Peru Lake Titicaca islands - 5 ways to explore its indigenous villages and Inca ruins

Pip
October 12, 2015

Straddling the borders of Peru and Bolivia within the vast Andes lies Lake Titicaca. At more than 3,800 metres it is famed as the highest navigable lake in the world, and as South America’s largest lake, it is a world unto itself. The jagged snow-capped peaks of Bolivia’s Cordillera Real provide a dramatic backdrop along the northeastern shore of the lake, while more than 70 islands rise from the sapphire blue waters. Revered as the birthplace of the Incan civilisation, Lake Titicaca’s legacy is affirmed in ruins and relics which dot its islands and shores. Today’s descendants, the Quechua people, as well as indigenous Aymará, continue their ancient farming methods on Titicaca’s terraced slopes while the Uru weave floating ‘islands’ of reed. While Catholics have long made pilgrimages to the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca’s shores, today tourists are lured to this enchanting landscape and its rich history.

While there are many ways to explore Lake Titicaca’s extraordinary landscape, here are five to get you started.

1. Visit indigenous Quechua, Aymará and Uro communities steeped in tradition

Aymara people weaving
The Quechua descended from the ancient Incas, while the Aymará’s Tiahuanaco ancestors are believed to have walked the land 300 years previously.

Lake Titicaca is home to traditional Aymará and Quechua villages where a semi-subsistence way of life, preserved from ancient times, still exists. The Quechua descended from the ancient Incas, while the Aymará’s Tiahuanaco ancestors are believed to have walked the land 300 years previously. Despite their ethnic diversity, these two Andean cultural groups share many characteristics. The women are distinctive in their bowler hats and billowing petticoat skirts, while Roman Catholicism mixed with traditional beliefs of Pachamama or Mother Earth form the foundation of their religious beliefs. While the extreme altitude limits the growth of many crops, barley, quinoa and potatoes are terraced down the hill slopes and form a staple diet for the people, while their stalks provide forage for the alpacas and llamas that live alongside.

The communities on and around Lake Titicaca are welcoming of visitors, inviting them to discover a little of their culture and lifestyle in this remote environment. Stop for a locally prepared meal, overnight in a home stay, or purchase a unique, handcrafted souvenir made from the few resources they have available to them. The simple, and sometimes austere, life in the Andes is steeped in tradition and a strong connection with the land.

2. Discover Incan legacy of Lake Titicaca in ruins and remnants

Ruins Palace, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca
Firmly rooted in Incan history, the islands and shores of Lake Titicaca are littered with ruins and remnants which are testament to this rich culture.

Firmly rooted in Incan history, the islands and shores of Lake Titicaca are littered with ruins and remnants which are testament to this rich culture. Isla del Sol is the lake’s most famous island and home to many ruins of significance. At Chinkana, near the village of Challa Pampa on the northern edge, lies labyrinthine remnants of a former complex for tribal priests, while nearby sits the Sacred Rock. It is believed that here the God Viracocha gave birth to Manco Capac who became the first ever Inca. Climb the 206 ancient Inca Steps to the Fountain of Youth near the village of Yumani or visit the steep terraced slopes of Pilkokaina, with the sprawling Palacio del Inca, constructed by the Incan Emperor Tupac-Yupanq. From here you also have fantastic views across to Isla del Sol’s sister island, Isla de la Luna.

On the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca sits Amantani Island where Quechuan villages dot the slopes. On the lofty summits of both Pachatata and Pachamama mountains, the ancient ruins offer panoramic views across the lake and rolling hills below.

If you are visiting Copacabana then don’t miss the Asiento del Inca or ‘Seat of the Inca’ just outside of the town centre. Believed to be former ceremonial thrones used by Incan royalty and priests, these stone carvings exhibit small depressions to sit in, allowing you to live out your dreams as an Incan ruler. The nearby Horca del Inca ruins are the remains of a three-rock structure used to observe celestial activities and are an indication of the developed astronomy of the Inca.

3. Soak up the scenery on Lake Titicaca’s walking trails

Walking trail in Isla del Sol, Titicaca lake
Taking one of the most popular trails will allow you to enjoy the sheer beauty of the lake’s environment.

The first thing that hits you when you reach the shores of Lake Titicaca is the sheer beauty of the lake’s environment. The white-tipped Andean mountains, the patch-worked hill slopes, and the luminous colour of the lake itself. The best way to soak up this landscape is on one of the easy trails which meander through local villages, along the lake shore and across the islands.

One of the most popular trails is from the village of Challa Pampa on the northern side of Isla del Sol to its southern edge. It takes in the Incan site of Chincana, the Gold Museum filled with Incan treasures, the Sacred Rock and the Pilkokaina ruins. The 4-5 hour trek allows for plenty of time to explore the ruins, meet the island’s indigenous inhabitants, and take in the watery wonderland which surrounds you.

Copacabana’s peninsula on the southeastern shore of the lake is another beautiful place to hike, weaving from one small Aymará village to the next, seemingly lost in a forgotten time. Beginning in either Yampuputa or Yupanqui it is a leisurely 5-hour walk through picturesque and carefully tended fields, to the sacred town of Copacabana.

While the mountainous air is clear and fresh, it is also notoriously thin due to the elevation, so take it easy on the trails. If the affects of altitude sickness kick in, then the locals believe that coca tea is a sure remedy.

4. Experience the floating wonderland of Puno’s Uro islands

Traditional village on floating island, Titicaca lake
Anchored to the bottom of the lake by ropes and sticks, the tortora reed mats are in a constant process of decay from below, with more reed added every few months to maintain the platform.

Stepping onto a floating tortora island is like stepping into a fantasy world, where everything - the ground at your feet, the houses you inhabit, and the boats you use for transport - are made from a simple lakeside reed. It is believed the Uro people who inhabit these islands near Puno constructed them to flee persecution from other Peruvian indigenous tribes, initially floating far out in the centre of Lake Titicaca. Today there are around 40 of these fabricated ‘islands’, nestled close-in to the shore for both protection and due to an increase in tourism potential from Puno.

Anchored to the bottom of the lake by ropes and sticks, the tortora reed mats are in a constant process of decay from below, with more reed added every few months to maintain the platform. The tortura reed not only provides structural support, but also nourishment as a food staple, hangover cure, and rejuvenating tea. The Uro welcome tourists to spend an afternoon, visit their village and understand their intriguing existence, or you can spend the night floating on top of Lake Titicaca in one of their home-made dwellings.

5. Pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana

Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana
On Lake Titicaca’s southeastern shore, near to the sacred Isla del Sol, lies Copacabana, a pilgrimage site for both Roman Catholics and indigenous Bolivians, near to the sacred Isla del Sol.

On Lake Titicaca’s southeastern shore, near to the sacred Isla del Sol, lies Copacabana, a pilgrimage site for both Roman Catholics and indigenous Bolivians. The grand, white-washed Basilica which dominates this tiny settlement houses a revered wood-carving of the Virgin Mary, believed to be a bringer of miracles. Legend tells of a group of Incan fishermen caught in a violent storm who prayed for divine intervention and were led to safety by the Virgin Mary. In thanks, they commissioned a simple shrine and statue in the late 16th century which evolved into the elaborate church seen today. It was built on the base of a small hill known as the Temple of the Sun which is sacred to the Incan people as the departure point to the Islands of the Sun and the Moon just offshore. It is an impressive building to visit for its aesthetics and reverence, and the indigenous Bolivian sculptor of the Virgen de Copacabana, Francisco Tito Yupanqui, stands prominently cast in bronze outside.

The shared lakeside history of Bolivia and Peru

With its sacred mythology, traditional Andean inhabitants and stunning vistas, Lake Titicaca is undoubtedly a special place. Its clear skies and crisp mountain air entice many a traveler to stay longer than intended. It is an opportunity to delve deep into the shared history of Bolivia and Peru and discover how today’s Incan descendants have chosen to forge an existence in this high-altitude environment. Visiting Lake Titicaca is about experiencing a simpler way of life where legends are alive and beauty reveals itself at every turn.

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