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.
Like nearby Taquile, AMANTANI, a basket-weavers’ island and the largest on the lake, has managed to retain some degree of cultural isolation and autonomous control over the tourist trade. Amantani is the least visited of these two islands and consequently has fewer facilities and costs slightly more to reach by boat. Of course, tourism has had its effect on the local population, so it’s not uncommon to be offered drinks, then charged later, or for the children to sing you songs without being asked, expecting to be paid. The ancient agricultural terraces are excellently maintained, and traditional stone masonry is still practised, as are the old Inca systems of agriculture, labour and ritual trade. The islanders eat mainly vegetables, with meat and fruit being rare commodities, and the women dress in colourful clothes, very distinctly woven.
The island is dominated by two small hills: one is the Temple of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the other the Temple of Pachatata (Father Earth). Around February 20, the islanders celebrate their main festival with half the 5000-strong population going to one hill, the other half gathering at the other. Following ancient ceremonies, the two halves then gather together to celebrate their origins with traditional and colourful music and dance.
Scattered all around Lake Titicaca you’ll find chullpas, gargantuan white-stone towers up to 10m in height in which the ancient Colla tribe, who dominated the region before the Incas, buried their dead. Some of the most spectacular are at SILLUSTANI, set on a little peninsula in Lake Umayo overlooking Titicaca, 30km northwest of Puno. This ancient temple/cemetery consists of a ring of stones more than five hundred years old – some of which have been tumbled by earthquakes or, more recently, by tomb robbers intent on stealing the rich goods (ceramics, jewellery and a few weapons) buried with important mummies. Two styles predominate at this site: the honeycomb chullpas and those whose superb stonework was influenced by the advance of the Inca Empire. The former are set aside from the rest and characterized by large stone slabs around a central core; some of them are carved, but most are simply plastered with white mud and small stones. The later, Inca-type stonework is more complicated and in some cases you can see the elaborate corner-jointing typical of Cusco masonry.
One of Titicaca’s non-floating islands, TAQUILE is a peaceful place that sees fewer tourists than the Uros. Located 25–30km across the water from Puno it lies just beyond the outer edge of the Gulf of Chucuito. Taquile is arguably the most attractive of the islands hereabouts, measuring about 1km by 7km, and looking from some angles like a huge ribbed whale, large and bulbous to the east, tapering to its western tail end. The horizontal striations are produced by significant amounts of ancient terracing along the steep-sided shores. Such terraces are at an even greater premium here in the middle of the lake where soil erosion would otherwise slowly kill the island’s largely self-sufficient agricultural economy, of which potatoes, corn, broad beans and hardy quinoa are the main crops. Without good soil Taquile could become like the main floating islands, depending almost exclusively on tourism for its income. Today, the island is still very traditional. There is no grid-connected electricity on the island, though there is a solar-powered community loudspeaker and a growing number of individual houses with solar lighting; it’s therefore a good idea to take a torch, matches and candles.
The island has two main ports: Puerto Chilcano Doc (on the west or Puno side of the island) and El Otro Puerto (on the north side, used mostly by tour boats of tour agents because it has an easier and equally panoramic access climb). Arriving via Puerto Chilcano Doc, the main heart of the island is reached via 525 gruelling steps up a steep hill from the small stone harbour; this can easily take an hour of slow walking. When you’ve recovered your breath, you will eventually appreciate the spectacular view of the southeast of the island where you can see the hilltop ruins of Uray K’ari, built of stone in the Tiahuanaco era around 800 AD; looking to the west you may glimpse the larger, slightly higher ruins of Hanan K’ari. On arrival, before climbing the stairs, you’ll be met by a committee of locals who delegate various native families to look after particular travellers – be aware that your family may live in basic conditions and speak no Spanish, let alone English (Quechua being the first language).
The island has been inhabited for over ten thousand years, with agriculture being introduced around 4000 BC. Some three thousand years ago it was inhabited by the Pukara culture and the first stone terraces were built here. It was dominated by the Aymara-speaking Tiahuanaco culture until the thirteenth century, when the Incas conquered it and introduced the Quechua language. In 1580, the island was bought by Pedro Gonzalez de Taquile and so came under Spanish influence.
During the 1930s the island was used as a safe place of exile/prison for troublesome characters like former president Sánchez Cerro, and it wasn’t until 1937 that the residents – the local descendants of the original tribe – regained legal ownership by buying it back.
Although they grow abundant maize, potatoes, wheat and barley, most of Taquile’s population of 1200 people are also weavers and knitters of fine alpaca wool, renowned for their excellent cloth. You can still watch the locals drop-spin, a common form of hand-spinning that produces incredibly fine thread for their special cloth. The men sport black woollen trousers fastened with elaborate waistbands woven in pinks, reds and greens, while the women wear beautiful black headscarves, sweaters, dark shawls and up to eight skirts at the same time, trimmed usually with shocking-pink or bright-red tassels and fringes. You can tell if a man is married or single by the colour of his woollen hat, or chullo, the former’s being all red and the latter’s also having white; single men usually weave their own chullos. The community authorities or officials wear black sombreros on top off their red chullos and carry a staff of office.
Not surprisingly, fish are still an important food source for Titicaca’s inhabitants, including the islanders, and the ibises and flamingoes that can be seen along the pre-Inca terraced shoreline. The most common fish – the carachi – is a small piranha-like specimen. Trout also arrived in the lake, after swimming up the rivers, during the first or second decade of the twentieth century. Pejerey (kingfish) established themselves only thirty years ago but have been so successful that there are relatively few trout left – pejerey fishing is an option for visitors.
A crossroads for most travellers en route to Bolivia or Chile, PUNO lacks the colonial style of Cusco or the bright glamour of Arequipa’s sillar stone architecture, but it’s a friendly place and one of the few Peruvian towns where the motorized traffic seems to respect pedestrians. Busy as it is, there is less of a sense of manic rush here than in most coastal or mountain cities. On the edge of the town spreads vast Lake Titicaca – some 8400 square kilometres of shimmering blue water enclosed by white peaks. Puno’s port is a vital staging-point for exploring the northern end of Lake Titicaca, with its floating islands just a few hours away by boat.
There are three main points of reference in Puno: the spacious Plaza de Armas, the train station several blocks north, and the vast, strung-out area of old, semi-abandoned docks at the ever-shifting Titicaca lakeside port. It all looks impressive from a distance, but, in fact, the real town-based attractions are few and quickly visited.
The climate here is generally dry and the burning daytime sun is in stark contrast to the icy evenings (temperatures frequently fall below freezing in the winter nights of July and August). Sloping corrugated-iron roofs reflect the heavy rains that fall between November and February.
Puno is immensely rich in living traditions – in particular its modern interpretations of folk dances – as well as fascinating pre-Columbian history. The Pukara culture emerged here some three thousand years ago leaving behind stone pyramids and carved standing stones, contemporaneous with those of Chavín 1600km further north. The better-known Tiahuanaco culture dominated the Titicaca basin between 800 and 1200 AD, leaving in its wake the temple complex of the same name just over the border in Bolivia, plus widespread cultural and religious influence. This early settlement was conquered by the Incas in the fifteenth century.
The first Spanish settlement at Puno sprang up around a silver mine discovered by the infamous Salcedo brothers in 1657. The camp forged such a wild and violent reputation that the Lima viceroy moved in with soldiers to crush and finally execute the Salcedos before things got too out of hand. The Spanish were soon to discover the town’s wealth – both in terms of tribute-based agriculture and mineral exploitation based on a unique form of slave labour. In 1668 the viceroy made Puno the capital of the region, and from then on it became the main port of Lake Titicaca and an important town on the silver trail from Potosí in Bolivia. The arrival of the railway, late in the nineteenth century, brought another boost, but today it’s a relatively poor, rather grubby sort of town, by Peruvian standards, and a place that has suffered badly from droughts and poor water management over the years.
Famed as the folklore capital of Peru, Puno is renowned throughout the Andes for its music and dance. The best time to experience this wealth of traditional cultural expression is during the first two weeks of February for the Fiesta de la Candelaria, a great folklore dance festival, boasting incredible dancers wearing devil masks; the festival climaxes on the second Sunday of February. If you’re in Puno at this time, it’s a good idea to reserve hotels in advance (hotel prices can double).
The Festival de Tinajani, usually around June 27, is set in the bleak altiplano against the backdrop of a huge wind-eroded rock in the Canyon of Tinajani. Off the beaten trail, it’s well worth checking out for its raw Andean music and dance, plus its large sound systems; ask at the tourist offices in Puno or Cusco for details.
Just as spectacular, the Semana Jubilar (Jubilee Festival) occurs in the first week of November, partly on the Isla Esteves, and celebrates the Spanish founding of the city and the Incas’ origins, which legend says are from Lake Titicaca itself. Even if you miss the festivals, you can find a group of musicians playing brilliant and highly evocative music somewhere in the labyrinthine town centre on most nights of the year.
The man-made floating UROS ISLANDS have been inhabited since their construction centuries ago by Uros Indians retreating from more powerful neighbours like the Incas. They are now home to a dwindling and much-abused Indian population. Although there are about 48 of these islands, most guided tours limit themselves to the largest, Huacavacani, where several families live alongside a floating Seventh-Day Adventist missionary school.
The islands are made from layer upon layer of totora reeds, the dominant plant in the shallows of Titicaca and a source of food (the inner juicy bits near the roots), as well as the basic material for roofing, walling and fishing rafts. During the rainy season months of November to February it’s not unusual for some of the islands to move about the surface of the lake.
There are only six hundred Uros people living on the islands these days and a lot of the population is mixed-race, with Quechua and Aymara blood. When the Incas controlled the region, they considered the Uros so poor – almost subhuman – that the only tribute required of them was a section of hollow cane filled with lice.
Life on the islands has certainly never been easy: the inhabitants have to go some distance to find fresh water, and the bottoms of the reed islands rot so rapidly that fresh matting has to be constantly added above. Islands last around twelve to fifteen years and it takes two months of communal work to start a new one.
More than half the islanders have converted to Catholicism and the largest community is very much dominated by its evangelical school. Forty years ago the Uros were a proud fishing tribe, in many ways the guardians of Titicaca, but the 1980s, particularly, saw a rapid devastation of their traditional values. However, things have improved over recent years and you do get a glimpse of a very unusual way of life. Note that lots of the people you may meet actually live on the mainland, only travelling out to sell their wares to tourists.