Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Lake Titicaca
Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Lake Titicaca
With its perfectly azure waters and affinity with the sky that seems so close above, Lake Titicaca has long enthralled those who live on its banks.
Considered the “birthplace of the sun” by the Inca and still regarded as a spiritual, sacred place, it’s a unique stop along the tourist circuit of Peru. Tours to Lake Titicaca allow visitors to learn more about the lake’s fascinating spiritual history and even meet the waters’ inhabitants, whose way of lives have changed little in the last millennia.
What exactly is Lake Titicaca?
Lake Titicaca (Lago Titicaca) is a lake in Peru and Bolivia that is the highest navigable body of water in the world. It’s home to a number of islands, both manmade and natural, where unique Peruvian cultures and traditions still flourish.
Where is Lake Titicaca located?
The location of Lake Titicaca is on the border between Peru and Bolivia, with half of the lake belonging to each nation.
On the Bolivian side, it’s a five-hour journey from La Paz, the de facto capital city, to Copacabana, from where tours leave for Isla del Sol.
In Peru, Puno is the closest city to Lake Titicaca and it’s from here that tours to the Uros Islands and to Taquile and Amantani leave.
There are plenty of options for getting to Lake Titicaca from Cusco. The cheapest is by one of the buses that leave each day from the bus terminal in Cusco. They take around eight hours to reach Puno, covering the distance between Lake Titicaca and Cusco of 380 kilometres.
An alternative option is to board the special tourist bus that travels between Cusco and Puno and stops for photos at picturesque villages between the two cities. You can also take the luxurious 10-hour train journey operated by Peru Rail that leaves from Cusco in the morning, three times per week.
What is unique about Lake Titicaca?
One of the lake’s most unique features is the fact that it is the largest body of freshwater in South America and fed by 27 rivers. At 8,372 square kilometres in size, Lake Titicaca is just a little smaller than the island of Cyprus – yup, it’s a huge lake!
What’s more, these waters are situated at 3,810 metres above sea-level meaning that when walking on any of the lake’s islands, you’ll notice how thin the air is; so don’t be surprised if you feel shortness of breath and other effects of altitude here.
But Lake Titicaca has always been of mythological and spiritual importance for the numerous ancient cultures that have inhabited its islands and surrounding areas. Archaeological evidence uncovered here has found that humans have inhabited both sides of the lake since around 10,000 BC. According to the Inca, the sun, moon and stars were created by their creator god, Viracocha, making it the birthplace of the sun and a supremely important place.
Finally, in 2005, it was submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List because of the remarkably well-maintained cultures and languages of its many island inhabitants and in recognition of its sacred role for the Inca Empire.
What can you do in Lake Titicaca?
Over 70 islands populate Lake Titicaca and offer insights into the region’s truly unique cultural and social history. It’s also a dramatic spot in South America; on its north-eastern side, the Bolivian Cordillera Real provides a striking backdrop of 6,000-metre-high peaks.
It’s very easy to organize a tour of Lake Titicaca as most depart from Puno and generally visit the three following must-see sites and activities on the lake:
The Uros Islands
The Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros) as they’re sometimes known, are just that: a collection of around 60 islands made from the totora reeds that flourish in the lake and which are also used to build the traditional caballitos or reed boats used by fisherman in Huanchaco, near Trujillo.
These islands were originally built to be movable; the first indigenous Uros people came here after being forced off their lands by the Aymara and Inca and these 15 metres by 15 metres islands are moored to the bed of the lake with rope cables.
Nowadays, they’re located only a 30-minute boat ride from Puno and visitors can meet the villagers, who’ll show you around their “land” and might even take you for a spin on a fully watertight totora reed boat – a memorable thing to do on Lake Titicaca!
They also sell crafts made from the very same reeds. Not only are these unique Peruvian souvenirs pretty, but they’re an important source of income for the villagers, who now rely almost entirely on tourism to survive.
Another stop on most tours of Lake Titicaca is Amantani Island (Isla Amantani), which is home to over 3,000 indigenous inhabitants, who will welcome you off the boat.
Tourists normally spend the night here and are assigned to one of the 50 or so families who receive visitors on a rotating basis – helping to ensure that each has the opportunity to earn money. Each family has at least one guest rooms and bathroom, making for a basic, if comfortable and very authentic experience.
At sunset, climb up to 4,150 metres and the Pachamama temple, where you can watch as the sun crashes into the horizon, tinting the clouds with spectacular hues. In the evening, the locals normally put on a dance show and you can dress up in their traditional outfits – woven here on the island – and dance to lively music played on panpipes, guitars and the tiny charango.
On your way home, don’t forget to look up at the night sky; a complete lack of light pollution on the island makes the stars here particularly dramatic.
The final stop on a visit to Lake Titicaca is to Taquile Island (Isla Taquile), a place known for its exceptional weaving tradition continued to this day by the island’s 2,000-or-so residents.
However, the first challenge when you arrive at the main harbour are the 538 stone steps that must be climbed to reach the central square – no mean feat, particularly when the town is located at 3,950 metres above sea-level.
But the hike is worth it and at the top, it’s possible to encounter a spectacular array of local weaving and knitting – the latter only done by the men. Because of the fact the weaving tradition dates back millennia, reflecting the ancient weavings of cultures such as the Pukara, Colla and Inca, Taquile Island is listed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Look out for the men wearing their trademark red or white knitted chullo or cuyo hats. These are important in indicating their marital status: those wearing red are married while those in white are single.
You can buy knitted and woven goods in the handicraft centre in the main plaza and have a simple lunch, normally consisting of trout fished from the lake and finished off with a muña infusion (a plant similar in taste to mint that helps with altitude sickness).
How to visit Lake Titicaca and where to stay
The easiest way to visit the three islands is with a two-day/one-night boat tour of Lake Titicaca from Puno, which generally includes all meals and the cost of staying overnight in a homestay on Amantani Island.
Be aware that, although your guide will likely English, this is rarely the case for the locals on the island. Expect to communicate with a lot of pointing – you’ll be lucky if your hosts speak even Spanish, as the vast majority only speak the local Quechua tongue.
See your tour of Lake Titicaca as an enjoyable adventure of finding inventive ways of communicating!
What to do in Puno, Peru
Before heading out on the crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca, you’ll likely find yourself with some time on your hands in Puno first. Although this city certainly isn’t half as charming as the Inca stronghold of Cusco, there are a plenty of activities and things to do in Puno.
If you’re visiting Puno and Lake Titicaca in the final week of January or first few weeks of February, your trip might well coincide with the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria, a religious festival that consists of a spellbinding mix of indigenous and Catholic rituals that manifest as colourful parades and celebrations attracting around 40,000 revellers. What’s more, you can combine a guided tour of the Virgen de la Candelaria festival with a trip to the Lake Titicaca islands.
Heading to Lake Titicaca at another time during the year? In half a day, you can take a tour of the Sillustani tombs, a series of funerary towers built by the Kolla culture, each constructed as a mausoleum for a nobleman. Normally, his wife and servants were also sacrificed and buried with him, presumably so as to follow him into the afterlife.
Interested in travelling to Lake Titicaca? We have a variety of tours leaving from both Cusco and Puno.