Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





A Walk in the Andes: The Trail Up Ccapia

by Ben Orlove

The largest peninsula in Lake Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru, is nearly 700 square kilometers in area. It is shaped something like an hourglass, with an unusually bulbous lower half. The bottom of the hourglass is attached to the shores of the lake; the neck is an isthmus, less then three kilometers wide, and the top projects far out into the lake. The bottom half of the peninsula consists essentially of one tall mountain, Ccapia, whose summit, at 4,809 meters, is one thousand meters above the level of the lake. After checking over my wall of maps while on an extended visit, I realized that no place could provide a better view of the full lake and surrounding areas: other mountains are lower, or farther from shore, or behind other peaks that block the lake.

I would have preferred a mountain that is easier to reach. Ccapia is midway between Puno and La Paz, about 110 kilometers from each. This distance is not great by the standards of industrial countries, but means a long trip on the dirt roads of the altiplano. The maps show that Ccapia lies near some roads that connect the larger villages on the peninsula. Wondering whether I might be able to climb this mountain, I went to the tall basket containing my other rolled maps and found a more detailed outlay of the lower portion of the peninsula. I cleared my worn table and examined the map in detail. Drawn on a scale of 1:100,000, it indicates footpaths as thin unbroken black lines. The lines cross the mountain, and go right to the top. From my experience in other parts of Peru, I learned that these maps are usually accurate. If they contain mistakes at all, it is actually to omit paths. I spent a half-hour or so contemplating alternate routes to Ccapia's summit.

There is only one place in all of Peru to obtain such a map-the Peruvian Military Geographical Institute, located in a former mansion in an out-of-the-way neighborhood of Lima not well served by bus lines. The room where maps are sold is located just to the right of the main entry hall, in what must have been one of the formal salas or living-rooms of the mansion. Individuals wishing to buy maps-mostly government officials with vehicles and drivers-are required to present identification. Their names, addresses, and identity-document numbers are then entered in a registry of map-buyers. Because every copy of every map has a number stamped on it, the government could presumably track down every last map in the case of war. The blank obverse side of the maps bear a list of the Obligaciones del Comprador-the duties of the purchaser-including, at the first signs of outbreak of civil disturbance, turning the map in to national authorities. In the case of certain regions frequented by tourists, such as the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, or the more popular peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, the institute staff might soften its regulations and accept a hotel in Lima as an address, rather than insisting on a more permanent residence or office.

Flooded plains along shore of Lake Titicaca.
A railroad line crosses flooded plains
on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
Photo by T. Lane, courtesy B. Orlove.

Had the changes of busses and the long walk to the Institute not delayed my arrival at the institute until late in the afternoon, when many of the staff had already left, I probably never would have been able to obtain the five sheets of this series that include the portions of the border near Lake Titicaca. I presented my passport and copies of my official convenio. The clerk was unable to decide whether he should sell me the maps. Would his superiors be angry with him if they found he had made so weighty a decision in their absence? Was I a well-connected figure who could make trouble for him if he refused?

After a few minutes, he brightened. "No necesita recibo, verdad?" he asked. "You don't need a receipt, do you?" I assured him I did not. He checked to see that the armed guard at the door was not looking in on us, then went back into the storeroom. He nervously laid out the sensitive border sheets on the counter. In his rush to check my documents for the correct spelling of my sponsors, the clerk scribbled a misspelled "IMARFE" in the space labeled "Identification of Purchaser." He took my money, rolled the set of maps up into a cylinder, thrust them into my hands, and hurried me out the door. I was delighted to have the maps, and set off on the long walk to the bus stop.

With map in hand, I needed a climbing partner-and-guide. I considered Cirilo, a sturdy walker in his 60s with poor eyesight. The climb might be too strenuous for him. Tito Parodi was another possibility. I had gone on outings to pre-Inca ruins and colonial churches with him. He shared my curiosity about the altiplano and my fondness for hikes, in part, I think, because he was a bit of an outsider in town himself. He was the son of the owner of one of the largest hardware stores in Puno, the grandson of Italian immigrants-and hence, by local standards, someone who was a newcomer. His old Volkswagen could take us to the foot of Ccapia just as well as the IMARPE Toyota Land Cruiser. We discussed the trip, but it never materialized. Ccapia was much higher than the hills we had scrambled up to see ancient burial towers, and even than Atojja, the one sizeable mountain we had climbed. It was a good bit further from Puno as well, and it would have entailed an earlier departure than he was accustomed to.

I had traveled between the cities by the routes that did not go by the mountain. I sometimes spent two or three days on the narrow winding roads on the northeast shore, with the long delays in the squares of small towns while I waited for a truck to take me on the next leg of the trip. On two occasions, I went directly across the lake itself by steamer. This form of travel was the most enjoyable: it was comfortable, it had the best views-the sunrise over the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real took on an added beauty when reflected in the waters of the lake-and the steamer itself was a wonderful old ship, the glamour it had in the 1930s still evident in its old brass fittings and worn velvet curtains.

These alternatives were slow, however, and I usually took the main road on the southwest side of the lake. It is the widest of the roads around the lake, though, like all others, unpaved. With two full lanes, cars and trucks need not slow down very much to pass each other. Running through flatter terrain, it is less likely to get washed out, and is more quickly repaired when it did. The main road allows busses to cover the 240 kilometers between Puno and La Paz in ten hours, sometimes eight.

The main road leads south from Puno through a series of small towns, Chucuito, Acora, Ilave, Juli, Pomata-former cabaceras, or villages, of the Lupaqa nation, both when an independent kingdom and after the Lupaqa were conquered by the Incas and became a province of the Incan empire. These towns had been parishes under Spanish rule and became districts soon after independence. When the road reaches Pomata at the base of Ccapia, it divides in two. The principal branch continues to the southwest along the base of the hourglass peninsula. It passes below Ccapia-at the site of a major battle in the 1530s between Spaniards and the Indians who opposed the conquest-and first reaches Zepita (the sixth of the Lupaqa settlements) and then Desaguadero, a town named for the river on whose banks it was built. The Río Desaguadero marks the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is the easiest place to cross between the two countries. The Peruvian border station is only a few blocks from the river, and the Bolivian station is right next to the modern cement bridge. The Bolivian portion of the trip to La Paz passes quickly on the flat road slowly climbing the altiplano, away from the lake, until it reaches the lip of the canyon in which the city is built.

Fields on ridge, with Cordillera Real behind.
Plowed and fallow fields on a ridge,
with the Cordillera Real beyond.
Photo by M. Reed, courtesy B. Orlove.

The other fork, which leads close to the summit of Ccapia, takes a slower, more scenic route to La Paz. Following the side of the lower half of the hourglass, it hugs the shore, circling around Ccapia to Yunguyo, the seventh and last of the Lupaqa towns, and to the border, two kilometers further. Passengers are not permitted to ride between the several hundred meters that separate the border stations, but instead must walk, a process creating a certain amount of confusion and delay. Seven kilometers past the border is the first Bolivian town, Copacabana, the site of major shrines since pre-Inca times and now the seat of a cathedral and the home of the Virgin of Copacabana Bolivia's patron saint. 

The name of this town has traveled far, carried first in the mid-1500s by the Portuguese explorers to the beach near the city of Rio de Janeiro, and second in 1940 by the owners of the night club in Manhattan. From Copacabana the road winds up the ridge that forms the central part of the upper half of the hourglass. The flat top of this ridge, less than half as high as Ccapia, affords spectacular views, which only made me more eager to climb Ccapia.

There is a sense of foreboding about this ridge, too. At several bends in the road, hungry dogs run up to the bus, yapping loudly. The local people, rather than ignoring them as they usually would, open windows and toss pieces of bread. The dogs are almas perdidas, lost souls: souls that had escaped from purgatory and taken animal form, souls capable of retribution against those who denied them their wishes.

From this haunted ridge the road curves down to Tiquina, where the lake narrows to a strait less than a kilometer wide. The busses queue up for their turn to take one of the ferries-flat wooden boats barely larger than the busses themselves. The road on the other shore climbs another ridge and descends before it finally reaches the flat portion of the altiplano leading to La Paz.

I needed to choose a route. Neither the convenience of the Yunguyo route on the Copacabana road nor the interest of the battlefield on the Desaguadero enticed me enough to help select one over the other. The routes are similar in their difficulty, with elevation gains of 1,000 meters and round-trip distances of 25 and 23 kilometers, respectively.

Moreover, both share a key logistical barrier. I would not be able to take the detailed map with me, since these border maps are sensitive documents, not to be taken out of the country. I take this rule seriously, since I had had a difficult encounter with a border policeman earlier in the year. After he saw me taking photographs of the Río Desaguadero, he wanted to confiscate my camera. It required all my rhetorical abilities to convince him to let me keep it. I was not a spy, I told him, but an anthropologist. This river fascinated me for its ecological and historical significance-look how small it is, considering that it is the only outflow of the lake; that's because much more water leaves the lake from evaporation than by flowing down the river. Did he know that the Incas had maintained a pontoon bridge there, constructed of reed rafts, and that such bridges were maintained throughout the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century? Either persuaded by my reference to his nation's pre-Columbian heritage or eager to escape my babbling, he let me keep the camera. I did not want to meet him, or any colleague of his, while I was illegally transporting a document.

No map, and so far no hiking companion. While the researchers I had met in Puno were unwilling to accompany me, they did introduce me to an employee of the Ministry of Fisheries from Yunguyo, Diogenes Choquehuanca. He described with enthusiasm the many times he made the climb as a boy, the wonderful view from the top. I could visit his parents, he told me. He was sure that one or another of his brothers would accompany me to the peak. I willingly agreed to the favor Diogenes requested in return: bring an encargo-a package of some sort-to his parents.

The ascent of Ccapia began with a bus ride from Puno. After Chucuito came other towns every half-hour or so. Their features had become familiar to me: the bridge in Ilave over the river with the same name, the largest of the streams that flowed down into the lake from the Cordillera Occidental; the four fine churches in Juli; the small cluster of food vendors near Pomata, where the bus always stopped at lunchtime for soup with several large potatoes and a hunk of meat. The roofs of Yunguyo become visible at some distance, as the bus works its away across the flatlands near the lake.

Once I arrived in the town, I quickly found the house of Diogenes's parents. I was not sure which of several possible factors accounted for the warmth with which they received me: had the envelope contained some check or document that they had been awaiting, had he written very positively about me, did they hope that I would somehow promote his career, or were they simply hospitable people, glad for the presence of a visitor to add some variety to their lives? In our conversations later that afternoon, I learned that they included other foreigners in the circle of their acquaintances when they showed me the collection of Christmas cards, some of them several years old, pinned to one wall of their living room, including ones that they had received from a Peace Corps Volunteer who had lived in a nearby village.

I have a clearer sense of the motives of his older brother in agreeing to lead me up the mountain the next day. Dante-like his brother and their other six siblings, named for a literary figure rather than a saint, as is more common in the altiplano-had studied at a university but had not finished his degree. He had lived for a while in Arequipa, the largest city in southern Peru, where he had worked as the assistant manager in a store, only to find that this job did not turn out the way that he had hoped. He had plans to return there in a few months on a business deal that involved a few partners. In the meantime, he was back in Yunguyo, living with his wife and children in two rooms in the back of his parents' house, helping out occasionally in his parents' store, and altogether a bit bored. He welcomed an educated outsider with whom to talk, and had nothing to do the next day that could not be postponed. His father seemed pleased, as much to give his older son the chance to spend some time out of the town from which he wanted to move permanently as to return to me the favor of having brought the envelope.

We woke early the next morning, and had a large breakfast-habits I associate with Aymara-speaking households, whether rural peasants, as most of them are, or prosperous urban merchants like the Choquehuancas. Dante's older child, a boy about eight with the undistinctive name of Juan, was eager to join his father and this exotic stranger, and came along as well. Out the door, down the street: two blocks later and we left the town behind. The cement street turned into a dirt road, with some ruts left by the few trucks that occasionally traveled it. Because of the gradualness with which the land slopes upward from the lake, I had no sense of climbing at all for the first half-hour, except for the massive presence of Ccapia, appearing larger as we approached. We continued onward among the fields, brown at this time of year. Every few hundred meters we passed a family compound-a few adobe houses clustered near each other, linked by a low adobe wall with a doorway leading into the courtyard.

After an hour, we reached the first hills, dotted with the eucalyptus groves that flank the mountain. The road continues between two ridges that descend from the mountain and edge a small field-filled valley, an extension of the flatlands around the lake. We did not go very far into this valley, however, but rather swung up and onto the ridge on our right.

After a short steep climb on a path that winds between stone terraces, we decided to take a break. Though Dante was not, I thought, a regular consumer of coca leaf, the mild stimulant found throughout the Andes, this rest struck him, as it did me, a good spot on which to chew some leaves. Juan watched with mild surprise to see a gringo retrieve from his pack a plastic bag containing dry green leaves a few centimeters long, but he seemed familiar with the process of chewing itself-the adults passing the bag back and forth, thoughtfully selecting leaves and placing them in our mouths, then biting off a little corner of the cake of llipt'a. This gray lump, made from the ashes of stalks of certain plants, contains the alkaline substance that invariably accompanies coca-chewing. Though Dante did not blow on the leaves or offer the blessings to the mountains, as more traditional people might, he did pick the leaves carefully from the bag and hold them between thumb and forefinger in a little fan-like arrangement before adding them to the quid in his cheek. We sat quietly for a few moments, before Dante proposed that we resume our climb.

This crest ascended more gently than the sides of the ridge, leading us to broader, more open country that rises steadily but not steeply toward the peak. This climb is not difficult, I realized. Though Ccapia is hundreds of meters higher than the tallest peaks in the continental U.S., it was proving to be, as I had expected, what my climbing friends in California call a walk-up.

The empty country invited the pace, steady and fairly fast, that we adopted. Higher on the slopes of the mountain, the trail is narrower. We fell into the most comfortable order: Dante in front, his son Juan close behind, and I after him in the rear. Even if the trail was wider, we still would not have spoken much in this open grassland. The empty expanses of the puna, as the grasslands are called in the Andes, correspond to the silence in which we walked.

It was already early in the afternoon when we reached the summit, a little rise atop the mountain's broad crest. For the last portion of the climb, we had been hiking with our backs to the lake, not stopping to look behind us. When we turned around, the whole altiplano suddenly appeared before us: the enormous sheet of the lake below, and beyond a spread of dry grasslands rising to long chains of snow peaks. For all that I anticipated this sight, I was unprepared for its immense scale. The lake itself is far bigger than I had expected. The opposite shore, sixty kilometers to the northeast, is very remote, and the most distant portions of the lake, near the delta formed by the Río Huancané, lie beyond the horizon, even though we stood a full thousand meters above the lake's surface. From our vantage point atop the highest point on the peninsula, the lake stretches around us. Filling three quarters of the view, it cannot be seen all at once. Looking immediately below us at the southwestern shore near Juli, we had to turn our heads to see the Río Desaguadero.

I began picking out some of the specific features in the lake. The town of Copacabana, quite close to us, was easy to find, and immediately offshore from it is the largest island in the lake, with its distinctive steep cliffs. This island appears as Isla Titicaca on old maps but is now known as the Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun, for the temples that the Incas built on it to commemorate its important sites. Viracocha, the creator, had made the world, and peopled it with a race of giants, but left it in darkness. Dissatisfied with these giants, Virococha caused a great flood, whose waters still remain in Titicaca. After the flood, he created the sun and the moon on the Isla de Sol, giving light to the world, and then went to Tiwanaku, where he formed animals and humans.

Straits of Tiquina, lakeshore villages, and Cordillera Real.
A view from the road to Copacabana, across the Straits
of Tiquina to lakeshore villages and the Cordillera Real.
Photo by M. Reed, courtesy B. Orlove.

Other islands were in view as well. That more distant one must be Soto, the island near the deepest portion of the lake, where many fishermen haul trout illegally across the border into Bolivia. How brave they seem, crossing the broad open waters in five-meter boats. And those hills are the pasturelands of Chuquiñapi, a village that I have traveled to several times. Its position on the corner of a large peninsula cannot be confused with any other place, even though its shores are blocked from view by a ridge. But which is that distant town on the Bolivian shore beyond the Isla del Sol, the few roofs distinct among the fields? Escoma or Puerto Acosta, or could it even be Moho, on the Peruvian side of the border? And was that distant small fleck of land the island of Socca, Cirilo's home, the village that I had visited so many times?

My gaze was then drawn back nearer me, and upward, not merely to the cluster of mountains that I had expected, Illimani and the other high peaks near La Paz, but to a long gleaming sweep of white, the full extent of the Cordillera Real. Here I could see the sections that, to those standing on the shores of the lake, are hidden behind lower ranges. And here, too, I realized to my astonishment, I could see other mountains glinting far to the northeast, the distant Cordillera de Carabaya-these two cordilleras forming the local portion of the eastern cordillera, the Cordillera Oriental, the great eastern flank of the Andes stretching from Venezuela and Colombia down into Patagonia. The mountain wall separates the highlands from the Amazonian forests immediately beyond, their presence suggested in the bulging clouds that had begun to build over a few of the summits. We had climbed a kilometer up from the level of the lake, but the highest peaks still stand two full kilometers above the Ccapia summit.

Dante and Juan relished the attention that I gave to the Cordillera Real. Dante's travels had left him with an awareness of how little Yunguyo mattered to people from large cities and foreign countries, so he was pleased to find a gringo so evidently impressed by these local features. Both he and his son were surprised, not that I could identify Illimani, but that I knew so few of the other mountains. Juan took these mountains' importance for granted, and seemed not to believe my ignorance of their names when I asked his father which peak was Illampu, which one was Huayna Potosí. It was like standing with New Yorkers, the Manhattan skyline in view, and asking them to point out the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. These mountains are familiar to them, not merely as reference points on the horizons, but as more immediate sentinels, releasing the winds that blow across the altiplano. Each wind bears the name not of the cardinal direction from which it comes, but of mountain that is its source.

I had one last thing to do, even though I sensed my companions' growing impatience. They must have recognized that they would have to be the ones to propose the beginning of our descent, and it was already mid-afternoon. I still wanted to look at the Cordillera Occidental, the western cordillera, the other main chain of the Andes. We turned our backs toward the lake and the Cordillera Real. Surely the western cordillera must be more impressive than this, I thought. There must be something worth looking at in this huge expanse of dry puna that stretched away from us to some distant humps.

Dante agreed with me that that white spot on the horizon, so small as to be barely recognizable as a triangle, must be Sajjama, at 6,500 meters the highest peak in that part of the altiplano. Like a novice stargazer, finally out on a clear night, trying to locate the Pleiades or the Andromeda Galaxy, I stared and speculated. Could that peak be Parinacota, a volcano on the border between Peru and Chile? I liked that mountain because I understood its simple Aymara name, Flamingo Lake: in that dry zone were many shallow saline lakes contain crustaceans that support the enormous flocks of brightly-colored birds. Could I to expect to see the mountains immediately behind Arequipa, Chachani, Pichu-pichu and Misti?

By now it was time to go. The steady pace of our descent-like our ascent, made in silence-provided just enough warmth and motion for me to enter a quiet pensive state in which I became mesmerized by Illimani, and the other mountains I had just learned to identify: Illampu, Huayna Potosí, their snowy crowns turning opalescent shades as the afternoon drew on. I felt a satisfaction that came not only from physical effort, not only from the successful completion of a long-anticipated endeavor, but also from something more: a feeling of wholeness linked to mass of the mountain we had just climbed, in turn linked to the wholeness of the altiplano. As we descended, we saw the shepherds driving their flocks home, and then a truck driving down a road, with a long plume of dust trailing behind.

I noticed a change in Dante and Juan once our trail left the ridge and joined the main path down the valley. Even though it was nearly dusk, their pace slackened a bit and they began to speak more. In his tone, if not in his words, Juan seemed relieved to get off the mountain while it was still light. Dante sensed this fear of his son's because he had felt it himself. He, too, had been eager to return to the lower zone of fields, of wider paths, of greater human presence. We could now walk side by side, and we began to speak of the hike as if it were over, even though Yunguyo was still five kilometers away. 

Despite the growing darkness, we had no difficulty in following the path. It was wide (or at least it seemed so, after the narrow trails on the mountain), fairly straight, and lighter than the fields on either side. Though the path was dimly visible, the clusters of houses were sensed as much from the barking of a dog or the sudden scent of burning dung as from the sight of their black forms against the night sky, rapidly filling with stars. Tired but content, we trudged easily along the path, knowing that we would be back to their house in less than an hour. The climb had been a vivid reminder of something that I had known intellectually for a long time: the strip of land on the shores of the lake-for all its droughts, frosts, and floods-is the only hospitable section in the immense barren steppe of grass and rock that stretches from one cordillera to the other. This narrow ribbon of farmland is home to the villagers. Within its confines they build houses and shops, cultivate fields, and set out in tiny boats on the waters of the lake whose vastness I now comprehend.


Ben Orlove is a professor in the Program in Nature and Culture, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, at the University of California-Davis. With research interests in Latin American anthropology, peasant agriculture, and fisheries, he teaches cultural ecology and conservation and sustainable development.  Orlove has published in Theory and Society, Annual Review of Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, and American Ethnologist.  His book Lines in the Water: Nature and Culture at Lake Titicaca will be published by the University of California Press in 2001.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.