An immense, sapphire-blue lake sitting astride the border with Peru at the northern end of the Altiplano, LAGO TITICACA is one of the classic images of Bolivia, and few scenes are more evocative of the country than the sight of a poncho-clad fisherman paddling across its azure waters against the backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Set at an altitude of 3810m, and measuring 190km by 80km, it’s by far the biggest high-altitude body of water in the world – the remnant of an ancient inland sea formed as the Andes were thrust up from the ocean floor. The surrounding area is the heartland of the Aymara, whose language and culture have survived centuries of domination. The lake itself is rich in fish, and the water it contains stores the heat of the sun and then releases it overnight, raising average temperatures around its shores, making the region one of the most productive in the high Andes. Lago Titicaca is fed by a number of rivers that carry rainfall down from the Cordillera Real and across the Altiplano, though none of its waters ever reaches the sea, and almost ninety percent of the lake’s water loss is through evaporation (the rest is drained by its only outlet, the Río Desaguadero). The water level in the lake fluctuates sharply with slight variations in rainfall; since 2000 levels have fallen to historic lows.
Titicaca has always played a major role in Andean religious conceptions. As the biggest body of water in this arid region, it’s considered a powerful female deity that controls climate and rainfall, and the Incas believed the creator god Viracocha rose from its waters, calling forth the sun and moon to light up the world. The Incas also claimed their own ancestors came into being here, and the remains of their shrines and temples can be seen on Isla del Sol and nearby Isla de la Luna, whose serene beauty and tranquillity is a highlight of any visit to the lake. Nor did Lago Titicaca lose its religious importance with the advent of Christianity: Bolivia’s most important Catholic shrine is in Copacabana, the lakeside town closest to Isla del Sol.