“Now we are pilgrims,” joked Will Niceto, my guide, as we joined a cobbled island path that led to the crumbling Inca temple perched on the edge of Lake Titicaca.
Beyond the ruin, the still lake gleamed silver under the snowcaps of the towering Andes mountains.
“There is a strong energy here,” said Will, a little more seriously. “Can you feel it?”
We were hiking in thin air on the northern tip of Isla del Sol (The Island of the Sun), on the Bolivian side of the vast Lake Titicaca. At over 12 000 feet above sea level, on the border of Peru and Boliva, Titicaca is the highest large navigable lake in the world.
The clear cold waters have revealed wondrous archaeological finds—dramatic vertical terraced farms, temples, gold statues, pottery, artwork and even an entire underwater building—that have shed light on the Incan empire; an enigmatic pre-Columbian civilization that went on to encompass much of South America. The Inca nation was the largest indigenous empire to rule the Americas before the Europeans arrived (and indeed the largest empire in the world up until the 16 000s). They believed the waters of Lake Titicaca were the mythical birthplace of their civilization.
But when you peer a little closer into the water, all is not well in Lake Titicaca. The sacred wetland that has provided food, water and transport to the generations of humans, is now struggling with a massive pollution problem.
And solutions to this modern issue, as it transpires, are coming from an unlikely source.
Titicaca was the first stop on my round the world journey to capture the wonder of wetlands and appreciate water in our changing earth. In just 48 hours, I’d crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Town to the highest capital city on earth, La Paz, jumped on a bus to Copacabana town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, ferried across the lake, and now walked some 6 kilometres up to the southern point of the Island of the Sun, higher than any point I’d ever been.
Remarkable archaeological discoveries in and around Lake Titicaca have recently prompted the Bolivian government to sign the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, a global treaty that seeks to find and preserve all traces of human existence that lie hidden in underwater realms.
The lake is also a Ramsar site of International Importance, as the waters of Titicaca are essential to the well-being of millions of people who rely on the lake for agriculture, fishing and tourism, as well as water birds and wild animals that live along and on its shores.
Short of breath, I weaved my way through the labyrinth of half-walled passages and roofless rooms in the old crumbling temple. This was a site where thousands of Inca pilgrims came from all over the Empire to pass on gifts and sacrifices to the Sun God, Inti, who according to myth, was born and risen from the Lake itself.
We emerged at an open room that looked over the silvery blue water of Titicaca, looming large as the sea.
The view seemed to pump all the air back into my lungs.
“The situation on the lake is very complicated!” said Juan Pablo Jose Torrico.
A technician at the Bolivian Ministry of Environment and Water, I spoke with Torrico in his cramped office in La Paz, Bolivia’s lofty capital city, 300 miles from Titicaca.
“There are problems on all sides!” he said.
The biggest concern, said Torrico, is huge amounts of chemical pollution from cities and farms finding its way into the water. Farmers around the lake have replaced the traditional age-old terraced model of farming, (which was excellent at retaining water and preventing runoff), with flatter layouts of farms that offer short term solutions. The newer farming styles waste water and create chemical runoff into the lake that is having a devastating effect on the biodiversity. In addition, sewage outfalls from the many cities and settlements around the lake are currently pumping untreated raw sewage into the water, and some mining operations are releasing heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
The levels of pollution are so bad, that a study found mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in four types of fish that form part of the local population’s diet at levels higher than those advised for human consumption.
The waters are also a habitat for thousands of birds, numerous endemic fish species, and the famous Titicaca water toad (Also known as the Scrotum Frog), a huge freshwater toad that became famous after Jacques Cousteau’s Titicaca expedition in the 70’s. Millions were estimated to live in the lake at the time. But today, the frog’s numbers have inexplicably plummeted, and the species is now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
According to Torrico, the Inter-American bank has allocated USD 80 million to deal with the problems that the lake faces.
One of the projects is to work with farmers around the lake to ‘resurrect’ the ancient Incan way of agriculture. The unique step terrace farms, cut into the sides of the hills all around the lake, have been used by people for thousands of years, and are excellent for stabilizing the hills, for water retention, for managing resources, soil and encouraging biodiversity.
By learning from the ghosts of the past, Torrico is hoping that farmers will adopt the “technical instruments and processes of ancient people that were involved in sustainable cultivation,” he said.
“Bolivia has started a process to re-value the traditional way of life around Lake Titicaca,” he said. “We are now working with the traditional people, the local communities, to find solutions to some of the ongoing environmental problems in the lake.”
“We talk about the life flow,” said Torrica. “This is the amount of water that is necessary to sustain human life and each species of wildlife, and to maintain the natural cycles of the lake. So that is a concept that has just arrived in Bolivia, so we are including that in the management of the lake.”
“The lake is a sacred site for many of the people of Bolivia,” said Torrico. “It’s critical that we have it in good shape.”
I hauled myself up the 240th step of the famed Inca Steps; a magnificent stone staircase on the southern side of the Island that led up a garden of Andean flowers.
A water spring with three separate stone funnels sprinkled down into a stone pool at the top of the stairs.
“Drink the water,” said Will. “They say that each of the three funnels tastes slightly different, and all are believed to be a source of youth and health.”
The spring feeds down a remarkable stone irrigation system created by the Incas, watering the lush, steep terraces below. For hundreds of years, Inca pilgrims made their way up these steps to begin the trek along the paved Inca road that led to the temple on the far side of the island.
I watched as a group of tourists, modern-day pilgrims, puffed their way to the top of the Inca Steps and drank out of the fresh Fountains of Youth. They smiled and posed for pictures with their phones.
Beyond the steps, the lake turned to dark turquoise as storm clouds gathered and tumble down the distant Andes mountains.
Titicaca has seen the rise and fall of numerous cultures and civilisations. The only constant has been the lake itself.
Like the Romans of Europe, the Incas were a people of conquest, usurping previous empires through sheer force. Amazingly, they achieved this cultural boom without the help of steel, the wheel, or even domesticated animals. In short, they were astoundingly creative for their time, and enigmatic in their rise.
They built their culture on the ruins of the last, and they managed to survive and thrive on the natural resources that were left behind.
As scientists continue their search for new treasures—perhaps they will find the famed underwater city called Wanaku or the legendary Inca gold lost by the Spanish—the people who today share Lake Titicaca are looking toward the future. While our new civilization accelerates and grapples with its own overwhelming success, we are learning from the ghosts of the past, to find ways to shelter the lake from the wake we leave behind.
This story is part of Paul Steyn’s #aroundtheworldin30days journey. Follow him as he travels the globe with Ramsar and Star Alliance, in quest to appreciate water and wetlands on our changing planet. More about the trip here.