An undeniably calming and majestic sight, LAKE TITICACA is the world’s largest high-altitude body of water. At 284m deep and more than 8300 square kilometres in area, it is fifteen times the size of Lake Geneva in Switzerland and higher and slightly bigger than Lake Tahoe in the US. An immense region both in terms of its history and the breadth of its magical landscape, the Titicaca Basin makes most people feel like they are on top of the world. Usually placid and mirror-like, the deep blue water reflects the vast sky back on itself. All along the horizon – which appears to bend away from you – the green Andean mountains can be seen raising their ancient backs towards the sun; over on the Bolivian side it’s sometimes possible to make out the icecaps of the Cordillera Real mountain chain. The high altitude (3827m above sea level) means that recent arrivals from the coast should take it easy for a day or two, though those coming from Cusco will already have acclimatized.
A National Reserve since 1978, the lake has over sixty varieties of bird, fourteen species of native fish and eighteen types of amphibian. It’s often seen as three separate regions: Lago Mayor, the main, deep part of the lake; Wiñaymarka, the area incorporating various archipelagos that include both Peruvian and Bolivian Titicaca; and the Golfo de Puno, essentially the bay encompassed by the peninsulas of Capachica and Chucuito. The villages that line its shores depend mainly on grazing livestock for their livelihood, since the altitude limits the growth potential of most crops. These days, Puno is the largest settlement and port in the whole of Lake Titicaca. Densely populated well before the arrival of the Incas, the lakeside Titicaca region is also home to the curious and ancient tower-tombs known locally as chullpas: rings of tall, cylindrical stone burial chambers, often standing in battlement-like formations.
There are more than seventy islands in the lake, the largest and most sacred being the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), an ancient Inca temple site on the Bolivian side of the border; Titicaca is an Aymara word meaning “Puma’s Rock”, which refers to an unusual boulder on the island. The island is best visited from Copacabana in Bolivia, or trips can be arranged through one of the tour companies in Puno.
On the Peruvian side of the lake you can visit the unusual Uros islands. These floating platform islands are built out of reeds – weird to walk over and even stranger to live on, they are now a major tourist attraction. More spectacular by far are two of the populated, fixed islands, Amantani and Taquile, where the traditional lifestyles of these powerful communities give visitors a genuine taste of pre-Conquest Andean Peru.
The scattered population of the region is descended from two very ancient Andean ethnic groups or tribes – the Aymara and the Quechua. The Aymara’s Tiahuanaco culture predates the Quechua’s Inca civilization by over three hundred years and this region is thought to be the original home for the domestication of a number of very important plants, not least the potato, tomato and the common pepper.