ALL the afternoon, upon our return journey from Cuzco, we had been speeding through the dreary plains of the Kollasuyu, or country of the Collao, the great basin that slopes gently downward from the mountains on every hand to form the cup that holds the waters of Titicaca. Even at this great altitude (for we were more than twelve thousand feet above the sea) flamingoes stood rosy in the pools and yellow daisies carpeted the tracks. As we approached the lake, the clouds were gathering, and by the time Juliaca’s church gleamed white against its background hills, giant cumuli were piling into the heavens threatening a downpour at any moment.
Darkness was creeping on. The express from the coast came snorting into the station; our car was switched on to its rear end, and again we started off in the night.
In about an hour we made the lights of Puno and in a few moments drew up alongside the dock.The lake superintendent came into our coach, followed by three Indians, who took up our luggage. He also brought with him the captain of the Coya, the steamer that was to take us over to Guaqui. At no other spot upon this globe can you have a like experience: an all-night voyage on a 700-ton steamer (the Inca, her mate, is 900-ton register) across a great body of water hung two miles or more above the sea.
We watched the preparations for departure with lively interest. Directly below us, upon the forward deck, among half-breeds and Indians and crates marked pavos and patos (ducks and chickens, for the La Paz market), the Bolivian mails lay piled. What distant pictures their well-worn sacks evokedthe red-and-yellow bags that carry the Correos de Espana from Madrid and Barcelona mingled with those barred with blue that contained our own American mails, and with other stout canvases marked “Postes de France” or “London to La Paz via Mollendo.”
From the bridge overhead our British captain gave his orders to cast off the lines. The steamer swung about and we started out into the night. The moon, hitherto hidden in filmy clouds, now appeared dramatically to light our pathway and sparkle upon the rippling water. The searchlight flashed from side to side, bringing out in turn the red buoys that mark the channel, or the tufts of grass and reeds that clothe the long spits running out into the lake.
Thus we cautiously felt our way until the channel widened, the searchlight went out, and the quickened thud of the propeller told us we were in open water.
The hills, indigo in their blue-blackness, began to recede and gradually left us alone. The clouds drew aside their curtains and the starsso close, so bright, so numberless in this rarefied airseemed to twinkle as they had never twinkled before. And, as my eye singled out Venus, I thought of the Incas and their reverence for the stars, especially ” “Chasca,” this star of the “long and curling locks,” that they honoured as the special page of the sun, sometimes pre-ceding, then again following, its master.
We could scarcely make up our mind to go below, yet the night air was chill, and our cabin snuga spacious saloon with three beds and an extra couch, a l’espagnole, for a servant in the toilet-room.
Late in the night we heard the rain pattering on the deck above us, and in the morning, when we awoke at daybreak, it was still showering. No land was in sight, only the grey waters of the lake stretching off to meet the low-lying clouds. But with sun-rise the mists lifted, gathered themselves together, and slowly disclosed, along the water’s edge, strips of land to the rightthe faint forms of islands, the sacred islands of the lake, Titicaca or Inti-Karka, dedicated to the sun, and Coati, sacred to the moon, in the very spot where the founders of the Inca Empire, Manco Capac and his sister-wife, according to legend, rose from the waters of the lake to elevate humanity from its barbarism.
Upon Coati, the ruins of the convent of the Virgins of the Sun and the Moon still exist in good preservation, but under ordinary circumstances they are difficult of access, the regular steamers making no stops at the islands.
As our bow silently ploughed its way through the still waters, the shores drew nearer, the long peninsula of Copacabana, a revered pilgrim shrine of the Indians, almost blocking the passage to the south end of the lake. We entered the Straits of Tiquino, whose stony hillsides, terraced with vineyards, reminded us of the Rhine country. Little groups of thatched mud huts and pottery-roofed houses, humble homes of these primitive lacustrian peoples, lay scattered in the fields or huddled about a pointed belfry.
As we proceeded through the narrows, the clouds began to break and the sun to take possession of this, his own special lake. And what a glory he made of it! By the time we had emerged from the straits, Titicaca’s waters, hitherto grey, sparkled with a million diamonds and, as the patches of bright sky grew larger, caught azure reflections until they stretched blue, pure and radiant, off to the far-distant hills.
Once or twice we passed a balsa, gliding quietly before the morning breezea frail boat of reeds, like those we had seen on the coast, though here upon Titicaca even their sails are made of reeds, like those of the children of Pharaoh.
The shore-lines, broken, complicated with numerous islands and inlets, headlands and terraced hills, presented every variety of colour as the fleecy cloud-shadows mottled their surfaces, rosy or grey, purple or violet, and in the distance the indigo mountains of the Royal Cordillera reflected themselves in the still waters. Despite the rarity and purity of this wonderful air, Sorata, king of peaks, remained in-visible that morning, hiding his head in a wreath of clouds, but upon our return journey he showed his elusive summit far away to the eastward, the third highest peak upon the globe.
The sky was an unbroken vault of blue when we reached Guaqui. A battalion of infantry, out for manoeuvres, was lounging upon the wharf, and their neat uniforms, on the German pattern, reminded us that we had left Peru and crossed the border to Bolivia.