Drifting

Ceremonies on the Shores of Lake Titicaca

14 April 2023

Drifters,

A green tourist bus grumbled and hissed to a stop by a large, white anchor on the shore of Lake Titicaca. A group of travelers — some with unkempt, dreaded hair, khaki hiking boots, and brightly colored backpacks — staggered off the bus and settled into lounge chairs facing the lake. They pulled their coats tightly and summoned a server to provide them with steaming cups of coffee.

I, on the other hand, walked north along the lake, passing a row of boats and towards a footpath that would lead me around Copacabana’s sacred mountain: Cerro Calvario.1

Curiously, this is not the same mountain seen in all the tourist photos of Copacabana. In fact, it is from the summit of this 13,000-foot peak that these photographs are taken.

A Catholic sanctuary stands atop this mountain. All around the mountain, pilgrims perform indigenous Andean rituals like the challa ritual, which involves pouring or spraying alochol onto the earth in honor of Pachamama. It is an act of tribute, an act of reciprocity. A sign affixed to the sanctuary warns pilgrims not to perform the challa ritual near it.

Sanctuary at the top of Cerro Calvario in Copacabana, Bolivia

I followed the footpath north, up a hill and alongside a bohemian hotel, before the trail veered west above a cluster of partially built homes. I was wrong to think that these unfinished homes were unoccupied. On the roof of one, a dog guarded a pile of potatoes drying in the sun and snarled at me as I walked by.

Beyond the buildings, the trail runs under a canopy of trees — pine, I think — before it reaches a craggy shoreline.

As I looked up towards the towering peak, I squinted and caught sight of cavities dotting the mountain’s surface, the very places from which the pile of boulders I now scrambled over fell. Earthquakes, which are not uncommon in the region, likely cast the boulders into the lake, where the tranquil waves of Titicaca now caress them.

A Stony Shoreline of Lake Titicaca at Copacabana, Bolivia

According to the Incan legend, this very lake was the birthplace of Inti, the supreme sun god. From this spot emerged both man and the universe, making Lake Titicaca the center of the Incan cosmos, the very locus of creation itself.

Beyond the boulders and after a brief ascent, the trail descends towards a hidden beach where vendors peddle ceremonial paraphernalia like alcohol, confetti, and alasitas — miniature objects representing the real things pilgrims might pray for.

A small cave, charred with years of ceremonial soot, forms in the cliff. In front of it, a small niche shelters a miniature Virgin of Copacabana.

On a craggy corner of the beach, a curious creature appeared before me.

Sculpted by the hands of time, this natural wonder resembles a toad with a gaping maw ready to gulp down whatever offering may come its way.



For the Andean peoples, toads and frogs held a special place in pre-Columbian art and culture, symbolizing prosperity and fecundity, perhaps because of their association with water. These amphibious creatures straddle the darkness of the underworld and the light of the world above, evoking the powerful symbol of transformation.

Here, on the banks of Lake Titicaca, rituals and ceremonies abound, and one such practice entails hurling a corked bottle of alcohol into the toad’s mouth. A direct hit would send an explosion of glass and froth into the air.

Beneath the toad, a little beach of broken glass has formed, a mosaic-like floor of shattered hopes and prayers. Many of the shards are sharp and clear, but some have been fogged and worn smooth by the waves.

After a few ceremonial explosions in the toad’s mouth, a woman emerged, armed with a broom, and swept the new shards into the lake. The broken glass sparkled like emeralds as the sun, now approaching the horizon, threw its own jewels onto the waves.

Next to the toad, two Andean priests sat behind tables. One, a woman, performed a ritual with a two pilgrims while the other, a man with a rack of gold teeth, greeted me at his table. On the table were various items: a few toad figurines, an armadillo carcass with some fake money tied around it, some dousing alcohol, and a can of beer that he had been drinking.

A Shaman Waiting for a Pilgrim to Perform a Ceremony at Lake Titicaca in Copacabana, Bolivia

“The sun. Masculine,” he said, flexing his arm. “The moon and the earth, feminine.” He made a circular shape with his hands.

After some banter with the man, I slipped away. It would soon be dark, and I continued on the footpath to the mountaintop where I was promised a magnificent sunset.

In the distance, a speedboat drew a white line across the lake. A breeze blew in from the black water, sweeping across the yellow grass and shrubs that clung to the mountain.

I found a bent tree and sat on its gnarled trunk to catch my breath. I let the sun fall on my face. The temperature was dropping, and the cold air carried the ratatat of firecrackers from some distant crag.

Then, a pitter-patter announced a small dog who found me sitting on the tree. He had a white, coarse coat and wore a neon green collar. I called him over, but he jolted into a playful bow and scampered off. I got up and followed the dog.

My scruffy escort seemed eager to lead the way, turning back from time to time like a boy showing a new friend the location of a secret fort hidden deep in the woods.

Surely, I thought, he was going back to his master’s home in Copacabana, but at a fork in the road to return to town or climb to the summit, he chose the latter.

The dog guided to the summit of Cerro Calvario where, past the altars and the sanctuary, a group of people sat in silence at a stony overlook, watching a glowing disc slip behind a lake.

My Scruffy Guide up Cerro Calvario. Copacabana, Bolivia

Footnotes


  1. There are many Cerros Calvarios around the world. The term comes from the Latin translation of the Bible and literarlly means Skull Hill or Hill of the Skull. I’m writing about another Cerro Calvario in Bolivia, in a town called Quillacollo. You can learn more about the book here↩︎