Swimming from the Sun to the Moon in Lake Titicaca
I once dreamt about swimming in Lake Titicaca. At 3,813 metres above sea level, it straddles Peru and Bolivia in the Andes Mountains. It is is one of South America’s largest lakes and the world’s highest navigable body of water. And I was deeply intrigued to swim in it but the question was; which direction should I swim and from which point to which point?
I decided to speak to someone I knew had successfully swam between the two countries in the lake before; Lynne Cox. For her swim. Lynne had got the Bolivian Navy involved to help her out.
The Bolivian Navy? Bolivia is landlocked I hear you say. To be honest, getting the navy involved sounded strange to me as well but whenever you stop at the big white anchor in Copacabana, look to the northern tip of the lake front and you’ll notice a small point of land where the Bolivian Navy base is located. Fascinating!
The distance across Lake Titicaca is very wide, reaching up to 70km and that was something I was not prepared for. I certainly wasn’t in good enough shape to do that as I haven’t been training for months. So I had to look for a more manageable distance to swim.
That was when I remembered my friend Dena, (the American lady we had befriended on our Galapagos cruise in December). She was living with her family in Cochabamba further down in Bolivia, and whom also really wanted to swim in Lake Titicaca. She had once suggested swimming to Isla de la Luna from Isla del Sol.
According to Legend, the Sun placed his two children, male and female on the island in Lake Titicaca later called the Island of the Sun. The Sun’s children were charged with teaching barbaric people how to live better on earth.
I looked it up on the map and it seemed like the perfect idea for the swim and I would also be able to say I swam from the sun to the moon. I decided we should go for it!
We arrived in Copacabana, a small holiday town on Lake Titicaca, mid week. Dena had said she would meet us there by Saturday afternoon and she had lots of friends interested in joining us too. Perfect!
off for a practice swim
First thing I did at the lake was test the water temperature. I had already heard some people say the lake’s temperature was at 9 – 10o C some even said 4o C but that was just silly. I was very happy to discover the lake’s water temperature was at a nice 18oC. Lovely!
Then Friday night we had storms – hail, thunder, lightning – it was quite a violent storm and we woke up to…. snow! Well it looked like snow but the hail had settled on the ground and as the temperature had dropped drastically overnight, it hadn’t gone away. Someone had even built a snowman!
Dena arrived and we all got busy chatting and catching up. Then it was time to get down to business. We walked along the lake shore looking for an area unspoilt by surface water runoff, and were pleased to see the temperature was still 18o C.
Dena and I took a quick swim in the lake, staying close to the shoreline as we swam. (mainly to dodge the jet-skis) We swam for 15 minutes then turned back and discovered that breathing and swimming front crawl is very difficult to achieve at this altitude. Yet after a 30 minute swim, Dena and I were pleased with ourselves.
off for a swim
Dena (who’s Spanish is far superior to mine, had setup a meeting with a local boat operator at 6pm. He had been recommended by someone she knew and had some experience with swimmers. We then met with the Pachakutt travel agency and Genaro to get the information we needed and to book the boat. Dena successfully secured the crew, boat and a good price for us. We were charged 25B$ each to get to Isla Del Sol on a kind of taxi boat, and 350B$ (£35) for the boat escorting us in our swim. That’s £35 total – not each!
By the evening, everything was sorted out and we agreed to meet the boat at the jetty by 8:30 the next morning. It rained hard again in the night but at least there wasn’t any hail this time.
Sunday morning came and the weather was nice for a swim. Not hot but just nice. We took the short and slow boat ride over to Isla De Sol where we met up with another boat which was to accompany us on the swim. We switched boats out on the water and met Felix Ticona, Genaro’s cousin who was going to steer the boat. It was time to get ready for the swim as Dena got into her wetsuit and we all headed for shore on Isla Del Sol.
Genaro going in too
Surprisingly, Genaro said he was going to join us and all three of us and at 10:27am jumped in from the stone jetty in to the water. By 10:30, we spotted Genaro swimming back to the boat and wondered what was wrong. He was holding onto the tyre of the boat but refusing to go into it. Jody was struggling to understand the problem as he only spoke Spanish but he claimed not to be cold. Dena & I swam on a bit to stop ourselves getting cold
Finally at 10:40, Genaro got out and on to the boat, he had realised that he was not a strong enough swimmer to swim the distance. Then 5 minutes later, Jody managed to get Felix to turn the boat around so he was facing the right way. This put Dena and I ahead of the boat and on a course to the moon!
At first, Dena was having issues with the cold (my dive watch said the water was only 16 degrees C here) and she was finding her breathing hard. So at 10:54, she reluctantly got back into the boat. There, she was able to get herself warmed up with a cup of hot water and blankets.
Dena having a warm
It was time for me to get swimming.
I knew the water’s temperature was at 16o C, it was a lake swim of just 7km and I was fine with all that. We were at 3,810m above sea level which meant the swim should last for just over 2 hours more. Even though we have never swum at this altitude this before, both Dena and I had acclimatised to it for a while so breathing shouldn’t be much of a problem.
At 11:05 my stroke count was at 55 per minute, a pace I was satisfied with.
So it was time for me to get into my zone, I set off at a slow pace and after a minute, I was finding it hard to breathe due to the thin air at the high altitude. I decided to switch back to breaststroke for a while and later front crawl, but after a few strokes, I discovered I could not breathe!
I reverted back to breaststroke and repeated the process for the next fifteen minutes.
I just couldn’t get into my stroke or any rhythm due to lack of oxygen. This was tough!
he’s off again
At a point during my front crawl, I knew I had to change my stroke from the normal three stroke breathing. I began the sequence of two breaths on the left, three, then two on the right. Yet after 20 strokes, I still could not breathe. Then I tried a new sequence of three to the left, three, then three to the right and once again, I still couldn’t breathe after 20 strokes and I became confused.
By this time I was starting to feel the cold in my lower arms and thighs, I knew I had to get my front crawl going to warm up.
Despite everything I tried, I couldn’t get enough energy into my body and it was becoming silly. I could only manage 20 to 30 strokes in the water before reverting back to breaststroke. I just couldn’t get into any rhythm and increase my core temperature.
Luckily for me, Dena decided to get back in the water at 11:10 am. This helped me a lot and I was able to increase my strokes on front crawl. The only problem was I was getting cold again. I began feeling the cold in my toes and my upper arms were becoming very numb.
cup of tea?
Due to the lack of oxygen in my body, my upper arms began to fail me when doing front crawl. That was the very first time I had ever felt like this and it seemed to me like I couldn’t swim at all. 39 strokes and 37 seconds after I began feeling like that, I decided to stop for a rest and went back to breaststroke to recover my breath.
Dena on the other hand was successfully taking 32 strokes in 35 seconds before stopping for a rest. At the time, I had already been in the water for an hour and it was 11:20am. I asked Jody for some hot water to warm my core up. Luckily for me, Jody had learned my preferences so she got the water just right. At this point Dena got back on the boat, as she was falling behind whilst swimming.
The hot water hit my belly and it was lovely, it really got me going again. However, I still took the finger hyperthermia test by touching my thumb to each finger to be sure, before resuming my swim. I was able to perform the finger test alone and I could touch all my fingers and only just being able to touch my little finger as my hands were going numb.
It was 11:50 and I was getting extremely cold now. I took another warm drink from the boat, though a bit warmer this time. The warm drink helped, but it was not enough as my front crawl was failing me and I was finding it hard to swim. The only thing that was keeping me afloat now was my breaststroke but I knew it would never be enough.
At one point, I noticed my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen and my breaststroke was failing me too. I began to worry. “I am already 2 hours into the swim and I still have a minimum of 30 minutes to go” I kept telling myself.
But eventually the breathing was getting extremely hard and I couldn’t breathe. To make things worse, I was still finding it very hard to keep afloat despite every stroke I was doing. But I kept on telling my self 30 more minutes, each stroke taking me closer to the end.
Bryan getting warm
By 12:00, my stroke count was 47 per minute including the 10 minutes I stopped to rest in that minute.
12:08pm and I was making 24 strokes with a breath taken after each interval. I told the boat crew that my arms were killing me. Time was 12:16pm and my stroke count was 27 at each interval.
Finally, my body reached its limits and at 12:22, I had to stop and head back to the boat. Not an easy thing for me to admit but I knew the time for an ego was not now.
Immediately I got into the boat I fell to the floor out of exhaustion and fatigue and even though my core temperature was cold, Jody and Dena said parts of my outside felt warm. Notwithstanding, my shoulders, legs and lips were blue with cold. I was wrapped in blankets and Jody and Dena cuddled me to get me warm. This made me happy as I was not only getting warm, I was also feeling the comfort of having people close to me.
there goes Dena
At 12:38 when Dena was sure I was fine, she got back into the water. She was so determined this time and I noticed she was more focused than ever before with her graceful strokes. I sat on the boat all wrapped up in a blanket and watched Dena swim. I had no intention of getting into the water yet and this was really unlike me.
At 12:52, Dena said she was freezing although she was doing really well at 54 strokes a minute and hadn’t stopped for a breath yet. At 12:56, my arms were still failing me so I couldn’t get back into the water yet. At just 700/800m to go, Dena was still looking strong in the water and Jody kept on encouraging her forwards, relaying her text messages from her husband Judah whom was still at home in Cochabamba.
Finally, after some 45 minutes, Dena had to swim just 300m more before reaching Isla de la Luna. Realising Dena was going to make it to the finish, I got inspired and got into my swimming trunks again. I’d made up my mind that if Dena was going to make it, then we were going to do it together.
there goes Bryan
By 1:18pm, I got back in the water and immediately I began to feel the cold and numbness in my hands again. But the end was in sight and I was determined to finish the journey with Dena.
At last, the underwater rocks were in sight, that was when Dena confirmed we were going to make it and it was unbelievable. We reached the rocks and were able to touch them with our numb hands. We discovered they were rough and filled with some slimy and slippery barnacles which made going over them really difficult.
We both crawled on all fours till we we got to land and by 1:26pm we were both out of the water. We looked at each other in amazement as we knew we had swam from the sun to the moon even in unfavourable conditions.
To be honest, it's difficult describing what the lack of oxygen feels like when swimming in cold water, but for sure, I’ve never experienced anything like it before.
They made it
We went back to the boat, got ourselves dried and headed back to the mainland. Even after a couple of hours, my body was still very exhausted and weak. I felt like all my energy was drained from me and it was difficult to re-energise.
After reaching the mainland and having a quick lunch and a hot shower, Dena set back off on the bus home. Incredible! I just went to bed!
Both Dena and I couldn’t believe what we had done and it all felt so surreal.
But we did it!
We swam from the sun to the moon and it took us 2 hours and 59 minutes. Ha ha!