Nowhere in history can be found a more fruitful marriage of sublime courage and naked greed than in the personalities of the Conquistadores, the Spanish conquerors of Central and South America. In 1535. with Peru subjugated, and already rich beyond all dreams of riches, Diego de Almagro left his partner Francisco Pizarro in Cuzo, the Inca Capital, and marched south into the unknown. His quest, and that of the 570 troops who accompanied him, for yet more gold.
Their course took them across the high waterless plateaus of what is now Argentina and Bolivia, over the Andes, and down to the littoral jungles of Chile. Men and horses froze to death in the mountains passes, chocked in the rarified air of the plateaus, roasted within their armour in deserts. And there was no gold.
That they had completed one of the great exploratory experiences was of little comforting and less interest. However, along the way, even for those single-minded men, a few things filled them with wonder. High on the plateau where Peru and Bolivia now meet, they encountered a vast inland sea of incredible blue, beyond which were glacier-shouldered mountains glittering against a perfect sky. People cruised its waters in bizarre boats made out of reeds.
That was how nonnatives first came to Lake Titicaca, in its magnificent setting against the 21,000ft (6400m) pastureland of the Cordillera Real. But if even the hard-bitten Spanish were impacted by the scene, to the peoples native to the place, it was, and is, scared. The high cliffs are ‘the abodes of Gods’, or are conceivably deities themselves. To the Aymara people, who live by the lake, its waters are the womb from which Viracocha, the white and bearded representative of the sun and earth, emerged to reach men how to build, grow food and make reed boats.
Lake Titicaca is the largest of South America’s Lakes, with an area of about 3200sq miles (8300km2). It lies 12,505ft (3812m) above sea level, but even then it is not the world’s highest lake; there are much higher ones in the Himalayas. But it is the world’s highest navigable waterway for large vessels and has been since 1862 when a steamer was carried up in sections and reassembled on shore.
Lake Titicaca marks the division in the Andes – to the north, the climate becomes steadily more temperature, and to the south, progressively more harsh. More than 25 rivers empty their waters into Titicaca Basin and enter the north-western corner of the lake. One little river, the Desaguadero, depletes the lake at its southern end.
This single outlet empties only 5 per cent of the lakes’ excess water, the rest is lost by evaporation under the fierce sun and strong winds of the dry Altiplano. Its shores are about the southern limit of year-round human habitation and successful crop-raising. Potatoes are grown there; maize and barely, which do not ripen, are grown for animal feed.