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Titicaca: Lake at the top of the world

PUNO, Peru - For thousands of years, the shimmering blue waters of Lake Titicaca have not only provided nourishment for several Andean civilizations, they have held a deep well of oral tradition, mystery and spirituality.

Today, Native people in the region are receiving a growing amount of tourists who are becoming aware of her beauty, her people and her legends.

Though she is also known as Mama Kocha, the Mother Lake, most people know her by the name Lake Titicaca, a Spanish corruption of the Aymaran Titi Karka, which means ''Stone-Colored Puma.''

A long time ago, the Aymarans say, the local apus, or mountain gods, became angry with the arrogant humans and sent a horde of pumas to attack them. Other spirits, seeing the chaos, began to cry, and their tears filled the basin, drowning both humans and animals. Only two people survived, a man and a woman.

When they looked around, all they could see was the giant lake of tears and hundreds of dead pumas floating with their stone-colored bellies up. ''Titi Karka,'' they said.

These two, Mama Occla and Manco Capac, went on to create the Incan empire.

Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 feet, is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting in the cold but sunny altiplano between Peru and Bolivia. The Peruvian port, Puno, is a growing city that celebrates its thriving Aymaran culture with numerous festivals. Near Puno are several Aymaran and pre-Aymaran ceremonial sites, some of which are still used today: the Sillustani cemetery, made of collpas, or large stones; the Temple of Fertility; and the Aramu Muru doorway in the majestic Valley of the Spirits are a few.

From the port of Puno, several Native-run companies run boats to the islands of Taquile, Amantani and the floating reed islands of the Uro people. These businesses face stiff competition from tour agencies that only pay Native residents a small percentage of their profits for tourist visits.

The Uro people, who consider themselves the ancestors of both the Inca-descended Quechuans and the Aymarans, live on 39 floating islands made of tortora reed, which are constantly being rebuilt. The Uros also use the tortora to construct their canoes and homes as well as food. If fights occur in the community that can't be resolved, they say one group will simply separate from the other by building a separate island.

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The Uros have had an uphill battle both preserving their islands and making the tourism business lucrative for them and not just for the tourist agencies, said tour guide Miguel Coila. The islands had to be completely rebuilt after they were destroyed by flood in 1985, he said, and the community also came together to stop a U.S. paper company from using the tortora reeds. Today, they are focused on finding funding to build ecological bathrooms that will make it easier to house tourists who want to stay overnight.

The nearby islands of Taquile and Amantani are populated by Quechuan descendants of the Incas who escaped to these islands during the Spanish invasion 500 years ago, after the earlier Lupaka and Pukara civilizations were destroyed by volcanoes. Local residents say an underwater chinkana, or tunnel, was built from the Incan capital city of Cusco, which enabled their ancestors to escape the Spanish. The Spanish, hearing rumors of gold on the island of Amantani, tried to cross the water, but it had turned to ice; and they waited so long on the opposite shore for the ice to melt that their capes grew threadbare and short - so one of the first Spanish names of the island was ''short cape island.''

An Indian uprising in the 1950s against enslavement by mestizo landowners resulted in the massacre of all the Quechuan males of the island, island elders recount. But one man, by disguising himself as a woman, managed to stay alive and repopulate the island. Today, roughly 8,000 people live in the nine island communities. Residents are known for their brilliantly colored textiles, which they sell to tourists along the path to the square temple of Pacha Tayta, or Father Earth. Facing this temple is the circular temple of Pacha Mama, Mother Earth.

Tourism is only about a decade old on these islands, said boat captain Edelberto Mamani Quispe. Islanders house tourists in their homes and have maintained a peaceful, traditional environment that is free of hotels and cars. Even dogs are not allowed on the islands. Native-run cooperatives ferry visitors to rotating homes in seven of the nine communities on Amantani, charging about $8 a night for room and board. The other two communities work with local tour agencies on a commission basis, receiving only $2.50 per visitor but housing more visitors, which Quispe said has caused conflict on the island. He said community members are planning future meetings to resolve the situation.

On the Bolivian side of the lake, the small Aymaran beach town of Copacabana has several hostels and restaurants, many of them Native-run. In August, the month of Mother Earth in the Aymaran calendar, the town comes alive with celebrations and cars and trucks line up in front of the local church for challas, or blessings. A textile museum teaches about Aymaran weaving traditions; a steep walk up the hill behind the town will take visitors to the Aymaran stone calendar and the grandfather stone, which looks like the head of an old man. Tradition holds that if this stone ever falls, the world will end.

From Copacabana, tourists can take a community-run boat to the Island of the Sun, a steeply terraced mountain with spectacular views of the dazzling blue lake, and long stretches of open land to hike. Here, several hostels and restaurants are run by the local Aymaran people. The other main island, Island of the Moon, was recently closed to tourists by community decision. Residents say there was once another island, populated by nustas, or Incan priestesses, that was swallowed by the lake.

The Lake Titicaca region holds not only many ceremonial sites of current and past cultures but also the legends of the ancestors, which continue to be spoken from father to son, mother to daughter.

Residents say that during the Spanish invasion, the Incans took a gold disk from the temple of Korikancha in Cusco and threw it in the lake, where it remains today. They also speak of a civilization that preceded theirs whose ruins also lie somewhere at the bottom of the lake, which some believe to be Atlantis or Lemuria.

The spiritual and ceremonial aspects of Lake Titicaca that have long been a part of her tradition continue to this day, not just for local residents but for Native residents throughout the continent. In March, two major gatherings of elders occurred at the lake, bringing representatives from Alaska to Argentina to perform water and solstice ceremonies here. One local elder called the region ''the highest altar in the world.'' Another elder, a visitor from the North, said she dreamed the lake had entered her heart and left ''a great stillness there.''

Those who visit the lake, her islands and her people may also find, in the deep blue waters of Mama Kocha, this stillness of heart.