During the first half hour it takes to drive from El Alto Airport to downtown La Paz our cabbie hardly stopped talking long enough to take a breath of rarified Andean air. He pointed out the soccer stadium, the museum, the markets, the churches, the Ministry of the Navy Ministry of the Navy?
He anticipated my surprise, and without missing a beat recounted the story of a state visit to Bolivia by the president of Peru.
"Why do you need a Ministry of the Navy when you have no seacoast?" asked the Peruvian president.
"Why not?" replied the Bolivian leader. "You have a Ministry of Justice and you have no justice."
Probably just an urban legend but later, standing on the shore of Lake Titicaca, watching a flotilla of boats milling around the dock at Copacabana, I could appreciate why landlocked Bolivia might justify having a navy. For years I have been fascinated by this vast body of water which Bolivia shares with Peru. Abode of the Gods, birthplace of the Sun and the Inca people, and home to obscure cultures that predate the Incas by thousands of years, Lake Titicaca is a place steeped in legend and history. The name conjures up images of reed boats, deserted ruins that were witness to human sacrifice, submerged temples and buried gold. I had expected to be impressed but looking across the rippled blue waters extending to the distant horizon, Lake Titicaca was much bigger than I had imagined. Its billing as the worlds highest navigable lake may be debated but with an area of 9,000 square kilometers and an elevation of 3,820 metres (12,500 feet), it is undeniably both large and high.
Copacabana is a bright, clean city surrounding the beautifully kept courtyard of a sparkling white Moorish-style cathedral built in the 1600s and adorned with blue ceramic tile. The broad cobblestone streets are lined with shops and restaurants specializing in trucha criolla (salmon trout) from the lake. During our first meal, sitting at a candle-lit table enjoying the music of a small Latin band, we were surprised to see a native woman come in the front door with a huge basket of freshly caught fish. The proprietor greeted her, took a scale off the wall, weighed the catch, paid her from the till, and trotted back to the kitchen.
The next morning we headed north along the Copacabana Peninsula for a 15 kilometre hike to Yampupata. The route leads through small villages and farmland, along narrow walkways between adobe houses thatched with reeds from the lake, and past terraced fields where men were plowing with teams of oxen. On steeper slopes groups of Aymara women wearing long, brightly coloured traditional skirts and bowler hats tilled the soil with crude mattocks, while children dropped seed-potatoes into the furrows.