Lake Titicaca is located in the altiplano plateau, the largest plateau in the Andes, on the border of two beautiful countries Peru (to the west) and Bolivia (to the east). When I arrived in the town of Puno, on the banks of Titicaca, I didn’t know the lake’s cultural history, its importance for the locals, and the mythology behind the origin of the lake.
Lake Titicaca one of the special places in South America
The indigenous communities of the two countries believe that Titicaca is the center of creation. They say that God Viracocha created the sun, the moon, and the first people out of Titicaca. The god promised its children that they will always be happy and safe if they didn’t climb the mountains where the sacred fire burned perpetually.
The legends tell that the devil was jealous of how the people adhered to god’s rules. So the devil encouraged them to defy God, climb the mountains, and get the eternal fire. Seeing his children coming up the mountains, the god sent ferocious pumas down the hills to chase the people away. Then the angry god flooded the mountains with tears. In the process, only one couple survived and the pumas drowned, too.
At the end of it all, there lay the lake, surrounded with stone pumas, statues of the ones that had died. The survival couple decided to call the place – Lake Titicaca – Lake of the Stone Pumas.
The lake’s earliest inhabitants go as back as 2nd millennia BC. Most Peruvians and Bolivians fear and revere Titicaca like their other gods. They believe that the holy spirits of the dead still live at the bottom of the lake.
Peruvian & Bolivian Side
While traveling in South America for nine months, I ended up exploring Lake Titicaca for several days from both the Peruvian and the Bolivian side. I could feel the energy of the lake even while roaming around in the town of Puno. But it was only when I walked to the shores of Titicaca I realized how huge the lake was. It is about 280 meters deep and spread over a surface area of 8,300 sq km (3200 square miles). Running from northwest-to-southeast for 120 miles (190 km), Titicaca is the second largest lake in South America. It is the biggest freshwater lake in the world.
From its banks, Titicaca looks and feels like an ocean. It is said that from above the lake looks like a puma hunting a rabbit.
Sailing on the Lake Titicaca
You will experience the true spirit of the lake when you sail on it in a tiny local wooden boat. There are bigger vessels and motorboats cruising the deep blue waters. But the most meaningful and sustainable trip can be experienced by hiring a local, or rather I say requesting one, to take you on a boat ride. Maybe for a few hours, stopping by floating islands, or by accompanying them as far as their homes, which is what I did.
My local guide in Puno, who had already sent me on a trip to Sillustani funeral towers of Inca, sent me on a two-day tour to the islands of Uros, Taquile, and Amantani.
We traveled on the blue rippling water of Titicaca for two hours and arrived at one of the Uros islands. Here the local guides were waiting for us with curious eyes. A few women in big straw hats and pink, yellow skirts stood on the edge of the island watching us.
Floating Island on Lake Titicaca
As they held our hands to help us jump from our boat onto their home, I was already mesmerized. Where was I? First I was in Puno, this big town where rain fell all day long, with lots of tourists and Chifa restaurants. Now, I was on this giant lake, on a golden, floating island. That at first appeared like a big, hay raft.
Mind you, we are talking about an altitude of 3,800 meters above sea level. That is how high this lake is.
Perhaps you must have seen floating islands off the coast in some obscure part of the world. But these 60 islands of Uros are special for they are made out of Totora weed, a local and buoyant weed that grows in the water of Titicaca.
Visiting the Guide’s Home
A guide ready to show us his home smiled at me. He was wearing a regular black trouser, and his white shirt had a pocket made out of the traditional and colorful Peruvian cloth. He stood in front of us holding a hand-weaved mat. I saw duck-shaped boats, red-orange-yellow huts, flying condor, and men and women in traditional rainbow clothes busy in activities on this beautiful cloth he held. I smiled, too.
Our guide explained the various scenes on the mat. We all from different developed and developing parts of the world listened, stupefied.
The guides told us that Titicaca is considered the birthplace of the Incas. That the story of the Uros inhabitants goes back to the time when the Uru or the Uros people migrated from Amazon. The locals didn’t let them live in the villages on the banks of the lake. Unhindered, the people made floating islands out of the reed and sailed on the lake to live there.
Today, 1200 inhabitants live on the 60 Totora islands. Every fortnight, they collect fresh weed and replace the rotten weed at the bottom of the island with the fresh one.
That was the first time someone explained the significance of the lake. No one was talking about those stories in Puno. There the people were busy selling food, running hostels, telling tourists that they can be their tour guides, rushing through the streets to be somewhere, and sending their children to school.
But on the island, the time had slowed down. Entertaining us, and maybe several other boats, seemed to be the main task of the day. Soon, I learned that collecting reed, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, fishing, farming, and weaving didn’t leave the islanders with much free time.
On our right side, with the blue backdrop of the unfathomable lake and obscurely visible Andes mountains behind the lake, a woman sat on the reed floor – the island, the pavement, the roads, everything. She had a collection of similar hand-woven rugs spread in front of her.
A fellow traveler from the US asked her prices using the few Spanish numbers he knew. He told me his Chinese wife would love one of those beautiful sheets and bought the largest one.
Meeting the Locals
We spent a couple of hours on the island. When I got bored with being part of the crowd that our little group had created, I went to sit next to a local girl. She wearing a pink waist jacket and a blue skirt and was lingering on the side by herself.
It was only natural that she was shying away from us. It must feel weird to host strangers with their own opinions and judgments into your closest space every day without any say. By now my Spanish was good. I had been on the continent for seven months. I told her she looked beautiful. She smiled and said gracias (thank you) in an accent unknown to me. People there talk both Spanish and Quechua, an ancient Spanish dialect of the indigenous people. Then she was cleaning utensils. I knelt down next to her. Then she was in the hut, in her kitchen, mostly quintessential dishes of copper and steel spread around a mud stove. I sat next to her on the reed floor. I didn’t take any pictures, it was her home, after all.
Connecting with local
Then when we came out, she was more amiable, less shy, and we talked. She said she liked the islands. That they didn’t have that many people there. She did go to school but then it was a holiday. They had a school on one of the islands. Many relatives stay together on one island, and that’s how it was.
I held her hands in my hands and felt the work her hands had done – the cooking, cleaning, rowing, reed collection, weaving, spice grounding. When the guide called me back to the boat to leave for the Taquile island, the girl and I hugged and kissed sidewise on the cheeks, the way I had learned to do in South America.
After an hour’s ride, we were on Taquile island. It’s a green piece of land amidst a big blue pool. We got down on one end of the island and huffed and puffed on the uphill stone-paved path. We were at a height of 4000 meters after all. Soon, I arrived at a vista, from where I saw a large stone hut and a big outdoor table where all the guides and the tourists who had walked ahead of me were getting together.
In those deeper parts of the lake, there were no waves but the lake rippled non-stop.
The guide from Taquile stood on the edge of the restaurant, with the deep cerulean lake behind him. Told us that their 2000-people community had ensured their island did not become too touristy. That’s why they didn’t allow night stays.
UNESCO recognized Knitting Art
Taquile Island, occupied since 1970, is known for its male weavers around the world. He gave us a short demonstration of their UNESCO recognized knitting art, explained that men weave and women make yarn. They further sustained their living by selling their handicrafts, and by farming and fishing.
Soon he announced lunch. We all gorged on trout fished from the lake, rice, and potatoes.
Island of Amantani
From there we went to the island of Amantani where we were to stay for the night. The island was fairly small, about 9 square kilometers in size. Soon on arrival, we were taken to hike the Pachamama hill.
Most of the 4000 islanders followed old traditions and spoke Quechua. They referred to the mother earth as Pachamama and prayed to her for their well-being and safety. As water holds a special symbolism in the Andean world and this lake is even more special for its legendary origin. The Pachamama temple in the middle of the lake was very respected amongst the locals.
We hiked up the Pachamama hill slowly on a stone-paved path. At the peak, devotees circled the temple a few times and offered flowers, rice, potatoes, coca leaves. The temples of Pachamama can be found in many other parts of Peru and Chile, too.
The panoramic view from the top of the hill was gorgeous, to say the least.
Next, we were taken to our homestay by a local lady. She was dressed in a long black colored skirt and wore a black shawl over her head. The black was complemented by her extremely bright and colorful hand-woven shirt full of pink and blue flowers. The island didn’t have electricity. So we used lamps to eat dinner: a simple affair of rice, potatoes, and local vegetables.
Later our host lady told us that there was a local dance celebration in which we should participate. So she dressed us up, me and two other travelers, in traditional clothes. While the clothes of the men were simple: plain black trousers, a white shirt, with a colorful poncho. I wore the same dress as hers: a long skirt with a beautiful broad belt tied in a peculiar way, a colorful blouse, and the shawl hanging from my head.
Then we followed her, as she made her way through the island with a lamp and entered a big hall where a local group played music and sang island songs. We danced for a few hours. I only stopped when my skirt untied on its own and our host tied it back for me giggling all the while. She guided us back and we slept under the stars.
They said that solar panels were soon to be installed in their homes.
Walking around the Islands
A day walk is a must on this island. Just get out of the abode house, take any mud trail. You will see that terrace farming is done on all the hills of the island. People grow potatoes, wheat, quinoa, corn, and other vegetables. Fat sheep dot the hills.
The stay was beautiful and we were happy that our money was paid directly to the homestay. But the tour still felt a bit touristy to me. So after returning from the tour, my friend and I searched the map of Titicaca, found another remote island. A tiny triangular dot on the big lake, and asked our favorite tour guide if we could go there. She told us that her cousin lived on that island.
The next day, we were seated in a petite boat and were taken from the shores of Puno to a remote island by a girl who lived on the island. We stayed at her house for two days. Walked around the countryside freely. Joined the family for a trip to another island where they left their cow to graze and ate local home-grown quinoa and potatoes.
42 Islands on Lake Titicaca
There are 42 islands on the lake spread amongst Peru and Bolivia. So a responsible way to explore the islands could be to ask the local guide or homestay people for an island far off on the lake where a family would be generous enough to host the traveler. Thus the local life of Titicaca could be experienced from up close in a natural way.
The lake can also be visited easily from the town of Copacabana on the Bolivia side. Copacabana’s most sought-after trip to the lake is to Isla del Sol – the island of the sun. It is known to be the birthplace of the sun and moon as per Andean mythology. The South and North parts of the islands have been fighting over tourism and accessibility issues. So it might not be possible to go there. But in a normal situation, boats leave from Copacabana to Isla del Sol every day at 8 AM and 1 PM.
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Copacabana, the sister town of Puno, is in itself a good place to live and see the life around the lake. Oh, the sunsets on the lake should not be missed.
This lake is one of the most special places in South America. Not just for its unique geography or its ancient culture or the rich mythology, it is special because, amidst the formidable heights and the omnipresent deep water, people have still made the lake their home. Making islands out of weed, weaving, farming potatoes at 4000-meter height, and dancing under the stars.
Do visit the lake if you get a chance.
What is your most special place in the world? Tell us.
Priyanka Gupta is an itinerant writer from India who left her investment banking career to travel the world and write. She focuses on culturally immersive, offbeat travel. While relishing local delicacies and never misses a chance to see wildlife. Priyanka always looks out for sustainable and local-community driven experiences.
Priyanka reads, writes, and blogs full-time. In her free time, she can be found running, helping other travelers learn basic Spanish phrases needed to survive in gorgeous South America, or cooking the Burmese Mohinga.
You can read Priyanka’s best ideas and travel stories on her personal growth and travel blog On My Canvas.