Travelling to Lake Titicaca and on to Bolivia and La Paz
There are two ways to travel to Puno, the main Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca – by air or by road.
The closest airport is in Juliaca, the capital of the province, situated 27 miles (43 km) from Puno. Direct flights connect Juliaca with Lima and Cusco.
Most travelers go by bus. There are several good bus companies that operate the 250 miles (390 km) route between Cusco and Puno. The trip takes 8 hours, and includes stops at some of the various interesting archaeological sites and little towns located along the way.
Puno serves as a departure point to Lake Titicaca and its unique islands. Most travel agencies offer 2D/1N packages to visit three of them – the Floating Islands of the Uros, the Amantaní Island with an overnight homestay with a local Quechua family, and the Taquile Island the next day. The average price is about $90.
After visiting Puno and the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, it is common to continue to the Bolivian side and on to La Paz. The distance between Puno and Copacabana, the main Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca, is 88 miles; it takes around 3 hours to reach it by bus. There’s immigration to clear at the border office of Kasani/Yunguyo.
Most bus companies offer direct services between Puno (Peru) and Copacabana (Bolivia), including assistance at the immigration office. From Kasani, it is another 45 minutes to get to Copacabana – on entering, 1 Bs has to be paid as municipal tax. In Copacabana, the companies switch buses and continue to La Paz.
Another option is to spend one night in Copacabana to visit the Sun Island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, and to continue to La Paz the next day preferably making a stop at Tihuanaco, Bolivia’s largest and most important archaeological site. There is one hour time difference between Peru and Bolivia.
The city of Puno and the Sillustani tower tombs
Puno is a port city on the shores of Lake Titicaca with a population of 141.000. It is a departure point to Lake Titicaca and its famous islands, and due to its proximity to the Bolivian border, a regular stop on the Cusco-La Paz tourist trail.
Founded in the 17th century, most of Puno’s historical sights and tourist facilities are located on the Plaza de Armas and along Jirón Lima, Puno’s main pedestrian and commercial street. Most banks, restaurants, cafés, bars, hotels and travel agencies are located here.
The most dominant structure on the square is the 18th century Baroque cathedral, visited in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. It has a silver-plated altar with a Vatican flag on it. The church is free to enter.
The colorful Casa del Corregidor is a 17th century colonial home, supposedly one of the oldest in the city. Museo Carlos Dryer holds a solid selection of regional artefacts and textiles, including a collection of mummies with deformed skulls.
Anchored in the port of Puno is the antique steamship of Yavarí, built in England.
It was ordered by the Peruvian government in 1861 for the purpose of exploiting the natural resources of the Altiplano region around Lake Titicaca. Shipped over to Chile and dragged to Puno by mule, the transportation of its 2,766 pieces took six years. Nowadays, the gunship has been converted to a museum and a bed & breakfast.
Located north of the Plaza de Armas, El Arco Deustua is a memorial stone archway built in 1847 as a tribute to those who fought in the independence battles of Junín and Ayachuco.
There are two viewpoints above the city, both offering spectacular views of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Situated at the end of a 620-step staircase is the Condor Hill, that has a large metal sculpture of a condor on its top, and can be reached by climbing the steps or taking a taxi. Situated four blocks from Plaza de Armas is the Cerrito de Huajsapata, that has a white statue of Manco Cápac, the founder of the Inca empire, perched on its top.
Sillustani is an ancient burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo about 40 minutes out of Puno.
It was supposedly created by the Aymara-speaking Colla people, who dominated the Lake Titicaca area around 1500 AD before it was conquered by the Inca.
The site consists of huge burial towers about 25 feet high called chullpas, that housed the mummies of Colla elite – inside the towers were found complete family groups of adults and children, usually in a fetal position. The only opening of the tower is at its base, facing east towards the reborn sun.
Most of the site was destroyed by the Spaniards, many of the tombs were dynamited by grave robbers, some were left unfinished. Scattered all over the site are carved but unplaced blocks, and a ramp.
Several of the structures display outstanding masonry – composed of 2 layers of meticulously cut stone, the outer layer is basalt and the inner layer is andesite.
None of these rocks are of local origin as the Sillustani area is predominantly red sandstone.
The later and smaller structures of poorer quality were probably an attempt by later cultures to copy the original design.
Some of the chullpas are decorated – one contains the well-known carving of a lizard, the symbol of regeneration.
While chullpas are not unique to Sillustani and are found across the Altiplano, this site is considered the best and most preserved example of them.
The Islands of Lake Titicaca
The Floating Islands of Uros
The Floating Islands of Uros are one of Peru’s main tourist attractions. According to legend, the Uros people originated in the Amazon and migrated to the area of Lake Titicaca some 4,000 years ago. Unable to find land of their own, they were forced to live on the water and build large floating islands from totora reed.
Totora reed is a species of giant sedge found on Lake Titicaca, the middle coast of Peru and on Easter Island.
Totora’s dense interweaved roots form layers called khili, that float up to the surface like corks after the plant dies. Using large hand saws, the Uros cut bricks out of them and bind them together to form the base of the island.
The bases are up to 6.5 feet thick. To hold the islands in place, they are moored to the lake-bed by long, sharp sticks and a rope. These can be removed, and the island then can float to a new spot. Being able to move freely from the Peruvian side to the Bolivian side, the islanders had no nationality and thus no passports.
An island lasts about thirty years. About every three months, new reeds have to be added to the top part as the reeds at the bottom rot away quickly. Walking on the islands feels strange – the reeds are springy, and with each step the foot sinks 4’’.
The Uros use the totora reed not only to make the islands but to also build their homes, furniture and boats.
The boats, called balsas, are shaped like canoes with animal heads at the prow, and are used for fishing and to bring visitors out to the islands.
Golden in color, most of the islands measure about 50 by 50 feet, the largest being roughly half the size of a football field.
The larger islands house about ten families, the smaller only two or three. Some of the islands have watchtowers and other buildings also constructed of reeds.
Totora is used in some of the Uros’ diet and medicine as well. When a reed is pulled, the white bottom is often eaten for iodine to prevent goiters. When in pain, reed is wrapped around the sore body part. Flowers are used for tea.
The Uros fish ispi, carachi and catfish. Trout was introduced to Titicaca from Canada in 1940, kingfish was introduced from Argentina. They hunt birds such as seagulls, ducks and flamingos, and graze cattle on the islets.
The Uros don’t reject modern technology – some boats have motors and some houses have solar panels to run televisions.
Food is cooked on fires made on stones (so as not to burn the island).
To relieve themselves, the Uros use tiny ‘outhouse’ islands near the main ones.
Historically, most of the Uros islands were located near the middle of the lake; in 1986, after a devastating storm, many Uros rebuilt closer to shore.
As of 2011, about 1,200 Uros live on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands 3 miles from the port of Puno. The place has a school, a medical post and even an evangelical church.
The islands receive more than 750,000 visitors each year.
Large-scare tourism has its pitfalls – many boats and tour guides demand commissions from the Uros for disembarking their travelers on their island. This kind of tourist rivalry creates so much division, that some of the Uros tie their island to a boat and drag it to another part of the lake with less competition.
To complicate things even further, there are the chimus, the ‘imitators,’ who live in a small settlement on the peninsula with a trio of floating islands in sight.
The Uros claim that they are cheating by saying they are Uros but they’re not. According to them, there’s only one solution to this problem: “we want to ask the government to patent us.”
The Uros don’t know exactly what the exclusive rights should be – the islands, the name of the Uros, or their aquatic way of life. But soon enough, they might become the first Peruvian ethnic group with a ‘copyright’.
The Floating Islands can either be visited as part of a 2D/1N trip, or by a short 30-minute boat ride from the port of Puno (there are always people offering the service).
The Amantaní Island
Situated 22 miles from Puno, the Amantaní Island is the largest island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca (it measures 4 square miles). It has a population of 3,663 Quechua, divided among about 800 families in over 8 communities. Amantaní can be reached by boat in 3 hours.
The main source of livelihood for the Amantañenos are fishing, agriculture and tourism.
There is no electricity, no roads or hotels on the island but some of the families open their homes to tourists for overnight stays, and provide cooked meals. Guests typically bring food staples (cooking oil, rice, fruits) or school supplies for children as a gift. The locals hold dances for the tourists where they dress them up in Quechua traditional clothes.
The island’s hillsides are terraced, mostly worked by hand, and planted with wheat, quinoa, potatoes and other vegetables.
Alpacas and sheep graze the slopes.
The terraces date back to the ancient technology of Waru Waru irrigation system, that combined raised earth beds and irrigation canals. When there were droughts, the canals captured water, when there was too much rain, they drained it away. This way sufficient irrigation was guaranteed all year around.
The island has two mountain peaks with ancient Inca ruins on top of them. They can be hiked for sunset and sweeping views of the lake.
Every second Thursday in January, the Amantañenos celebrate the traditional ritual of ‘Payment to the Earth.’ This ceremony is a way of thanking Mother Earth through an offering for all that it has given to the community.
The ceremony begins by each community ascending to the ceremonial center on top of the two hills. The centers are that of Pachamama, Mother Earth (symbolized by a circular shape), and that of Pachatata, Father Earth (symbolized by a square shape). They represent sun and moon, male and female.
Half of the islanders meet at the Pachamama temple, half at the Pachatata temple. Both temples are under the care of a local chacaruna (a shaman, literary a ‘bridge person’) who unlocks them and leads the ceremonies.
The shaman carries various ritual objects with him that he places in traditional order on a cloth, laid on the purest llama wool. These offerings are coca leaves (the mediator between nature and man), llama fat, a llama fetus, incense, chicha, red wine and shells.
When the table is ready, the shaman starts greeting the Apus, the powerful mountain spirits, in the four cardinal points. After the prayers, the table is burnt, and the ashes buried in the cavern inside the sacred enclosure. Then the traditional festivities can begin.
The next day, after spending the night, most visitors continue by boat to visit the Taquile Island.
The Taquile Island
Situated 28 miles from Puno, the Taquile Island is an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, famous for ‘knitting men.’ It has some 2,200 Quechua living here, and can be reached by a 3-hour boat ride from Puno.
When the Spanish conquered Peru, the Catalan Pedro Gomez de Taquila arrived on the island, giving it his name and several Catalan traditions, such as the floppy woolen hat worn by the local men. During the Spanish colonial period, the island was used as a prison.
Nowadays, the island’s economy is based on fishing, terraced farming and tourist-generated income from the approximately 40,000 tourists who visit each year.
Taquileños are known for their handwoven textiles and clothing, regarded as some of the highest-quality handicrafts in Peru. Many of the crafts are for sale, with prices fixed by a co-operative.
Knitting is exclusively performed by males, hence Taquile’s nickname ‘island of the knitting men.’
Men knitting elaborate patterns can be seen while walking around.
If a man wants to marry a woman, he has to prove himself worthy of her by knitting a woolen hat, out of which he can drink.
Not a drop of water is allowed to drip, or else he has to start again.
Women spin wool and weave chumpis, wide belts with colorful designs worn by everyone in the community.
Traditionally, local men wear black trousers, waistcoats and white shirts. Hats show their marital status – that of the married is red, while that of the single is white and red. Women wear skirts with colored pompoms, red sweaters, and cover their hair with a black blanket.
Taquile is governed by a council of elders whose members are elected. The Taquileños have created an innovative community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation and communal restaurants to tourists.
There are no hotels or restaurants on Taquile, so people who want to have lunch or look for a bed, have to ask at the tourist office, in which family’s backyard they can eat that day, or which family’s turn it is to take paying guests. Profits are shared to help the community.
A tour of the island involves disembarking on one side of the island in the morning, hiking for about 45 minutes up to the Plaza de Armas, lunch, and re-embarking there. The return to Puno is in the afternoon hours.
Called the ‘highest navigable lake’ in the world, Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America, and one of less than twenty ancient lakes on earth. It is thought to be a million years old.
Lake Titicaca is situated in the Andean Altiplano at an elevation of 12,507 feet on the border of Bolivia and Peru – 60% of it lies in Peru, 40% in Bolivia.
The lake covers an area of 3.200 square miles. It has a length of 120 miles and a width of 50 miles at its widest point. It averages between 460 and 600 feet in depth, with the bottom tilting sharply toward the Bolivian shore where it reaches its greatest depth of 920 feet.
The lake has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated. The largest ones are the Uros Floating Islands, the Amantaní Island and the Taquile Island on the Peruvian side, and the Isla del Sol Island (Island of the Sun), the Isla de la Luna Island (Island of the Moon), and the Sukiri Island on the Bolivian side.
Five major river systems and more than twenty smaller streams running from the cordillera peaks empty into the lake, with only one major river outflow. Titicaca never freezes, although the average surface temperature is 54 °F (12 °C).
Most of the water loss is caused by evaporation by strong winds and intense sunlight. As a result of shortened rainy seasons and the melting of glaciers, the level of the lake has dropped 32 inches (30 cm) since 2000.
A narrow Strait of Tiquina (2.620 feet) divides the lake into two bodies of water.
The larger one, Lago Grande, has a mean depth of 443 feet, the smaller one, Lago Pequeño, of 30 feet.
The origin of the name Titicaca is uncertain. In Aymara, titi can be either puma, lead or a heavy metal, caca can be white or gray hairs of the head. The name then can be translated as gray, discolored, or lead-colored puma; it refers to the sacred carved rock found on the Island of the Sun on the Bolivian side.
There is evidence of a continuous presence of different and successive Andean societies as early as 10 000 BC in the lake’s area.
In Andean belief, Titicaca is the birthplace of the Inca and the sun. It is where the Andean civilization emerged from the waters. Legend has it that Inti, the Sun God, created Manco Capac, the first Inca King, and Mama Ocllo, his sister and the Queen, on the Island of the Sun. From Titicaca, they were sent in search for a fertile land for the children of the Sun.
Manco Capac carried a golden staff and was instructed to build a sacred city named Cusco on the spot where the staff sank into the earth. Using underground caves, the siblings arrived in Cusco, where they built a temple in honor of their father, and established the line of Inca Kings which endured for five centuries until the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1530.
In 1978, Titicaca Reserve was created with the purpose of preserving the ecosystems of the Titicaca Lake. There are 60 species of birds, 14 species of fish and 18 species of amphibians in the Reserve (the most famous is the giant frog of Titicaca that can weigh up to 7 pounds).
Since the late 1960’s, Lake Titicaca has been largely popularized.
First, by the French filmmaker, researcher and marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. He conducted several expeditions, exploring with two small submarines the lake’s bed. Due to technical problems of the equipment, the expeditions didn’t live up to expectations, though new animal species were found.
Later expeditions were more successful – discovered were submerged temples, agricultural terraces, Inca-style walls and megalithic ruins. In 2000, a team of international archaeologists found the ruins of an underwater temple thought to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, probably built by the Tiwanaku people. Unconfirmed are also discoveries of large golden statues, and a collapsed wall clad with gold.
However, Lake Titicaca could never be what it is today without the Norwegian adventurer, practitioner of experimental archaeology, and one of the 21st century most famous explorers, Thor Heyerdahl (1914 – 2002).
An enfant terrible of science who never played by the rules of the orthodox academia, he said that a “shocking extent of ignorance” existed among the scholarly circles that “call themselves authorities and pretend to have a monopoly of all knowledge.”
Thor Heyerdahl became especially famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947, and his Ra II expedition of 1970.
In these expeditions, he wanted to show that prehistoric civilizations on both sides of the Atlantic could have been in contact with each other by means of reed boats.
In his first expedition, he sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built balsa raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia. The expedition was inspired by old reports and drawings of Inca rafts made by Spanish Conquistadors, and by native legends and archaeological evidence suggesting ancient contacts between South America and Polynesia.
Academic orthodoxy held that Polynesia had been colonized from Asia, not South America, and that such journeys were beyond the navigational skills of a primitive people such as the Peruvians. The features common to the two cultures were said to be coincidental.
Since no publisher would print Heyerdahl’s thesis, he decided that only a re-creation of such a voyage could give his ideas the necessary credibility.
With five friends as crew, he constructed on Lake Titicaca a 60 feet-long raft with sails, its design based on ancient pictures of indigenous balsa vessels. The craft was named Kon-Tiki.
Kon-Tiki was a mythical seafarer king who had set off across the seas with his followers some 500 BC and disappeared. According to the Inca, a race of white gods had lived in Peru before the Inca themselves became rulers. They were wise and peaceful instructors who taught the Inca primitive forebears architecture, manners and customs. After they had left, the Inca themselves took over power in the country.
On April 28, 1947, the Kon-Tiki left the Peruvian port of Callao, drifting for 101 days across the Pacific towards Polynesia, carried by warm currents and the south-east trade wind. Almost 4,500 nautical miles later, the raft landed successfully on Tuamotu Island in Polynesia, demonstrating, that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific. It proved that widely separated ancient people could have made long sea voyages and create contacts between themselves.
In 1970, Heyerdahl enlisted the reed boat craftsmen from the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca once again, this time to build a boat that would show that ancient Mediterranean or African people could have crossed the Atlantic and reached the Americas.
The vessel called Ra II set sail from Morocco, successfully reaching Barbados.
This was a proof that the ancient Egyptians, who had built their boats from papyrus reed similar to totora reed, had the sailing craft to reach the Americas, and could have influenced the pre-Columbian civilizations of Latin America, which is a theory based on historical similarities between the ancient Mediterranean and Mesoamerican cultures.
The boats of Kon-Tiki and Ra II are housed in the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, Norway, along with Thor Heyerdahl’s diaries, photographs, maps and plans of his expeditions.
Thor Heyerdahl’s books have been translated into 70 languages, the documentary film of the Kon-Tiki expedition won an Academy Award.