From Lake Titicaca to La Paz – I

Now, if you saw a map of Bolivia, you would notice that the country is land-locked with no access to the sea.  Why, on earth, would it need or have a navy?

 (Daily Times, 24 July 2013)

Juliaca is the first town after crossing the La Raya Pass, on the road to Bolivia.  And quite an unusual place it is, a sprawling “new” Peruvian town with a rather bizarre and sinister look. Most, if not all, buildings appear unfinished even though occupied. There are no petrol pumps, only mobile vendors. Our guide informed us that the town owes its existence to smuggling and the buildings are left unfinished to avoid paying taxes!

In contrast, Puno, the last major town on the Peruvian side of the Bolivian border about 130 km away, is a normal place, with the typical Spanish-style city square, complete with church and all.  It is situated on the north-western shore of Lake Titicaca which, with a surface elevation of 3,812 metres, is the highest navigable lake in the world.  It may not be the highest lake, but those on higher elevation are much smaller and shallower.   

Lake Titicaca is 190 km long, with a maximum width of 80 km and a shore length of 1,185 km. It has a maximum depth of 284 metres and the overall average depth of the lake is about one hundred metres.  It is shared about equally by Peru and Bolivia, but whichever country’s citizens you ask, their country has the larger share, 60% to be exact!

There are 41 islands in Lake Titicaca, some of which are densely populated.  One of them, Isla Flotantes(floating island) on the Peruvian side, is exceptional, being entirely man-made, built with layers of reeds, and anchored to the floor of the lake by large, heavy bundles of reed roots. Inhabited by the minority Aymara people, it is in fact a collection of 50 islets, including a “capital” island with a school.  On the Bolivian side, the most famous are the Sun and Moon Islands.

As our bus approached the border, the attendant on the bus asked the three American passengers to be first in line, to the chagrin of the rest of us.  It turned out, however, that we were the privileged ones, for the three Americans were thoroughly frisked before being allowed entry, while the rest of us were let in at a very brisk pace and without any fuss.  Why?  I don’t know, but I can hazard a guess.  It could have something to do with American foreign policy.

For all but the last quarter or so of the 285 km from Puno to La Paz, the road runs mostly along the shores of the great Lake Titicaca on both sides of the border.  It is a beautiful sight, the calm blue waters of the lake against the snow-capped peaks and ridges of Andes on the far side, often mirroring them. 

Lake Titicaca is really two-lakes-in-one, with two nearly separate bodies of water connected by the Strait of Tiquina, which is in Bolivia, and is less than a kilometer across at the narrowest point.  The road terminates here, and the chasm must be crossed by ferry.  Passengers and their vehicles are transported across separately, the former in small, fast ferries, the latter on slow barges.  This minor inconvenience for travellers is a major economic liability for businesses, but it suits the local population who profit from the ferries and shops on both banks.  So, until some government has the political courage to bridge the gap, travellers and businesses using this major national highway will do well to mind the gap!

On the eastern bank of the strait, while waiting for our bus to arrive on the slow barge, I noticed a very small office building with a sign declaring it to be an office of the Bolivian Navy.  By coincidence, a much larger office of the “Bolivian Navy” was opposite my hotel in La Paz, where I could see the comings and goings of Bolivians in the white uniform of sailors.

Now, if you saw a map of Bolivia, you would notice that the country is land-locked with no access to the sea.  Why, on earth, would it need or have a navy?

This goes back to the War of the Pacific (1879-83) in which Peru and Bolivia jointly fought against Chile and lost. Peru lost the cities of Arica and Iquique, south of Tacna, and Bolivia lost a whopping 120,000 square kilometres of its territory, an area roughly the size of Greece, including the city of Antofagasta and its entire coastline of 400 km.

Bolivia has never been reconciled to this, in spite of a treaty signed in 1904.  Now, the populist government of President Evo Morales has gone to the ICC to reassert its claim. Not only does the country maintain the fiction of a sea, but also a navy of five thousand personnel to back it up.  And March 23 is celebrated every year in Bolivia as the Day of the Sea. “It is a bizarre spectacle: thousands of people march through the streets of La Paz carrying model ships and pictures of the ocean. The Bolivian navy, which has no sea on which to sail, turns out in full uniform” (Gideon Long, “Bolivia-Chile land dispute has deep roots”, BBC, 24 April 2013).

Bolivia is the poorest country in the continent.  It is also the only country where the Indigenous people constitute a majority of the population.  And, since independence in 1825, it has a history of losing its many wars – and large chunks of its territory – to all its neighbours.  Yes, every single one of its five neighbours: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Peru. As a result, today’s Bolivia is less than a half of its former self. 

“It’s as if somebody cut off three of Bolivia’s limbs — or rather two limbs, in the southeast and southwest, and a curious, flat-top hat in the north”, writes Frank Jacobs in “How Bolivia lost its hat” (New York Times, 3 April 2012).  Very rich in natural resources but ruled by tin-pot dictators for most of its history, Bolivia has as much been a victim of its covetous neighbours as of its own incompetence.  The country has had 150 coups or attempted coups since independence, averaging at just under one a year!

(To be continued)

By Razi Azmi


This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From Lake Titicaca to La Paz – I

  1. Javed Agha says:

    Very interesting Razi. You mentioned that there are over 40 islands in the lake, are all those man made and how big are they. Why people had to make islands. I never knew that Bolivians had lost half of their country to their neighbours.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      No, only one is man-made, or rather that one group called “Floating Island”. The one we went to was small, just big enough for one extended family. The “capital” island with the school was relatively big.

  2. Marcia YOUNG says:

    I read with interest that section about the Americans being frisked – a similar thing happened one time when I was in the Hong Kong airport many years ago – only it was Taiwanese – I didn’t remember ’till later that Taiwan and Hong Kong (China) were not so friendly…………….. can’t wait for the next instalment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *