Travel: An umbrella short of a cocktail

Copacabana this may be, but unlike its Brazilian sister, the strongest drink on the shores of Lake Titicaca is coca tea.

Man, the Aymara people believe, is born of the earth, the earth gives us food and food gives us life. If you want a good life, you must give thanks to the Mother Earth, Pachamama.

It's a simple, no-nonsense belief that would secure many an environmentalist's campaign in the West. Yet for the deeply religious Aymaras, respect for the land has been part of the local culture for millennia. Looking after her is a duty from which no one shirks, as the Earth cannot be replaced.

You feel at one with Pachamama at the lake on top of the world: Lake Titicaca. At 3,856 metres, the brilliant sunshine here lends the world a piercing light which takes your breath away - although some may blame this on a lack of oxygen. For at least 2,000 years, the lake has been part of Andean religious life. Visitors are told that if an unfortunate fisherman is lost in the icy waters, the locals may do a cursory search, shrug their shoulders and simply offer him up as a sacrifice to Pachamama.

And there are plenty of opportunities to give thanks to Pachamama, particularly at Sun Island in the middle of the lake. Ceremonies here are conducted by a priest burning coca leaves, along with small icons each signifying good health, crops or perhaps relationships. Sun Island has strong religious associations, since it was here that the first Inca couple is believed to have lived.

According to legend, the creator god, Viracocha, sent his children, Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo, to be the first couple of the Inca civilisation. The island has therefore been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The most impressive ruins are towards the north of the island, but most visitors are first encouraged up the Inca steps to drink from the Fountain of Eternal Youth. Climbing at that altitude, you might feel that this was a good joke on the part of the early Incas.

Lake Titicaca is, in fact, two separate lakes divided by the Straits of Tiquina. Sun Island is in the larger Lake Chucuito and can easily be reached by boat or catamaran, usually from Copacabana. Although the name Copacabana may conjure up golden beaches in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, this one, Bolivians will have you know, is the original Copacabana. It is also another pilgrim destination thanks to the Virgin of Candalaria.

When the black, wooden Madonna was presented to the town at some time in the 16th century, miracles began to occur; ever since, Bolivians have been making lavish and expensive offerings of jewels and other valuables to her. This is just one of many examples of Christianity being embraced alongside the ancient religions.

The dazzling marble cathedral in which the Madonna presides is well worth a visit, if only to gasp at the expense while outside beggars sit at neatly spaced intervals. Also outside, there may well be a line of cars decked in banners, streamers and balloons, waiting to be blessed by the local priest. It's a sort of spiritual insurance policy and, judging by the roads in Bolivia, maybe that's not a bad idea.

Ninety-five per cent of the Bolivian population is said to be Roman Catholic, yet an undisclosed number also practise local traditional customs which are so much engrained into the culture that the Church probably has no option but to ignore them. It's not only the indigenous population who uphold these ancient beliefs. Young, professional mestizos (those with mixed Spanish blood) can also be seen making offerings to Pachamama. "I am building an extension to my house," one guide told us. "So I must go to the witches' market to buy a llama foetus." The unborn llama, he explained, is considered an essential offering to Pachamama if you want health and prosperity in your home.

If you happen upon the witches' market in La Paz at dusk, you might be forgiven for thinking that these 10-inch desiccated foetuses are simply cheap, plastic reproductions. Come back in daylight to see that these are no mass-produced trinkets, but the real thing.

If you visit the market towards the end of January, you may see people buying offerings for Ekeko. He is the smiling Aymara, god of abundance and good fortune. You want a car? Then you need to buy a miniature toy version for your (usually plaster of Paris) Ekeko statue. Perhaps you need a new refrigerator or television - everything can be bought in miniature at the market. These offerings are not cheap, but once you have collected them, the idea is that you then go to the local Aymara priest who will bless your Ekeko. Within a year, it's believed that the real thing (car, refrigerator, television) will be yours. How much of this stems from fervent religious belief, and how much simply from tradition, is unclear.

What is quite apparent, meanwhile, is the increasing number of Western tourists making their way into Bolivia. So what do local people make of them? Well, they don't go down well when it come to cameras being flashed around. Locals are less than happy about being photographed and if you catch someone's eye through your lens, expect a frown sooner than a smile.

Yet people aren't unfriendly, and contrary to what many travellers expect, Bolivia is generally a safe country, especially when compared with Peru. "Do you know why our crime rates are so low?" joked one local resident. "All our criminals are in the government." There seems no embarrassment about telling visitors that Bolivia is a country very rich in natural wealth but with a very corrupt system. Yet the people seem to accept the resulting poverty with resigned stoicism. Tourism is an ideal opportunity to improve the economy. However, locals may feel that one invasion was quite enough.

There are no direct flights from Britain to the Bolivian capital, La Paz. Nicola Barranger paid just over pounds 600 on the Brazilian airline Varig, via Sao Paulo, booked through the Manchester office of Journey Latin America (0161-832 1441). The off-season fare to La Paz via Sao Paolo with Varig is pounds 723 plus taxes. To reach Copacabana and Lake Titicaca, there are frequent buses

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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