I’ve spent years in the landlocked high desert of both New Mexico and old Mexico, happy that I can walk half a block for tacos or tamales, but my true culinary compass points to seafood. I grew up on coastal Maine’s lobsters, steamed clams, and haddock chowder; became captivated by Old Bay spiced Chesapeake Bay blue crabs when I moved to Maryland; and happily feasted on wild salmon, Dungeness crab, and sushi when I lived in British Columbia and southern California. I’ll gladly fly to any coast for a fish fix.
This year, I traded my seaside vacation for a seven-week adventure trek with my daughter across Bolivia and southern Peru. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere – not the season for the beach. Instead, I found my azure “sea” at Lake Titicaca, nature’s border between Bolivia and Peru. At 12,500 feet above sea level, the world’s highest commercially navigable lake is even shaped like a fish – a whopper that’s 118 miles long by 50 miles wide.
The lake was considered sacred by the Incas, who believed that the creator god Viracocha rose up from its depths to create the sun, moon, stars, and first humans. More recently, an archaeological expedition found an ancient temple submerged in its depths near the Bolivian harbor of Copacabana. I wondered: what other treasures might it hold?
Quite a few, it turned out – the first being Hostal Las Olas, a series of seven unique suites sprinkled on a hillside overlooking Copacabana’s harbor. We stayed in El Caracol, a giant sea shell with no straight lines or level floors, round beds, and portholes that captured snapshots of the water on one side and the two buck-toothed llamas that mowed the hostel’s lawns. Without much pre-planning, we’d stumbled onto a bit of nirvana.
Who knew lake trout could be such a catch?
In search of food, we headed down to the beach just as the sun was slipping behind the lake, silhouetting the small craft anchored in the harbor and a flock of swan boats resting on the sand. Behind them was a string of makeshift cabanas, called kioskos, each staffed by lookalike women with hooped skirts; long, dark braids; and black bowler hats that looked too small for their heads.
It was easy to choose what to eat – nearly every restaurant in town served the catch of the day (actually, every day): fresh-caught lake trout. For 30 Bolivianos, less than $4.00, we feasted on the trucha, accompanied by a soup, salad, papas fritas (Bolivia’s limp version of French fries – ubiquitous, it turned out, since potatoes are the country’s most essential crop); and a large, ice-cold Pacena Pilsener. That day’s catch caught our attention. Grilled with just a lemon wedge for garnish, the sweet, flaky trucha was love at first bite.
The next day we taxied away to Copacabana’s “floating village,” which amounted to a few reed-covered floats with cooking huts and a couple of picnic tables. In the middle of each was a square containment area where live trout awaited their fate. We watched our fisherwoman/cook scoop our squirming lunch into a net and disappear into the crude reed kitchen to pan-fry it.
We left Copacabana a day later to spend a night on the magical Isla del Sol, reputed home of the Incan sun god. After hiking to the cliffside ruins of Yumani to watch the evening’s breathtaking sunset, we followed a flock of sheep being herded home after a day of grazing on the terraced hills above the lake. With no vehicles or road and very little development, we found our way back to town, which was lit only by a full moon, star-filled sky, and two blazing campfires on the beach.
Yumami only had two restaurants, and we were drawn in to the most welcoming one, where we were invited to join a communal table of young backpackers – each hailing from a different country. An earnest young waiter of about 10 took our orders and disappeared down the street, most likely to his mom, who was cooking meals for more than a dozen of us in her home kitchen.
We made it easy for her by all having the trucha. Mine was sautéed with butter, lemon, and capers – the most delicious preparation so far, probably because it was shared in the company of new friends.
We rose early the next morning to hike eight kilometers across the island’s hilly ridge to rendezvous with our return boat on the Isla del Sol’s northern harbor of Challapampa. Worried we would miss the only ride back to the mainland, we practically ran down the long, steep steps to the beach, only to discover it was delayed two hours, giving us just enough time for another lunch of grilled trout.
On the fourth day, we took an overnight bus west around Lake Titicaca nearly 100 miles to Puno, Peru. Puno is the home of the real floating islands: 42 self-contained communities constructed entirely of totora reeds, the lake crop that’s interwoven to form a thick layer called khili, which is anchored by rope to the bottom of the lake.
The islands have been inhabited for a thousand years by the Uros, who use the reeds to make their homes, furniture, boats, and various handicrafts, which they peddle to the hordes of visiting tourists. The Uros subsist on the fish they catch, and the seagulls, ducks, and flamingos they hunt – all cooked on open fires built atop a bed of stones. It seemed rather risky to cook on an open flame on an island made entirely of reeds, but they seem to have it down.
In Puno, we found our last Lake Titicaca treasure: trucha ceviche, chunks of delicious raw trout cured in lemon juice, green pepper, tomato, and onion. Bites of sweet potato provided the perfect balance for the acid of the lemon, and rocoto, an apple-shaped capsicum cultivated in South and Central America, gave just the right amount of heat. I realized that the Incas were right – this place surely was sacred.