alike, one of the most interesting features of the lake is the group of islands that lies off Copacabana. The latter itself is a place of beauty, with a fine beach and a historic church and shrine. Largest of the islands is the Island of the Sun, cut by clear lagoons and fringed by high cliffs and white beaches. There can be seen ruined temples of great antiquity.
Suriki Island is of interest as the main centre for making reed-boats. The Island of the Moon, despite its poetic name, is put to a grimly unromantic use – as a camp for political prisoners.
The totora reeds grow thickly in the shallower waters of the lake. They serve other purposes besides boat-making. The Aymara Indians use the tenderer shoots as food for themselves and the rest as animal feed, as well as for thatching roofs.
Masses of the reeds often break loose and float on the water. On these floating “islands” some of the Indians make their homes, building conical reed huts. Until quite recently they even grew crops on the reed islands.
Of the food plants the Indians grow the most important is the potato. It was this region which gave this familiar vegetable to the world.
According to some estimates, the lake reaches depths of over 1,000 feet (300 m) in parts. It supports many types of fish. Of these caught for food, the small suchi was for a long time the most important. An attempt to introduce salmon trout had unfortunate results. These fish threatened to destroy the native species, until themselves wiped out by disease. True trout have now been introduced with happier results.
It was the famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau who revealed one of the strangest facts about the lake. He and his team discovered that the most numerous inhabitants of its waters are probably not fish – but frogs. They belong to a species whose bodies grow to six or seven inches (150 or 170 mm.), and are found down to a depth of 400 feet (122 m). In the whole lake the frogs are estimated to number a thousand million.
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