Lake Titicaca

by Kshaunish Jaini

Lake Titicaca Introduction

Lake Titicaca straddles the southern corner of Peru and crosses into Bolivia. It’s the largest lake in South America and at over two miles above sea level, it is also the highest navigable lake in the world. Lake Titicaca has always been sacred to the people of the Andes, many believing it was the birthplace of the sun, the stars and the moon. It is therefore unsurprising that temples can be found dotted around the fringes of the lake and on its islands. The lake was important to civilizations long before the Incas.

Lake Titicaca Lost City

Stories of a lost city have been bringing historians to the area for years. In 2,000, the ruins of a temple, crop terraces, a road and a kilometre-long wall dating back 1,500 years had been found by archaeologists under the water’s surface. This astonishing temple was believed to be built by the Tiwanaku people and is over 200 metres long and 50 metres wide. The Bolivian Government have plans to bring the temple out of the water, but many locals are fearful moving the sacred structure. Though it’s not possible for tourists to visit the sunken temple just yet, there is plenty above water to see.

Uros People

Arguably, the most interesting is the Uros indigenous community, who live on floating islands made from totora reeds. The history is fascinating. Once living on the mainland, the Uros people created the floating reed islands and moved on to the lake to defend themselves from the invading Incas who were expanding the reach of their empire. Though most no longer live permanently on the islands, it’s possible to visit the community to learn more about their history and lives. It’s not just the islands that are made from dried reeds. Their homes, furniture, watchtowers and even their highly decorated boats are also made from the plant which grows in abundance towards the edge of the lake. As you can imagine, the reeds begin to break up, so more are added to the top to maintain the islands. Though you can reach the Uros Islands from the Bolivian side, it’s easiest from Puno in Peru.

uros-girls-rowing-titicaca

Uros girls rowing a boat on Lake Titicaca.

Taquile Islands

Another interesting stop is Taquile Islands, home to a community famed for their fine weaved and knitted handicrafts protected by UNESCO. It’s also a beautiful island to wander through, typically led by one of the 2,000 villagers who live there.

Taquile-man-woman-knits

Taquile, the men knit and the women weave. Photo by Lorna Mitchell

Bolivian Side of Lake Titicaca

On the Bolivian side, the most important of the islands is the Island of the Sun. Accessibly by boat from the mainland town of Copacabana, this is the largest of the 41 islands on Lake Titicaca. In Incan mythology, this was the home of the god Inti, so it’s sacred to many. To the north of the island is the village of Challapampa, those main attraction is the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) which interestingly doesn’t contain any gold. Tickets for the museum must be bought in order to see the nearby Chinkana ruins, a labyrinth of mazes used by Incan priests. There is also a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the site to watch the famous sunset and sunrise. There are few accommodation options on the island, but the best is the Ecolodge La Estancia. To reach the lodge, guides will take you on a beautiful hike across the island.

Island of the Sun

A visit to the Island of the Sun is usually combined with the Island of the Moon. In Incan mythology, it was here that the Inca goddess Mama Quila lived. The Aymara culture were one of the first groups to set up home on the island, but during the Inca Empire, women called Virgins of the Sun lived a holy life here, weaving textiles from alpaca wool.

Lake Titicaca Festivals

There are several festivals on Lake Titicaca throughout the year. The most famous is held on the 18th January when the local communities dress in traditional garb and descend the two mountains of Paccha Mama and Paccha Tata to offer food and drink to the earth. Like most of Latin America, Easter is also an important date in the calendar. The week-long celebration best seen in Puno is full of parades, singing, dancing and food. A procession through the candle lit streets is simply beautiful.

Getting to Lake Titicaca

There are several ways to reach Lake Titicaca. If you are in Peru, you have three main options. The first is taking the bus or train from Cuzco to Puno, the main city on the edge of the lake. Both journeys take most of the day. Though the bus is cheaper, the Andean Explorer train is a wonderful experience taking guests through the high altiplano, past herds of alpaca, guanacos and llama and includes an observation deck and a three-course meal. Another option is to take a bus or small group tour from Arequipa. The advantage here is being able to stop for the night in Colca and spend the morning down at Colca Canyon (deeper than the Grand Canyon in the USA) watching the condors glide above and below you. For those with little time, it’s possible to fly into the larger city of Juliaca and take a taxi or bus for an hour down to Puno.

boat-bolivia-lake-titicaca

Decorated boat on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Photo by Hermann Lauscher

From Bolivia, the main access point is the town of Copacabana located on a lake peninsula. It is easy enough to arrange a private driver or take a bus from the capital La Paz, a journey which takes around three to four hours. If you plan to stay in Copacabana, visit the beautiful 17th century cathedral, a fine example of Spanish Moorish architecture. Inside, a statue of La Virgen de Candelaria can be seen and is said to have healing powers.  The Museo del Poncho houses a vast collection of colourful textiles and weavings. Of course, if time permits, it’s best to try and see the lake from both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. A small road around the islands links both countries and offers lovely views over the islands. Alternatively, you can travel across the lake by boat, stopping at the islands on both sides.

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Titicaca

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