There is no other lake so deeply steeped in myths and legends as the famed Lago Titicaca in South America. In many ways, this natural wonder is unique. If one needs to describe it, only the superlatives come to mind: the deepest lake located in the high mountains, the largest freshwater lake in South America, the highest navigable lake in the world, and, of course, the most mysterious lake on our planet.
Even the name itself, in my opinion, has a somewhat magical appeal. At least, it has captured my imagination since the first time I heard it in my geography class at school. So I was excited beyond all words to finally visit Lake Titicaca in real life during my trip across South America.
The Titicaca Basin is so rich in important historical sites and incredibly beautiful scenery that it has become a magnet for tourists, particularly, those interested in spiritual getaways and ecotourism. Since all the attractions are scattered across two countries, I have written a brief sightseeing guide, based on my own experience, to help you find your way around the lake.
Titicaca Name Origin
The current name Titicaca, most likely, comes from the Aymara word titiq’aq’a, which means grey puma. This name is thought to refer to the sacred rock carved by the Incas in the shape of puma on one of the lake’s principal islands Isla del Sol. That is why, sometimes, it is also translated as rock puma.
The outlines of the lake itself, divided by a narrow strait into two parts, also remind the locals of a puma hunting for a rabbit. Hence, one more reason to call the lake in honor of an animal regarded as “sacred” by the local Indians.
Titicaca Lake Geography Facts
Lake Titicaca is located at the northern end of the Altiplano region enclosed by the Andes Mountains. Its surface elevation is 3812 m above sea level, making it the highest lake navigable by large ships. According to scientists, the lake was formed about 20 million years ago. A strong earthquake had split the mountains in two and created a hollow that gradually filled with water from the surrounding melting glaciers.
Even though Titicaca is considered a freshwater lake, it contains about 1% salt. That is why its water can be slightly saline.
Today, the Titicaca Basin is shared between two countries: 40% of the lake’s surface lie in Bolivia, and 60% belong to Peru.
The lake is also divided into two sub-basins by a narrow Strait of Tiquina. The smaller southern basin goes by the name of Wiñaymarka in Bolivia and Lago Pequeño (Small Lake) in Peru. The larger northern basin is referred to as Chucuito in Bolivia and Lago Grande (Big Lake) in Peru.
Titicaca Lake History
In ancient Andean mythology, Titicaca was regarded as the origin and center of the universe. The lake played a key role in the history and culture of two major pre-Columbian civilizations in South America: Tiwanaku (100 – 1000 AD) and Incas (1100 – 1570 AD).
The Tiwanaku, who created the first empire state in the region in the 1st millennium, worshiped Titicaca as a sacred place. They believed their God lived inside the lake, and the first people came from there. According to some speculations, 1500 – 2000 years ago, the surface occupied by the lake was bigger than now, and the Tiwanaku’s principal city might have stood directly on its shore. Thanks to such a favorable location, Tiwanaku became the most important religious and pilgrimage center in the Andes. It was a factor that must have greatly contributed to the city’s growth and dominance over other indigenous tribes.
The Incas, who created the second greatest empire in South America a few centuries after the decline of Tiwanaku, took inspiration from its legacy. They incorporated a lot of myths and legends about their predecessors into their own religion and beliefs. Even though the first Inca tribes came from the Cusco area, the Incas perpetuated a myth about the origin of their civilization in Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun, located in the middle of Lake Titicaca. According to their legend, it was on the Island of the Sun that their Sun God Viracocha emerged from the waters of the lake and created the first Inca King Manco Capac and his wife Mama Occlo. That is why the Incas built a lot of religious structures all across the Titicaca region.
Today, the remnants of the Inca presence can be still found around Titicaca. There are more than 180 Inca monuments and ruins located near the lake. So if you are interested in the history of this ancient civilization, a trip to Lake Titicaca will not disappoint you.
Even after the Spanish conquest and the fall of the Inca Empire in 1533, Inca myths and legends continued to live in the oral tradition of the local Indian tribes. Thus, according to one of the stories, the Incas buried all their gold at the bottom of Titicaca to prevent the Spanish from getting hold of it. In 1968, the French explorer Jacques Cousteau undertook an underwater expedition in the lake in an attempt to find the lost treasures. Although he did not succeed in locating the gold at the time, in more recent years, archaeologists have come up with many extraordinary new finds from the bottom of the lake.
Thus, just a few years ago, archeologists recovered a lot of valuable artifacts, including gold objects, metal ornaments, precious stones, and incense burners, thrown in the lake during religious rituals throughout different historical periods. Some of these artifacts date back as far as 100 BC.
However, another great discovery made by a group of scientists in 2000 is even more astounding. On the route between Copacabana and Isla del Sol, they followed an old pre-Incan road and came across the ruins of a submerged ancient temple. The pyramidal structure that measures 200 by 50 meters was found at the depth of about 20 m below the surface of the lake. Next to the temple, there was also a crop terrace and an 800-m-long wall. Estimated to be 1000 – 1500 years old, these ruins are thought to have been built by the Tiwanaku.
This striking finding, so far, added more puzzling questions than clarifying answers concerning the history of these ruins. Yet, thanks to new underwater research technologies, the mystical Titicaca Lake might reveal more secrets to us in the foreseeable future.
How to Get to Lake Titicaca
Since all the attractions of Lake Titicaca are spread across the two countries, you can travel there either from Bolivia or Peru. If you have enough time, I would recommend you explore the lake on both sides of the border for a more comprehensive experience. However, if you are limited in time, choose the things to see according to your own preferences.
The most convenient location to start your adventures on the Bolivian side is the charming little town of Copacabana. On the Peruvian side, it is the port city of Puno.
Getting to Copacabana
The easiest way to travel to Copacabana is to take a bus at the La Paz Central Bus Station (Terminal de Buses). You can book tickets on TicketsBolivia in advance or come directly to the station on the day of the departure. Buses leave for Copacabana regularly every hour or so.
Bus ticket prices range from 4 to 20 USD, depending on the quality of service. Some companies, for example, Kanoo Tours, also offer tourist services and organize bus pick-ups at your hotel. So if you go with them, you do not even have to come to the bus station.
The ride from La Paz to Copacabana lasts for about 4 hours and involves taking a ferry to cross the Strait of Tiquina.
Getting to Puno
Most tourists travel to Puno after visiting Cusco or Arequipa. In this case, the bus is usually the most convenient and cheapest way of travel. It takes about 7,5 hours to reach Puno from Cusco, and about 6,5 hours from Arequipa.
Frankly speaking, the tourist buses in Peru are the best I have ever ridden. They are modern, comfortable, and pretty safe. Of course, different bus companies offer different levels of service. Since overall ticket prices for intercity bus travel are quite reasonable (about 10 – 30 USD per person), I would recommend you choose a tourist class over an economy for better comfort and security. For example, we traveled with Cruz del Sur all over Peru, and their service was excellent.
PeruRail also has a luxury train going between Cusco and Peru. However, the journey lasts longer (about 10,5 hours), and the tickets are much more expensive. So when it comes to value for money, traveling by bus is a much better option.
If you want to get to Puno from Lima, traveling by plane is your best bet. You can take a 1,5-hour flight from Lima to Manco Capac Airport in Juliaca and then get a 1-hour ride by bus or taxi to Puno. Many airline companies, including LATAM and Avianca, operate several flights on the route. Air ticket prices range from 20 to 80 USD one way.
Traveling between Puno and Copacabana
Traveling between Puno and Copacabana is very easy. Multiple buses circulate between them every day. If you want to be on the safe side, I recommend you book your ticket with Kanoo Tours or Cruz del Sur. But if you prefer to play it by ear, you can go to any travel agency in Copacabana or the bus terminal in Puno and get a ticket for the same day.
The trip between Puno and Copacabana takes about 3,5 – 4 hours and involves border-crossing between Peru and Bolivia at Yunguyo/Kasani. For me personally, it was one of the most spectacular bus rides during our travels in South America because the road runs along the banks of Titicaca. So the beautiful views of the lake accompany you all the time. Besides, we were traveling during the Carnival time and could see the local people celebrating the holiday on the way.
Titicaca Attractions in Bolivia
Sightseeing in Copacabana
Most travelers stop in Copacabana to visit the famous Isla del Sol. However, the little town with a picturesque waterfront has its own peculiar charm.
Like most other Bolivian towns, Copacabana is no stranger to unfinished construction sites, dirt, and garbage in its back streets. However, it does have a certain relaxed seaside feel at the lakefront and offers some of the best Titicaca views from the shore.
I think we stayed at one of the most beautiful hotels in Copacabana, called Rosario Lago Titicaca. It has an incredibly romantic lake view that made us feel as if we were at a Mediterranean sea resort instead of the high Andes. The shimmering blue surface with dozens of floating boats looked so welcoming and tempted to take a dip. Yet, this first impression was quite misleading because the water in Titicaca rarely rises above +11C. Besides, in the mountains, the weather changes very quickly from hot and sunny to cold and windy.
Copacabana is located between two hills: Cerro Calvario and Cerro Niño Calvario. At the top of Cerro Calvario, you can get the best panorama of the lake and town below. The hike can be quite exhausting, but the views make it worth the effort, particularly, in the evening. The sunset is said to be very beautiful.
The main attraction in the town is the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana. This elegant cathedral was built in the mudéjar style in the 17th century. It is one of the most important religious destinations in Bolivia. Inside the church, there is a holy statue of Virgen de Candelaria, carved by the grandson of the last Inca Emperor Tupac. The Bolivians believe that this statue performs miracles.
There are dozens of Inca ruins around Copacabana. If you want to explore them, you can get a map of all the Inca sites at the Tourist Information Center located in the town’s main street Avenida 6 de Agosto. The most remarkable landmark among them is an ancient Astronomical Observatory, located at the top of a rocky hill. It is called Horca del Inca, or Gallows of the Incas in English. During the June solstice, the sun rays pass through an opening in the rocks and reflect onto the lintel of the gallows structure. In fact, this astronomical clock was built by Chiripa people, not Incas, in the 14th century. It was part of a larger complex of solar and lunar calendars made of stone slabs. Unfortunately, most of them were destroyed by the Spanish during the conquest.
Visiting Isla del Sol
However, the main attraction that draws tourists to Copacabana is Isla del Sol, or the Island of the Sun, the foundation stone of the Inca mythology. The island has remained relatively untouched by modern civilization. Today, it looks pretty much the same as at the times of the Incas. There are no paved roads, cars, or utility infrastructure. The green hills of the island are covered with stepped agricultural terraces that create a stunning landscape. Besides, there are also over 80 ruins on the island. Most of them date back to the Inca period.
You can get to Isla del Sol in 1,5-2 hours by taking a boat from Copacabana. The boats leave strictly at 8.30 am and 13:30 pm.
To make the most of your visit, you should take the morning boat as you need about 4 hours to cross the island from north to south and see all the sites.
Unfortunately, due to some health issues, we missed the morning boat and went to the island in the afternoon. It turned out to be a bad idea. If you arrive at the island at 3 pm, you have no more than 1-1,5 hours to catch the boat back to Copacabana. This is not enough to see the whole island and everything it has to offer. So our visit was quite messy. We did not really know where to go or what to see without the risk of missing our boat. Yet, we could not help admiring the picture-perfect rural scenery of the island, its luscious green hills, and almost toy-like peasant houses.
The morning boat also makes a short stop at Isla de la Luna, or the Island of the Moon in English, where a few Inca ruins have been preserved as well.
If you want to enjoy the peaceful and serene atmosphere the Island of the Sun is known for, you can stay there overnight with one of the local families or at the hotel. The comfort is pretty basic, but the authentic experience you get from visiting the place is refreshing. I would definitely love to do that if I come here the second time.
To find out more about places to visit on the Island of the Sun, check this guide to Isla del Sol.
Titicaca Attractions in Peru
Sightseeing in Puno
Puno is already a much bigger city than Copacabana. It is the capital of a whole region, an important commercial hub, and the largest port on Lake Titicaca. Despite that, it has a small but pretty and neat historical center with well-restored colonial buildings and a traditional touch. You can take a short walk through the center and visit the lively Plaza de Armas, the Puno Cathedral, Calle Lima, Iglesia de San Juan Batista, and Pino Park.
Puno is also called the folkloric capital of Peru. This is particularly noticeable during the Carnival celebrations that take place at the end of February or the beginning of March. We were lucky to arrive in Puno right in the middle of the Carnival. Although it is not as big and spectacular as the more famous Carnaval de Oruro, the local parade is quite entertaining and has an authentic feel. Groups of dancers perform in traditional costumes to the folk music played by the brass band in the central Plaza de Armas.
Puno usually serves as the base to explore other well-known attractions on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, such as Sillustani, Islas Uros, Amantani, and Taquile.
Sillustani is located some distance away from Titicaca on the bank of a different but equally beautiful lake Umayo. The place used to be a burial site for the ancient Aymara-speaking Colla people. They built large towers called chullpas that functioned as some sort of mausoleums to bury their dead. You can see some of the most impressive and best-preserved chullpas at Sillustani.
In addition to their elaborate stonework, the surrounding landscape is simply breathtaking. The incredibly serene lake serves as the perfect backdrop for the solemn structures.
Organized tours usually leave for Sillustani from the center of Puno in the afternoon. However, you can also get there by taxi or bus heading for Juliaca.
Excursion to the Uros Floating Islands
Lake Titicaca is also famous for its unique floating islands inhabited by the ancient Uros people. They are also known as Islas Uros. The ancestors of modern Urus moved to the lake to escape the expanding Inca Empire. At first, they lived in boats. When they realized they could no longer return to the mainland, they started constructing their own islands, using soil and multiple layers of reed called totora. Each of these islands houses one to ten families, and the main island even has a school and a football field. The painstaking work, which is put into building and maintaining these manmade islands, is amazing.
Today, you can visit the Uros floating islands with an organized tour from Puno. A motorboat usually takes you to one of the islands, where the community leader tells you about their lifestyle and demonstrates the island construction techniques. Then, a quaint traditional reed-boat called balsa takes you to the second island. There, you can walk around, see how the Uros people live, and buy some locally made food or handicrafts.
If you want to prolong your experience of the Uros islands, you can spend a night at one of the floating hotels created specifically for tourists. However, bear in mind that, according to people who stayed there, it gets rather called and humid at night. So given the high room prices, it is not really worth the expense.
Visiting Taquile Island
You can continue exploring the islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca by visiting Isla Taquile. This tiny island has a territory of only about 5 sq. km. Yet, you can appreciate its gorgeous hilly landscapes and the authentic lifestyle of native Quechua people. It is also known for its woven textiles inscribed in Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
You can either visit Taquile on a day tour by boat from Puno or stay overnight with a host family and get immersed in their traditional way of life.
Visiting Amantani Island
Amantani is a slightly bigger island of about 4000 Quechua people north of Taquile. It has a beautiful mountain landscape strewn with agricultural terraces and a few Inca ruins. In many ways, the island reminds of Isla del Sol but is much less touristic. So if you are looking for the most authentic experience of traditional Quechua culture and life, you should come to Amantini. There are no hotels on the island at all. However, you can stay with a local family, which can be a great adventure.
Safety Tips for Travelling Around Lake Titicaca
As with all other destinations in the Andes, the high altitude should be your primary concern when traveling around Titicaca. While the lake itself lies at 3812 m, many sites in the region are located even higher. That is why give your body some time to acclimatize to the smaller amounts of oxygen and avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The standard recommendations to mitigate the effects of high altitude are the following:
Do not overexert yourself with too much physical activity.
Eat healthy non-fattening food and skip on alcohol.
Drink lots of water and coca tea. You can also chew coca leaves in keeping with the local tradition. Coca leaves consumed in their natural form contain alkaloids that suppress fatigue, hunger, and pain, thus alleviating the symptoms of altitude sickness.
You can also take aspirin or the local soroche pills to prevent or fight headaches caused by altitude sickness.
Also due to the high altitude, the average annual air temperature in the Titicaca region is about + 17 C. It can get pretty hot and sunny during the day. But it is always cold at night. So a warm jacket is a must.
However, despite low temperatures, always put on sunscreen! At this elevation, the sun is merciless and can burn your skin very quickly.
I would also recommend wearing comfortable hiking shoes. In the Andes, you always keep walking up and downhill on uneven and rocky terrain. So foot comfort is of great importance.