With but a sliver of footwear, a cross-country runner explores the high-altitude life around Lake Titicaca.
Story and Photos by Robert Brodey
Arriving at the shores of Lake Titicaca feels like arriving at the dawn of time. Cradled by the Andes Mountains some 3,800 metres above sea level, and straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, it is here, legend has it, that the children of the sun and the moon gods set off on an overland odyssey looking to establish a divine kingdom.
My purpose for coming here is less ambitious. I want to run, hike and see as much of the area as I can in four days while wearing my minimalist foot gloves. Made of flexible rubber soles and abrasion-resistant fabrics, foot gloves have individual pockets that allow toes to move independently so they can do what they’re designed to do—sense, grip and propel. And if there’s anywhere in the world I want to sense, grip and propel, it’s in the rugged hills around Lake Titicaca.
I arrive in bustling Copacabana on the Bolivian shoulder of the lake in early spring. The beachside town is wedged between the slopes of Niño Calvario, with its pre-Inca astronomical observatory, Horca del Incas, and otherworldly rock formations, and the hilltop pilgrimage site of Cerro Calvario.
On my first day, I run up Cerro Calvario’s cobbled path to the row of monuments that represent the 14 Stations of the Cross—and nearly die from the effort.
Later, I wander through Copacabana and find the 16th-century Basilica of Our Lady that stands in stark contrast to the newly-mortared cinder block buildings that seem to crop up at every turn. Though Copacabana has its share of tourists, locals get on with their day, holding political rallies and dancing to the procession of musicians in the plaza. I bunk at a hotel, which will serve as a base to explore surrounding villages and islands.
I’ve been in the altiplanos of Bolivia for two weeks now and am trying to acclimatize to the higher altitude. Like the locals, I have taken to chewing coca leaf to alleviate its discomforts—for time immemorial, people living in the thin air of the Andes have believed in the power of the indigenous plant and use it to offset a range of ailments, including altitude sickness.
The attention I’ve been getting wearing my foot gloves hasn’t escaped me.
There’s a lot of elbowing and whispering among villagers when they see them. Some coo, as if seeing a puppy. Others giggle. A few brave souls approach and ask questions. When I tell them the shoes bring me closer to Pachamama (Mother Earth), they seem to need no further explanation.
It’s an understatement to say the area around Lake Titicaca is a runner’s paradise. There are thousands of kilometres of trails, including ones cut during the Inca Empire, linking hundreds of communities and religious centres.
With no guidebook to source routes I rely on the locals for information.
On Day 2 I get a heads-up to jog south out of Copacabana toward the Peruvian border, following a beach where dozens of boats are moored in the bay. The dirt road is flat and the run is quick, until the road itself ends and I have to go gingerly over the sharp rocky shoreline. With the altitude feeling like a 30-pound sack on my back, I take to short fast walks between longer stretches of running—especially when faced with inclines like the scramble uphill from the beach. I cross the rugged terrain of a farmer’s field, meeting with a dirt road on the other side.
My pace grows leisurely as I take it all in: the sound of wind, donkeys hee-hawing, the feeling of mountain air in the lungs. The road curves through a village, then dips back toward the shore. I see some families labouring in fields; others are lounging and eating in groups.
Despite my strange-looking footwear, people still give me a friendly wave. As I chew a few coca leaves a picture forms in my mind of how the Incas became famous for their Chasqui runners—messengers who could cover 400 kilometres a day on foot, relay-style. And I begin to suspect coca had something to do with it. After more than an hour without seeing a single car, I happily rejoin the paved road—a smooth, downhill slope leading back to Copacabana, offering a respite for my feet.
Barefoot shoes have renewed my passion for running. They lend a vitality and awareness of one’s surroundings, and I don’t take for granted where my feet land.
In the morning, I take a long rainy boat ride to Isla del Sol, which is famed for its mythology and Inca ruins. It’s cold, and I huddle near other travellers as we roll with the waves. One woman is suffering from severe nausea, and I offer her some coca leaves to calm her stomach. “I don’t do drugs,” she says. I explain how chewing a few leaves isn’t the same as sniffing cocaine. Her refusal is adamant, but as the nausea persists, she relents. Five minutes later she thanks me profusely; her symptoms have vanished. The boat pulls into Challapampa on the north end of Isla del Sol. Once on terra firma, we begin the brisk walk south, which brings the circulation back to my numb feet.
The landscape is breathtaking, with its agricultural terraces cut into steep hillsides, and the stunning vistas over the lake and snow-covered range of the Cordillera Real.
But hiking this hilly terrain at high altitude is pretty much the opposite of walking on the moon.
There is no floating—only a struggle with burning lungs and a viciously pounding heart, even after two weeks here. While the Inca Empire, which ruled between the 12th and 15th centuries, often steals the historical limelight, it’s relatively young when compared with the early inhabitants of this island.
Archaeological evidence indicates people were living here more than 4,000 years ago, and far from being isolated, the discovery of foreign obsidian (volcanic glass) objects at the ancient site of Ch’uxuqullu points to a developed trading network that reached well beyond the island. As we near the town of Yumani, where we’ll take the boat back to Copacabana, we realize we have missed the turnoff for the Inca ruins. But the boat ride promises to take us to Lake Titicaca’s famed floating islands. Unfortunately, there are no floating islands, just a platform buoyed by plastic bottles.
On my last day, I rise with the dawn, the sun stalled behind a thick curtain of clouds. When my feet first hit the floor they feel stiff, but in no time limber up.
For 35 Bolivianos (about $5), I take a winding cab ride out to the pilgrimage site of La Virgen de Lourdes, tucked into the forested hills north of Copacabana. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands like an apparition perched in the upper reaches of a cave, while down below another statue kneels before her in reverence.
Still in my foot gloves, I decide to trek to the ancient village of Sampaya at the northern end of the Copacabana peninsula. I’m in my element, hauling heavy camera gear on my back while hiking alongside locals hauling bundles of produce on theirs. I pass through the lakeside village of Jinchaca, then head uphill. The road splits off and I decide to follow a stone path toward the ridge, figuring paths don’t just end but tend to lead somewhere.
The path, however, mysteriously evaporates, and I’m left to trek through fields and shrubs.
Despite all the bushwhacking, my shoes never threaten to slip off my feet; and only rarely does a plant wedge itself between my toes.
Down below I finally see Sampaya but must climb over stone fences and sneak across yards to get there. When I arrive not a single soul in this pre-Hispanic town stirs. I sense a harmony between the lush vegetation and the stone houses built in the style of the Tiwanaku culture. I head toward the shores of Lake Titicaca by following narrow stone gutters that divert water from the lake to nearby agricultural terraces. The Island of the Moon appears to float in the distance. Just as I’m about to leave the village, a taxi with a couple inside swooshes up beside me.
The woman sees my shoes, gets out and asks, “Can I take a picture?” She bends low and snaps, then clamours back into the taxi and speeds off. With the option of either taking a dirt road back to Copacabana or a foot path over a ridge, I gamble on the route less travelled, hoping the path will take me where I want to go.
It’s everything a runner dreams of: rolling hills and soft ground underfoot. Only when I arrive back on the road on the far side of the hill do I come across other travellers hoofing it—two Aussie women are hiking to the final point of the peninsula to catch the boat to Isla del Sol. “We are so glad we walked this route,” one of them says. “It’s so much better than taking the boat from Copacabana.”
A few kilometres from town, I feel my first blister forming between my toes. But my suffering is nothing compared to what I see approaching.
A group on mountain bikes, weaving their way uphill, busting a gut as they tick off each pedal stroke. Almost every rider rolls to a stop, breathless and defeated, and they’re forced to walk their bikes to the top. After more than eight hours and 30-plus kilometres on foot, I arrive back in Copacabana, having hiked a landscape that was almost divine. It’s hard not to feel connected to this land, with its famous lake, and with the earth so close to my feet. As the children of the sun and moon learned, this land is made for walking… however your feet may take you. *