Eager to tap into the tourist industry? Why not build your own ancient fertility temple?
Along the tourist trail winding its way through the Andes, Incan ruins are money. Forget Chan Chan and forget Tiahuanaco; whoever built those ruins, they sure weren’t Incas. If you want to tap into the tourist trade, you’re going to need an Inca trail, or an Incan fortress, or an Incan-style pueblo. Even better if you have the next Machu Picchu.
The Incas weren’t exactly good at cleaning up after themselves; the remains of their roads and buildings are scattered right through the Andes. The problem is you’ll need more than just four timeworn but well-built walls to tap into the Incan tourism bonanza. Your trail needs to lead to something. Your pueblo needs to sell something. Shy indigenous kids with metal teeth and woollen clothes are a great cash cow.
On the south shore of Lake Titicaca, Chucuito is one Peruvian village among many. It has old churches, and a great view of Lake Titicaca, but so do most of the villages clustered around the lake. Visitors to the region bypassed Chucuito on the way to bigger towns with more tourism clout: Puno, Copacabana, Sillustani.
There were a few old timeworn but well-built Incan walls in Chucuito, but they didn’t amount to anything particularly interesting. So the town decided to turn them into their own Incan temple. Not just any old temple though, a bawdy Temple of Fertility, complete with its own mythology.
In days-of-yore Peru, houses were made of stone walls and thatched roofs. To secure the roofs to the walls, circular stones were built protruding out from the top of the walls; the roofs were tied to these with leather straps. Around Chucuito these protruding stones happened to have a thin shaft and bulging, mushroom-shaped heads. Basically, they looked like stone cocks.
For a long time the precolombian phalluses of Chucuito were nothing more than ribald garden ornaments. Then someone had the bright idea to collect these and place them in the temple. An unassuming ruin suddenly became the kind of photo every backpacker wants to be able to send home; this is me in Peru, next to a three-foot high sacred penis.
A fence has been built around the temple and it costs a few soles to enter. Local kids give tours of the temple, reciting their speil in singsong voices: Inca maidens use to come to the site, pour out offerings of chicha, maybe even get a little intimate with a stone, in hope of giving birth to a warrior or king or whatever. Some of the cocks pointed up towards the sun god Inti, some pointed down towards the earth mother Pachamama.
There is some scattered information online about the true origins of the Templo de la Fertilidad. More often, though, the site appears as a quick anecdote in fast-paced travel blogs. There are a few other clues to the truth of the Temple though. One is that the site has no official recognition. Most ancient sites are blanketed in information bearing the logos of the governments or universities or organisations like UNESCO. There is none of this in Chucuito. Another clue is that right across the road from the Temple is a colonial-era church. Given the efforts that the Church went to to crush indigenous culture, and given the Catholic penchant for mortifying the flesh and for smashing graven images, it seems pretty unlikely that the rows of cocks could have been left untouched while nuns and inquisitors received communion just across the way.
The Temple may not be the real deal, but there is something to be said for the creativity at work in Chucuito. The village has found a way to give tourists exactly what they want, and to make a little pocket money in doing so. Maybe the villagers have their tongues in their cheeks as they sell tickets and give tours, and maybe when the site closes in the evening they gather round, count their coins, and laugh at the stupid tourists, but it’s hard to fault them for wanting to cash in on an immense industry driven more by consumer demand than cultural authenticity. It says a great deal about travel today if most visitors don’t bother to check the facts on places they are visiting. The Temple gets mentioned in some guidebooks, but often it seems the authors of these are in on the joke. The truth is out there though, and it’s not very hard to find. If some travellers don’t care to find it, why not take their money, give them what they want, and send them merrily on their way? It’s an everyone-wins situation; a victimless crime.
And even if word does get properly out, this does little to diminish the appeal of Chucuito. It is still a traditional village on a majestic lake. And it still has a temple full of rows of stone cocks. Regardless of their origins, these well-rubbed phalluses are set to become a part of Peru’s ever-evolving mythology.