Lake Titicaca is a charming place that should be on your list of must-visit sites. The lake is located in the center of the altiplano, in the very heart of the South American Andes. Peru and Bolivia share Lake Titicaca at 3,810 meters (12,500 ft) above sea level. The lake covers 8,400 square kilometers (3,244 sq miles), with a maximum depth of 283 meters (929 ft). It is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest freshwater lake in South America.
Lake Titicaca is an extraordinary, magical place where you’ll find an indigenous population living on islands and in similarly remote locations. These people have proudly maintained their ancestors’ traditions and culture.
According to legend, the indigenous people of these lands lived happy lives before the lake ever existed, and nothing was lacking for them. The Apus, their mountain gods, forbade the people only one thing: They could not climb to the top of the mountain where the Sacred Fire burned. The devil, however, could not bear seeing so many happy people, so he tried to tempt the people to climb this forbidden peak. When the devil succeeded in convincing them to do so, the gods released cougars or pumas that slaughtered the entire population except for a single couple. Seeing such a massacre, Inti, the God of the Sun, wept for 40 days. According to legend, it was Inti's tears that created Lake Titicaca. When the Sun rose again, all the pumas had turned into stones. In the indigenous language, "Titi" means cat (puma), while "qaqa" means rock. These two words combine to form the lake’s modern name, Titicaca.
Puno can be reached by air, train, or road.
You’ll find the nearest airport to Lake Titicaca in Juliaca, about 45 km (28 miles) northwest of Puno.
Puno is the end station of the railroad from Cusco and Arequipa. From Cusco, Puno can be reached three times per week via the Perurail Titicaca Train, a journey that takes 10 hours. A more luxurious way to travel from Cusco to Puno is on the Andean Explorer Train, which goes to Puno once a week and includes a night on the train. There is also a once-weekly Andean Explorer train covering the route to and from Arequipa and Puno.
At the Cusco Bus Terminal, there are various direct bus connections to Puno. The bus journey takes between 7 and 8 hours.
To travel between Peru and Bolivia, you’ll have to either take a bus or hire a private vehicle. Buses to Puno leave daily from La Paz and Copacabana. The direct bus from La Paz to Puno goes through the busy border crossing point in Desaguadero, while the buses from Copacabana cross the border at the much quieter border station of Kasani.
There is, at the moment, no direct catamaran connection between Guaqui in Bolivia and Puno in Peru.
Copacabana is a four-hour bus ride from La Paz. The road trip from La Paz to Copacabana is very scenic as soon as you approach Lake Titicaca in Huarina. Another highlight of this route is the adventurous ferry crossing in Taquina, where only the driver can remain in the vehicle and passengers are taken across in a small ferry boat.
There has never been a railroad between Bolivia and Peru.
Large parts of the shores of Lake Titicaca are still undeveloped for tourism. The main touristic centers are Puno in Peru and Copacabana in Bolivia.
Puno is the largest and most touristic city on Lake Titicaca. It is the starting point for visiting the "Floating Islands of the Uros" and Taquile Island.
Copacabana on the Bolivian Side is the starting point for a visit to Sun Island.
The shores of Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side are very scenic, consisting of many mountainous peninsulas and islands.
The main attraction in Bolivia is Copacabana's large village, with its famous pilgrimage church and Calvary Hill. Here you can visit the most important Catholic sanctuary in Bolivia, where the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Bolivia, is venerated. Pilgrims come to pray to the "Mother of the Lake" in a beautiful basilica very similar in appearance to a mosque.
From Copacabana, Sun Island can be reached via a one-hour boat ride. According to legend, the Island of the Sun is where the world and humanity originated. Sun Island is the largest island on the lake and preserves vestiges of the Inca period. On the south side of the island, you’ll discover the frequently visited ruins of Pilkokaina Palace, a two-story building whose construction was ordered by Tupac Yupanqui. There are stone stairs here leading to the Fountain of Life. In addition to Incan remains, the Island of the Sun offers beautiful landscapes, with terraced crops overlooking Lake Titicaca.
Guaqui was the endpoint of the Bolivian Railways, where goods and passengers had to change between train and ship. The port of Guaqui, once a vital lake port in Bolivia, today hosts an interesting railway museum.
On the second Sunday of each month, a tourist train from the Bolivian Railways travels from El Alto to Guaqui and then back to El Alto. The train stops at the famous archeological site of Tiwanaku on its way to Guaqui.
The shoreline of Lake Titicaca in Peru is relatively straight, with only a few peninsulas.
A short boat ride brings you from Puno to the Floating Islands of the Uros. The elastic sensation when walking on these artificial islands made entirely out of reed cane is truly sensational. Some islands in Uros are specially designed for tourism, while others, which are not accessible to visitors, are home to various family clans.
The history of these islands of Uros and the contemporary way of life of their inhabitants are fascinating; making these islands well worth a visit if you are on the way to Taquile Island. This may be changing, however, as during the last few years the Uros Islands have lost some of their authenticity and charm: the Uros are increasingly catering to tourists, trying too hard to sell handicrafts and boat rides.
Taquile Island is reached by a one-and-a-half-to-two hour boat ride from Puno. This island consists of an extended mountain with villages at the top. Because there are no roads on the island, the only way to move around is on foot, so some physical effort is required. Unlike the inhabitants of the Uros, the inhabitants of Taquile Island have been careful to preserve their traditions. One of the highlights in this regard is the ‘knitting men’ of the island.
This is the only private Island on Lake Titicaca. It is a haven of peace and relaxation and home to one of the most beautiful eco-lodges in Peru
Some of the islands of Lake Titicaca offer accommodations and hotels, ranging from basic hostels to sophisticated hotels. Recommendations include:
Located on Suasi Island, this hotel is the ideal place to rest and relax. Although the journey to reach Suasi Island from Puno is rather long, you can visit Taquile and Uros Islands along the way, then reward yourself with incredible lake views once you reach the hotel. I recommend staying a few nights to make the most of the journey.
On Sun Island (on the Bolivian side of the lake) is the Ecolodge La Estancia. The hotel is located on top of a steep hill, a vantage point from which you’ll take in breathtaking views of Lake Titicaca. The hotel can be reached only on foot, so you’ll need to be physically fit to get to the lodge. Porters are available to carry your luggage.
Lake Titicaca is a stunningly scenic, culturally fascinating region in South America. Additionally, it is an ideal destination to experience many breathtaking railway journeys.