In the beginning, there was a lake cradled in the mountains of a high plateau in the Andes. How it got here was simple: The universe cried, and its tears flooded the world.

Mankind had disobeyed the gods, and the gods sent in pumas.

Lake Titicaca — pumas of stone — is proof, tragedy burnished into beauty.

Standing on a quay in Puno, a city in Peru on the lake's western shore, across from the country of Bolivia, my wife, Margie, and I stared at its cerulean expanse, an autumn sun reflecting off what has been called the eye of God. Not a breath of wind stirred the water, the Donald Duck and Goofy paddle boats imperturbable.

 The residents of Luquina Chico, Peru, anchor their row boats near the shore of their village, which looks out upon the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca.
Thomas Curwen / Los Angeles / TNS
The residents of Luquina Chico, Peru, anchor their row boats near the shore of their village, which looks out upon the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca.

Our itinerary in Peru had included Machu Picchu, but this morning vista surpassed the splendor of those ruins, whose images on calendars and coasters, snow globes, and refrigerator magnets are burned so deeply in the mind that the reality seemed almost derivative.

Our destination was Luquina Chico, less than 90 minutes by car from Puno on the tip of a peninsula extending into the lake. There, I — along with students and professors from Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., where Margie teaches — would stay with local families for two nights.

The students, drawn by the lure of three unit credits, were promised the opportunity to "explore the Peruvian leadership approach to community development," but the lessons were greater than this.

The residents of Luquina, increasingly dependent on visitors like us, know that unregulated tourism — an easy temptation in a region as beautiful and undeveloped as this — can tear apart communities.

They are trying to develop a sustainable model that gives every household an opportunity to prosper and preserves the tranquility of the village. Finding that balance is not easy.

What we saw and experienced — service learning — is available to anyone willing to pack a pair of work gloves.

Lake Titicaca, an hour and a half by plane from the capital Lima, is a world apart in politics and culture. When we were here, in spring 2018, President Martin Vizcarra had just been sworn in — he went on to dissolve Congress this past September — but the focus in Puno then was a soccer match between Peru and Croatia. (Peru won.)

Grateful for visitors, residents of Uros Titino, a floating island on Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia, gather as guests depart by water taxi. The Uros economy is largely depended upon tourism.
Thomas Curwen / Los Angeles Times / TNS
Grateful for visitors, residents of Uros Titino, a floating island on Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia, gather as guests depart by water taxi. The Uros economy is largely depended upon tourism.

Our guide was Edgar Frisancho, whose agency, Edgar Adventures, is one of a few companies in Puno that arranges tours of the lake. Frisancho was born in central Peru and moved here when he was 16 to escape the violence of Shining Path revolutionaries.

Thirty years later, he speaks easily about the region's history and of traditional values shifting under economic pressures. Lake Titicaca, he said, "has seen more changes in the last 30 years than in the last 500 years."

It stems not just from environmental changes, the internet, or even the building of roads, but from visitors like us and the villages that compete for our attention.

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Traveling once meant blending into a foreign land and that the conspicuousness of a tour was something to disdain.

Disappearing into a culture and a country might be possible in cities where internationalism has planted its flag, but it comes at a cost in rural communities. That cost, according to Frisancho, is no greater than on the shores of Lake Titicaca, a world as delicate as it is beautiful.

Our first stop was Uros Titino, one of the lake's famed floating islands, home of the Uros people who settled centuries ago from the Amazon and survived on these waters as scores of invaders passed over the land.

The water taxi pulled alongside a floating hayloft. The ground underfoot was soft, uneven, and pliant. Seven families lived here, and we gathered in the warm sun to hear how they maintained the island, cutting and bundling totora reeds. Afterward, they laid out their colorful textiles and carvings for sale.

When Frisancho visited these islands years ago, the Uros were self-sufficient; the birds and fish of the lake provided all they needed. That has changed.

 Traditionally dressed, some residents of Luquina Chico, Peru, who invited visitors into their homes, gather on the shore of Lake Titicaca.
Thomas Curwen / Los Angeles Times / TNS
Traditionally dressed, some residents of Luquina Chico, Peru, who invited visitors into their homes, gather on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

Lakes such as Titicaca, more than 12,000 feet above sea level in the Altiplano, a high plateau in the Andes, get most of their water from rainfall, and they are evaporating as the Andes warm. Invasive species and overfishing also threaten the fragile ecosystems.

Diminishing resources have made living on the floating islands more difficult, but tourism has helped. Some Uros have moved their islands closer to Puno so travelers can reach them; a neighboring island lists a hut on Airbnb.

At the end of our visit, we boarded a reed boat, and a young man gently sculled us across the water. His boat, he said through a translator, took two months to build. Beneath the bundled reeds were 3,500 plastic water bottles.

A boat made of solely of reeds lasts nine months, he explained, but a boat made with water bottles will float for two years.

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In early afternoon the water taxi pulled up to the concrete pier at Luquina Chico. A string of fishing boats, oars still in oarlocks, floated listlessly.

The village, rising on the lake's sloping shoreline, is a scattering of russet-colored homes, pathways, green lawns, and fields of potatoes, fava beans, and quinoa. Our host families greeted us in bowler hats, vests, and embroidered jackets.

Luquina offers turismo vivencial — experiential tourism — of which home stays are a central feature. Margie and I were assigned to Fernando and Yrene Gutierrez, whose home was just beyond the school and soccer pitch.

Our room was off a small courtyard. After settling in, we joined Yrene, who served us a lunch of quinoa soup with chicken, rice, and potatoes.

The peace and quiet of Luquina — well outside the congestion of Lima, Cuzco, and Puno — was unmatched. After our first night, we felt the pulse of a community whose habits and practices had seemingly never changed.

But we knew that the families of Luquina were trying to develop an economy that balanced modern necessities with tradition. For years, they had watched water taxis on the way to Taquile Island, known for handicrafts, and wondered how they might attract those travelers. A tourist economy would mean money to replace thatched roofs with corrugated ones, buy school supplies, pave a well-trod path.

The residents wanted to make sure that all families profited equally.

The greatest threat to this practice, Friscancho said, are online booking services such as Expedia and Airbnb. They pit neighbor against neighbor, promoting competition inside a communal system, he said.

He cited two families that the government has assisted with internet connections and web design. These families, he said, have more clients and have built more rooms. "Soon they will have hotels," he added.

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Early the next day, we broke out our work gloves and gathered on a patch of ground marked with plumb lines and trenches.

The village council wanted to build a restaurant so that families whose homes are too far away for visitors to reach could extend hospitality by helping to fix meals.

We organized into small groups. Pushing wheelbarrows. Digging. Hauling aggregate from the shoreline to the cement mixer. Bending and cutting rebar for columns and foundation.

At noon we broke for lunch — bananas, bread, baloney, and cheese. We had drawn closer the residents of Luquina, and we exchanged stories of our lives.

"We are grateful of your support," Luis Ascencio, the village judge, said at the end of the day. "On this beautiful afternoon, we feel very proud. The work you have done is very beautiful."

Against a stormy sky, we climbed the hill to the school and, after an impromptu game of soccer with the children, the men and women dressed us in skirts, vests, and bowlers and taught us to cashua, a traditional courting dance. Ascencio played the quena, an Andean flute.