Titicaca the Great: Urcos, Yavari and Sillustani Too!

Peru always surprises!

By David Rich

A reed boat in Urcos on Lake Titicaca - photos by David Rich
A reed boat in Urcos on Lake Titicaca – photos by David Rich

Excitement reaches a fever pitch in the remote reaches of Peru where it shares the world’s highest navigable lake, magnificent Lake Titicaca, with Bolivia. Here the locals argue which country hosts the caca-part of the lake.

Lake Titicaca is more than a hundred miles long, the largest lake in the world above 6600 feet (2000 meters), actually over 12,500 feet, which is so high boats often omit life jackets as unnecessary — the inattentive who fall in die from hypothermia in thirty seconds, less time than it would take the boat to turn around and pick them up. Those intent on distinguishing titi from caca, just don’t fall in!

But slow down twenty miles (32 kilometers) before reaching Lake Titicaca, to visit a magical place with a weird name, Sillustani, which practically no one has heard of for two very bad reasons: it’s off the beaten track and National Geographic Magazine has never done a spread on it.

The Most Striking of Locations

Sillustani is overdue for National Geographic coverage though it’s obviously making progress toward fame — at Sillustani, I spotted the first Japanese tour bus I’d seen in Peru.

Sillustani is an ancient place of sheer startling beauty, pre-Incan yet its rulers commandeered the southern quarter of the Incan Empire.

If the Incan capitol of Cuzco was the Emerald City, the center of the Empire, Sillustani remained the headquarters for the excellent warriors of the South, the Colla Indians, who buried their noble dead with pizazz in Sillustani, the most striking of locations.

Sillustani sits on a high rocky peninsula with a spindly neck extending into Lake Umaya, which borders it on three and three quarter sides.

A tower in Sillustani
A tower in Sillustani

Funerary towers poke up forty feet high from a lofty bluff, round ones and square ones, medium ones looking like a blockade, lots of them, formed from massive stone blocks that fit together perfectly, mausoleums reflected perfectly in the mirrored waters of Lake Umaya.

Some are unfinished, with blocks stacked for insertion into a half-completed edifice, angled ramps waiting to convey massive stones to the top.

Mysterious Reptile Motifs

A few towers soar while others squat in various states of disrepair. Others are held up with rickety poles, whitewashed citadels on the north edge of the little plateau and plain ones of massive stones in the south, all sprinkled above a curvaceous lake of striking beauty.

Family groups were buried in each rampart. As with ancient peoples all over the world, they were entombed with food and implements for an afterlife. They definitely didn’t get in standing up because the only opening was a small triangular entrance facing east.

A Peruvian tyke
A Peruvian tyke

And what towers they were. All boasted construction far more complex than the run-of-the-mill Incan buildings, many decorated in motifs of mysterious reptiles.

A new village sits below the towers, its occupants seemingly unaware they’ll graduate to funerary towers of far less grandeur. The village sits on a lake of salt water, supporting a bird-lovers’ paradise from Andean coots and geese to vivid flamingos, the last sighted only by the lucky, which excluded me.

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But I was lucky at sunset and sunrise when Sillustani turned mystic and enchanted, providing perfectly photogenic views for the long dead, oblivious villagers and the incidental Japanese tourist.

Floating Islands

The next morning as I dropped into Puno, I marvelled at Lake Titicaca glistening in the mist, framed by high snow-capped peaks on the distant Bolivian Altiplano.

Puno is a labyrinth of a town and the jumping off place for the islands of floating totani reeds at Urcos.

Thor Heyerdahl used totani reeds to fashion a raft to prove that South American natives populated the South Pacific.

The floating islands
The floating islands

The floating islands are colorful tourist traps well worth the pittance of $7 for a three-hour boat tour from Puno.

The floating islands are six feet thick; a meter of compressed reeds and another meter of loose reeds atop, tethered to prevent the winds from blowing them off to Bolivia, explained to tourists as a necessity since none of the floating villagers have passports (and wouldn’t need them in any event).

Our guide pointed out the finer aspects of Peruvian pollution, why the Bolivians call this part of the lake caca; green algae fringing the shoreline.

The village ladies, colorfully dressed in pastels of aquamarine, pink and blue, grabbed docking lines and reeled in our boat for a close-up introduction to island crafts.

The welcoming committee
The welcoming committee

When islanders disagree a long handled saw can be used to saw an island in half, sundering feuds in the bud.

The S.S. Yavari

My favorite attraction in Puno isn’t the floating island tourist traps but what to any former sailor is the most fascinating stop on Lake Titicaca.

The S.S. Yavari was ordered by the Peruvian government in 1861 from James Watt & Company at the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company of England, shipped in 2766 pieces around Cape Horn in 1862, and up the Chilean coast to its furthest northern port, Arica, where it was taken by railroad to Tacna (now in Peru). There the S.S. Yavari was shuttled by mule to Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes, a chore taking six long years.

The S.S. Yavari was launched on Lake Titicaca Christmas Day 1870, fueled by dried llama dung. The engine was converted to a Swedish Bolinger diesel in 1914, forcing a local llama herd into unemployment.

The wheelhouse of the S.S. Yavari
The wheelhouse of the S.S. Yavari

In 1887, after the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru, the ship was deeded to the British Peruvian Corporation, falling into rack and ruin. Salvaged from oblivion in 1962 with backing from Prince Philip the fabulously restored Yavari is 165 feet long (50 meters), again a beauty ready to ply the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca, life jackets optional.

The ship is immaculate, the amidships whitewashed and bordered with polished glass and rare woods. A six-armed anchor winch of finest rare wood commands the far fore deck, ready to roust double chains because a steel boat 165 feet long requires two heavy anchors.

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The pilothouse centers on a huge wooden wheel and glistening brass stanchion polished to a glare. The plan is for ten double cabins hosting tourists on Lake Titicaca, a remarkable opportunity to sail on one of the world’s oldest ships.

The Islands of the Sun and Moon

Bolivians insist their part of the lake is the titi portion because crystalline waters lap the Islands of the Sun and the Moon a couple of hours boat-glide from Copacabana. And the Bolivians are correct.

A shaman on the Island of the Sun
A shaman on the Island of the Sun

Tourists flock to the pristine shores of the Lake on the Bolivian side, to Copacabana, many to enjoy the spectacular six-hour hike along the rocky elevated spine of the Island of the Sun.

For a pittance, boats drop hikers on the northeast quadrant of the island where a trail winds up to Incan ruins on the north end with spectacular views across to the glistening 20,000 foot peaks spiking the high Altiplano.

A Bolivian Shaman stands ready to perform an ancient purification ceremony though the hike itself will purify the average tourist’s mind with vistas of striking brilliance across the broad blue reaches of Titicaca the great.

When you go:

The best way to get around Peru and Bolivia is by luxurious semi-bed buses served by attentive stewardeses toting snacks, meals and drinks; from Lima to Cuzco or Puno in coddled comfort costs about $35.

The hotels are wonderful and cheap, from the Hotels Rosario ($52) to Gloria ($41) in Copacabana, Internet rates, to the Qelgatani in Puno for $56, in the center of town.

Excellent restaurants feature trout, fresh in mere seconds from the lake to your table, complete meals from $5.

Unfortunately the Bolivian government has instituted a $100 fee for U.S. Citizens to obtain a visa, but it’s good for five years. Visas for all other nationalitites are free at the Bolivian border, as are visas for all nationalitities entering Peru.

David Rich in TunisiaHe is a full-time international traveler, an occupation he finds far preferable to his former professions of law professor and trial lawyer, from which he says he’s now “mostly recovered.”