This article has been updated on March 21, 2021
Titicaca might just as well be the first-ever foreign word I remember as a child. It just sounded too cool to forget it. Caca, being arguably the most common first word for many of us internationally, and Titi is an important word to know for every child as well. Of course that this has nothing to do with the origins of Lake Titicaca‘s name but that early memory still made the lake to be one of my most anticipated locations to visit on my trip across Latin Americas.
In this post, I’m therefore obviously going to talk about the lake, mainly from the traveller’s perspective, such as what are places to visit and things to see around here and while I’m at it, I’ll also throw in a few geographical and historical facts as well as a dash of Incan legends into the mix.
Some basic geographical facts about Lake Titicaca
Fed by 27 rivers, Lake Titicaca is 190km long and up to 80 km wide freshwater lake with an area of 8372 km², which makes it the largest lake in South America* and 19th largest in the world. Surrounded by Andean mountain ridges with altitude up to 4200 meters (13 800 feet), Titicaca is located on the border between Bolivia and Peru at 3812 meters (12 507 feet) above sea level, which makes it the highest lake in the world that’s navigable for large vessels. Titicaca‘s average depth is 107m, the maximum is 284m and the average surface temperature is 10 to 14 °C.
Lago Titicaca is divided into two sub-basins: Lago Grande and Lago Pequeño that are connected by the Strait of Tiquina. The lake is home to more than 530 aquatic species as well as to large populations of water birds. There are 41 islands on the lake, some of which is densely populated by the local population of indigenous origins. The total population of the lake area is nearly 220 thousand people. To be honest, there are plenty of more interesting geographical and statistical facts about the lake, however, in order of not making a lengthy facto-graphic essay out of this piece, I better move on to talk about the lake’s history a bit. If you’re interested in further geographical information and aquatic life, please read more here on Encyclopedia Britannica.
A wee bit of history and life at Titicaca
When it comes to age, Lake Titicaca is considered to be one of less than twenty ancient lakes on earth and is believed to be a million years old. More precisely, that would be the age of Titicaca‘s parental prehistoric lakes, the last of which is Lake Ballivián that stretched as far as 563km-away to the present day Uyuni Salt Flats but that was over half a million years ago.
The human presence on the lake dates back to approximately around 10 000 BCE. The rich pre-Colombian history of the lake bears marks of various cultures, among which the most significant were Pucará (400 BCE to 100 CE), Tiwanaku (200 BCE to 1000 CE) and from 15th century also Incas. All of these cultures considered the lake as the origin as well as the centre of the universe.
Life on Lake Titicaca
The interesting fact is that one of the major economic activities on the lake has remained the same for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Even nowadays, fishing and agriculture industries play a major role in the local economy and the techniques and products are not entirely different from those in ancient days. For instance, the major plant that locals cultivate on the endless Incan terraces on the steep hills on the lake’s shores is quinoa, which was introduced to the region thousands of years ago. Due to the unique topography, there’s often not enough place for any heavy machinery to relieve the locals of some of the tasks but the good old donkeys can still do the job.
Of course, the modern era created few more sources of income off tourism but fishing and growing quinoa are not showing any signs of going away anytime soon. And when it comes to culture, the locals are also very keen on keeping their traditions going, when it comes to the way they dress, various religious carnival/festivals and so on. IMHO, the hill tribes often have the hardest resistance to cultural assimilation, as opposed to the rest of us. Not just here but if you for example look at Hmongs in South East Asia and so on. Personally, I find such a phenomenon as well as the multiple parallels rather fascinating.
As I’ve mentioned above, many Incan mythological figures are tight to this sacred lake. For instance, according to the legend, the pre-Incan supreme god, Viracocha created the sun, moon and stars from islands in the centre of Lake Titicaca. Incas also believe that the first-ever Incas Manco Capac and his wife Mama Ocllo emerged from the depths of the lake to Isla Del Sol. In their complex mythology, they were children of a Solar deity who is believed to have been born here. In case you are into local legends, please click here for more information from World History Encyclopedia, they are all rather interesting and funnily enough not entirely different from the very distanced cultures.
I mean, for example, various Solar Deities and forms of Sun worshipping could be found in different forms throughout many cultures globally. We are talking about cultures in African and Arabic worlds, the traces of the sun-worshipping could be also found in Chinese, Aztec or Celtic mythologies but also in Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. After all, during the day when Sun was present in the skies, the ancient humans had an upper hand or at least better chances to survive an attack of other predators as opposed to the time of the Moon, when “the creatures of darkness”, AKA stronger and bigger predators went hunting. Some theories suggest that this day and night survival conditions’ divide led to the mythical divide of good and evil.
The local “Atlantis” story
Only to draw further attention to how the mythologies could be sometimes parallel on a global scale, I’d like to mention that Incas also have their own lost “Atlantis” city. In fact, there were several expeditions that attempted to discover the alleged lost treasure, including the legendary French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who tried his luck here in 1968. The lake however hasn’t given up the lost city. In 2000, the Atahualpa expedition came however close as it found ruins of what appeared to be a Tiwanaku temple and a road that date back 500-1000 CE.
Where does the name Titicaca come from?
And finally, before I get to the travel-related part of this piece, I should also address the subject of the lake’s name origins, which I’ve touched upon in the opening paragraph. The indigenous terms titi and caca can be translated in multiple ways, which paves the way for various theories of the lake’s name origins. The most common translation of the two Quechua words however is “puma” for titi and “mount” for caca. According to some locals, “Mount of Puma” make sense also because, if you turn the map of the lake upside-down, it apparently has the shape of a puma eating a hare.
Things to do on Lake Titicaca
Some sources state that in the area surrounding the lake, there are more than 180 ruins of ancient monuments that belonged to the civilizations that once lived in the region, some of which are certainly worth checking out. Please note that because of the fact that the lake is at the border of Peru and Bolivia, the attractions are often listed divided into Bolivian and Peruvian, which makes sense because you’ll be arriving from one or another side of the lake. Let’s start with the Bolivian side then.
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about or in case you've fancied to start creating your own itinerary. Just sign in into your Google account and if any listed place sounds like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". FYI, it helped me to determine my itinerary a lot, not to mention the fact that once in place, it was easier to find places ;)
If you are keen on exploring archaeological sites, you should consider checking out Tiwanaku, AKA the “Stonehenge of the Americas”. Its 4 kilometres large site – that offer decorated ceramics, monumental structures, and megalithic blocks – is among the bigger ones in the whole of South America. Archaeologists believe that the site’s population probably peaked around 800 BCE with up to 20000 people. The site is located halfway between La Paz and Copacabana. Here‘s a UNESCO page with more details about the site, in case you were interested.
Only after about 4,5 hours drive from La Paz, you’d arrive at the Port de Tiquina, where you’d have to cross the tiny Strait of Tiquina that joins the two sub-basins of Lake Titicaca: Lago Grande with Lago Pequeño. After the additional 35-40 minutes on a curvy road, you’ll enter Copacabana. Besides being a gateway to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, Copacabana also appears a bit like a little resort-like party town, at least at the first sight. There’s a high amount of restaurants and various bars that were all rather busy upon our arrival.
However, after the sunset, everyone disappeared like in some mysterious SciFi horror movie and the place looked nearly empty. I guess that most people were heading to the islands in the early hours. Anyway, one of the major attractions in town is walking up the hill Cerro Calvario that offers some nice views of the lake and the town’s bay. If you feel brave enough to tackle the altitude, you can also opt for a 17 km walk/trek on a dirt road to the tip of Yampupata Peninsula which naturally also comes with some amazing views of the lake.
Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna
Isla del Sol is the largest island on Lake Titicaca. According to one local lady, the population of the island apparently consists of around 800 families. This is the also place to spend a night or even two to soak up the lake’s unique, for some people somewhat spiritual atmosphere. You may take the boat either to the northern town of Cha’llapampa, where a Gold Museum, as well as the majority of the ruins, are located or you can head to Yumani village in the south.
As for the tourist attractions, except for like a trillion of viewpoints from its steep slopes, such as Mirador Palla Khasa, there are over 80 ruins on the island, most of which date to the Inca period, which is around the 15th-16th century. The most visited are (north to south): Cerro Tikani; Chicana Labyrinth; Roca Sagrada (Sacred Rock); Mesa Ceremónica; Templo del Sol and Ruinas Del Sur, most of which you should be able to visit during one trek.
As for hiking, there are two paths connecting the island north and south. Willa Thaki trek, AKA “The Sacred Route of the Eternal Sun” takes about 3 hours and it goes along the top edge of the island. The other trek is equally long and it copies the east coast through the village of Cha’llapampa. You can possibly do both on one day but bear in mind that walking at this altitude isn’t exactly the walking you remember from lowlands…
When it comes to Isla de la Luna, for its exploration it usually requires a short visit only, usually, it’s a stop for a boat on your way to Isla del Sol. We’re talking about a couple of hours to check out the Iñaq Uyu AKA Virgin Temple and a little mini-trek around the site. There is a hostel on the island though, in case you wanted to stay overnight in a very secluded environment.
FYI: Unfortunately, in 2019, there’s was an ongoing major disagreement between the families from the south and those from northern as well as central parts of the island. As a result of that, tourism was consequently only allowed in the southern part of the island. I hope that the whole island will be opened during your visit, which I’m sure you’ll be informed about by the agencies selling the boat tickets 😉
Puno is the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca, the same as Copacabana is in Bolivia. We’re talking about quite a large city with a population of 130 thousand people as opposed to Copacabana‘s six thousand people. “The folklore capital of Peru” as some people like to call the city isn’t exactly considered to be the most beautiful location to visit on the lake but in case you have arrived there in the afternoon, there are also a few sites and activities to consider.
You may want to take a little walk around the shore as well as the city centre. You would most likely pass by the Catedral de Puno and while you at it, you could also grab a coffee in Casa del Corregidor and have a little stroll down the almost decent Lima alley to enjoy a tasty ceviche in one of the local restaurants. In case you were into art, you could also visit Museo Municipal Carlos Dryer that displays Mr Dryer‘s paintings as well as Incan artefacts and art. Some people opt to visit the viewpoint Cerrito de Huajsapata.
For the naval enthusiasts, there’s also Yavari ship to check out, if for nothing else, then for the impressive story it comes with. The thing is that Yavari steamer was built in 1862 in West Ham, East London and then shipped to Titicaca together with her sister ship Yapura. After an unbelievable seven-year-long journey across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Andes in kits of 2766 pieces, the steamer was launched in 1870. After many years of eventful service, the ship has been recently renovated to retire as a tourist attraction.
Uros floating islands
Next to Isla del Sol, the Uros floating islands are arguably the prime “tourist attraction” on the lake. However, rather than an attraction, the 62 floating islands are first of all still a legit home to over twelve hundred Uro people, a unique indigenous tribe that migrated to Lake Titicaca nearly four thousand years ago. The idea of building their own floating homes was originally based on a defensive strategy of evading their enemy but it still hasn’t helped them much against the Incas who enslaved most of the tribe members.
During your tour of the islands, you’ll be greeted by friendly locals who will show you around and explain some of their traditions. For a small additional fee, you could also take a ride in a traditional boat. An experienced traveller probably suspects that there will also be the inevitable handicraft selling attempts. Yes, there will be one and yes, it will be a bit pushy.
I understand that the pushy selling attempts feel a bit shitty as it applies certain pressure with hints of emotional blackmail, whether it’s in rural SEA or Latin Americas. I know that you can’t own and carry 20 different scarfs, 5 hats and 10 bags made of indigenous colourful fabrics on your trip. It is however worth noting that this is a major source of income from the tourism industry for many of the residents because they often don’t get a huge cut from the tour operators. FYI, buying just one scarf would make two people happy: the selling lady and your mum 😉
Amanataní and Taquile islands
A little further away from Puno, there are two natural islands of Amanataní and Taquile. Here you can interact with another indigenous group: Aymara people. The islands don’t have much tourist infrastructure and hence they are arguably more authentic. As there are no hotels on the islands but some of the families on the islands provide accommodation in their own houses, which is often described as an interesting experience for a Westerner.
FYI, the Quechua-speaking locals live by the strict code of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, which means: do not steal, do not lie, don’t be idle. Both islands are known for its handicrafts, the Taquile‘s ones were even proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005. Taquile island is home to two sacred Incan sites. The otherwise Christian population is only allowed to visit them once a year during the annual offering to Pachamama. Visitors are only allowed to to view the ceremonial site from a distance.
Suasi, the private island
In case you were looking for a more luxurious option for how to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the lake, you could consider booking your stay on Isla Suasi, the only privately owned island on the Titicaca. Further information about this more pricey take on Titicaca could be found on their official website.
Sillustani ruins is a kind of an “off the beaten path” location, considering the number of popular locations in the region. We’re talking about a pre-Incan burial site that is located 32 km northeast of Puno, on the shore of Laguna Umayo. The cylinder-shaped towers, some of which are reaching up to 12 meters high were built by Colla or Qulla people an Aymaran tribe that was thriving in the region before Incas’ arrival.
The interesting fact is that the architecture used on this site is considered more complex than typical Incan architecture because Colla used stones with rectangular-shaped edges. Such burial grounds could be apparently found across the Altiplano plateau, this site is however considered to be among the best and most preserved examples of them. In case you were interested in acquiring more detail about Sillustani ruins, click here or use the link uploaded at the bottom of this article.
As I’ve mentioned above, both hubs, Copacabana as well as Puno are well prepared for the high amount of visitors. That is also reflected in the number of various cafés, bars, restaurants and so on, whether it’s on the lake’s shores or on the above mentioned Lima alley in Puno. The same, only on a smaller scale applies to Isla del Sol. Whatever you do, make sure not to miss out on checking out some of the finest local ceviche restaurants on the Peruvian side and one of the trout and quinoa dishes on the Bolivian side.
Safety on Titicaca
When it comes to crime, except Puno, where it would be reasonable to keep to the tourist areas only, the whole lake is pretty safe. When it comes to Mother Nature, please remember that when heading for a trek – regardless of how fit you are – you gonna have to deal with altitude and the consequent lower levels of oxygen in your system. So please do not overestimate your fitness or trekking abilities, always have some water with you and all that…
Get around Lake Titicaca
Unsurprisingly, the boat is the most common means of transportation around the lake. Between Copacabana and Puno, you’d however need to take a bus. The four-hour journey stops at customs control when crossing the border. The towns are pretty much walkable, at least the tourist areas where you’re most likely to stay. There are however also taxis available, in case you’ve picked one of the hotels higher up.
How to get to Lake Titicaca
Neither of the Titicaca‘s travel hub towns has its own airport. The nearest airport is 45km away from Puno in the city of Juliaca, from where you can take a private bus company to Puno. If you can, avoid Juliaca as it is considered to be a rather unpleasant and unsafe place to be due to the blooming drug trade and related smuggling industries. In case you wanted to fly to Bolivia, the nearest airport would be in La Paz, which is 4-5 hrs away.
Bus-wise, from La Paz, you can take a comfortable, around 4,5 hrs long bus drive to Copacabana, a town on Bolivia’s shore of Titicaca for 30 Bolivianos (€3,80). It has a short stop to take a ferry across the lake, where you get off the bus and take a separate ferry for 2,-BOB. To get to the islands from getting a ticket in one of the numerous agencies. We paid 30,-BOB each with an hour-long stop at Isla de la Luna.
If you were getting here from Cusco, due to the hilly landscapes, the 390 km journey takes about 8 hours. Most of the time, this journey is done overnight. There’s also an option to take the train that takes about 10&1/2 hours. I haven’t taken it myself but I’ve heard few travellers raving about the scenic ride in the 1920s, “Orient Express-like” luxury kinda train that came with meals, traditional Peruvian folk singers and so on. My decision-making process might have been affected by the steep price of $240 they were asking but to be honest with you, I regret my decision of taking a $50+ night bus instead.
When to visit Lake Titicaca
The obvious pick would be the dry season, which is from April to October. It will be a bit colder but you’ll get better views. If you venture here during the rainy season (summer) is from November to March, expect some proper rain but those aren’t the whole-day kind of affairs and you should still be able to venture around, although the skies will look more gloomy…
- Upon visiting the islands, if you can, leave your large backpack in your Copacabana hotel so you will not need to climb steep hills at nearly 4000m above sea level with heavy luggage without oxygen 🙂
- The border crossing between the two countries is smooth and easy;
- Bring some cash with you to the islands, regardless of whether your trip states that it’s “all-inclusive”. There are a couple of smaller charges you gonna have to deal with. For instance, you’ll need 15,-BOB (US$2.15) to enter Yumani village on Isla del Sol, a couple of Bolivianos for the use of toilets and so on…
- If you would like to take a picture of the locals, please make sure to ask for permission. If they allowed you to do so, please note that such activity requires a tip.
Being the local travel hubs, Copacabana, as well as Puno, have an extended tourism infrastructure that provides a wide variety of accommodation options. Even Isla del Sol comes with quite an extended list of hotels, guest houses, hostels and so on.
In fact, there were so many places to stay that it appeared an overkill for the number of visitors, especially in Copacabana. Because we were arriving in the afternoon, this was one of the few places I’ve risked not booking a place, which proved to be a winner because I got a 1/2 price deal for a private room if compared to what the booking sites indicated for dorms.
As for Isla del Sol, we also haven’t booked a place and left the hunt upon our arrival to the island. The prices appeared to turn lower with the higher altitude AKA the more uphill one went, the lower the price (and better the view) became. We went to the top of the hill at the beginning of the village and paid 80,-BOB each for a single room with a private bathroom.
Sort of conclusion
Lake Titicaca is without any doubts a unique place to visit. Yes, it could get very touristy in certain places, such as the Uros Islands but still definitely 100% worth it. Whatever you do, please don’t just stop in Puno to go and see the floating islands and carry on elsewhere. That way you can get the touristy trap feeling, instead of enjoying the otherwise magic atmosphere the lake provides.
If you can, spend a night on Isla del Sol and if you are into inter-cultural experiences, perhaps also on Taquile, it would allow you to soak the atmosphere I’m talking about. Boosted by the sunset over the lake, with that pleasant feeling one after a nice trek full of great views.
Even if you’re not into spiritual things, those islands could also be a place where you can get as close as you can get, at least for few moments. It might be because of the altitude, perhaps it’s the unique relief of the steep slopes and large numbers of archaeological sites in combination with the indigenous people and their traditions, the sun rays cutting through the clouds, I don’t know. You tell me 😉
How much time is needed to explore Lake Titicaca?
I’d say that an action-packed 2,5/2nights days on the Bolivian side and 1,5days/1night on the Peruvian side should cover the basic highlights+ from what the lake has to offer to a visitor, I would however suggest to take it easy and stay at least for an extra night. If you arrive in Copacabana in the afternoon, I’d personally book the tour for the next morning and go and check out the sunset from Cerro Calvario. The following morning, I’d be on my way to Isla del Sol, where I’d do the “Sacred Route of the Eternal Sun” and then just relaxed with few drinks atop in my hotel.
Given the fact that I did enjoy spending some time over here, the next day I’d do the second trek and came back up to do the relaxing again before returning to Copacabana in the early hours and heading to Puno. Peruvian side would be most likely a bit faster affair consisting of Uros and either a night at Taquile or checking out the Sillustrani ruins. If I were you, I’d aim at both, if time allows you to. Obviously, various anthropologists, archaeology fans or nature lovers should count on needing a wee bit more time to explore their options on this incredible lake.
Notes and useful links
- Tourism info on Lake Titicaca .com site with hotels, cities, attractions and other potentially useful information
- Guide to Isla del Sol: a detailed guide to Isla del Sol by Bolivian Life that includes the legend about the island, ferry timetables, accommodation tips, etc…
- Peru Rail website with timetables and all that
- Isla Suasi website with all information about the luxurious option on the private island
- Geology and history: Britannica’s page on Lake Titicaca with more details about the lake’s geology and history
- Human presence history: World History Encyclopedia‘s page by Mark Cartwright on Lake Titicaca‘s human settlement history
- Tiwanaku: Heritage Science Journal page about the Spiritual and Political Centre of the Tiwanaku Culture
- Sillustani Ruins: here‘s some background about ruins to shed some light on what to expect from Rainforest Cruises
- Quinoa: nutrition and health benefits of quinoa article on Medical News Today
- The legend of Viracocha: Peru Telegraph‘s article on the Incan supreme god
- The legend of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo: Machu Picchu .org site’s take on the legend of the first Incas
* The claim to be the biggest lake of South America is arguable because Lake Maracaibo that has a larger surface area than Titicaca. The whole argument is that some people claim that Lake Maracaibo is in fact a Caribbean inlet or a tidal bay, rather than the lake, while others (particularly those in Venezuela) disregard the “bay element”
Other popular destinations nearby Lake Titicaca
Only 332 km away from Puno, there’s the nearest major tourist destination to Lake Titicaca is equally important and one of the most visited destinations in South America, the city of Cusco. The gateway to Machu Picchu is an impressive and pretty Andean city that thrives on tourism. Read more about Cusco here.
I guess that the famous Incan site doesn’t need much introduction, after all, it belongs to the category of the most iconic as well as most visited sites on Earth. In case you wanted to find out your options on how to visit Machu Picchu and how much would each option cost you, please click here.
La Paz and Sucre
In case you were heading further south, you’ll be not far from one of the Bolivian capitals La Paz that is certainly worth a visit for numerous reasons. Heading even further south would take you to the other Bolivian capital Sucre. Read more details about those two cities here, in case you were interested.
Uyuni Salt Flats
As I’ve mentioned above, arguably the most popular attraction in Bolivia, as well as one of the most surreal and incredible places I’ve ever visited, is Uyuni Salt Flats, the world’s largest salt flat with an enormous area of more than 10 000 km2 (3 900 square miles). Read more details here, in case you were interested.