Guide to Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca, famous perhaps mostly for its funny name, is a well established spot on the gringo trail in South America.
While it’s often claimed that it’s the highest navigable lake in the world, there are in fact other lakes that are higher and still navigable (though not as deep or large). It is, however, the largest lake on the continent, and at 3,812 meters above sea level, it’s pretty high.
We visited the lake first from Copacabana. Approaching the lake from the Bolivian side, the sudden sight of water in this landlocked country comes as quite a surprise. As though clinging to a hope of regaining access to the sea, Bolivia’s navy use the lake as their base, presumably not to become out of practice in the unlikely event that Chile should decide to give them back their erstwhile coastline.
Copacabana itself sits on the west side of a peninsula that juts out into the lake. From here, the most popular trip out on the lake is to the Isla del Sol, which according to the Inca, was the birthplace of the sun.
The island has several Inca ruins dating from around the 15th century, but what we found more impressive were the views of the surrounding lake and cordillera of the Andes towards La Paz.
It is also possible to visit Isla de la Luna, unsurprisingly believed to be the birthplace of the moon by the Inca, but we didn’t have time. It’s right next to Isla del Sol, however, so we got some good views over towards it.
From Puno we took a trip out to the Uros Islands (also called the Floating Reed Islands), which is a group of almost fifty artificial islands made of the totora reed that grows in the lake.
The island were originally constructed by the Uru people to escape Inca rule when the empire first arrived in the area of the mainland, but apparently the government now pays people to stay on the islands half the year to keep up tourism in the area.
Understandably, therefore, the islands were quite touristy, and the inhabitants of the particular island we visited were well used to having boat loads of foreigners visit them and buy handicrafts from them. We did get a short, interesting talk by one of the islanders on how the islands were constructed.
We were then offered the chance to float across the water to a neighbouring reed island in a reed boat. The calm experienced out on the lake in the motorless boat as it glided across the mirror-like water was unique; this level of silence and tranquility is precious in South America and not easy to come by. With the sky seemingly close enough to touch, it was easy to forget the noise, pollution and chaos of many other places on the continent.
After that, we continued out of the bay that surrounds Puno into the greater lake to visit Isla Taquile. We had time to walk around a little and peruse the woven and knitted handicrafts produced by men (which are apparently the only ones in the altiplano region of Bolivia and Peru that are not made by women).
The landscape of Isla Taquile was similar to that of Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side, but the views were less impressive, given that the land surrounding the lake on the Peruvian side is much less mountainous.
Given the altitude the lake sits at, it’s rather cold and very dry. During the day the sun can be very strong, but if you’re sitting in the shade you can be freezing your butt off, while if you step into the sun without sunscreen and you’re as pale as us, you’ll likely get burnt. Wear layers and take sunscreen!
Everyone and their brother seems to offer tours to Isla del Sol from Copacabana. We went with Titicaca Tour and paid 25Bs (£2.40) each for a boat to the island, leaving at 1:30pm and returning around 5:30pm. The journey took about one and a half hours each way. An entrance fee of 5Bs (£0.45) per person to the island is payable on arrival.
Once we arrived on the island, we were offered an optional hour and a half tour of the island in a group for 25Bs (£2.40) each. This took us up the steep side of the island and along the terraces to another port where we were picked up by our boat. The guide explained the ruins we came across as well as answered questions (in Spanish only).
We thought this extra was worth it, as otherwise, we would have been wandering aimlessly around the southern part of the island for an hour or so before worrying about returning to the port in time to catch the boat back to Copacabana.
We stayed at La Cúpula, where a compact double room with private bathroom (and electric heater!) cost US$28 (£18.90) per night, not including breakfast. It was very quiet and clean and the staff were helpful but also very respectful of privacy. We can definitely recommend it.
La Cúpula also operates a restaurant, with interesting and good quality food. If you walk down Avenida 6 de Agosto between Plaza Sucre and the port in Copcabana, every other place is a gringo restaurant or café, which serve pretty decent food and most have wifi.
On Avenida 6 de Agosto on the other side of Plaza Sucre, there are two restaurants (El Fogón de la Cabaña and Aransaya) that serve a lunch of soup, main (pork, chicken or trout with chips, rice and salad) and a small desert for 15Bs (£1.45). Further down the street towards Plaza 2 de Febrero is the general market, where you can pick up fruit, snacks and drinks.
See also: Museo del Poncho, Copacabana
Again, like in Copacabana, there are many tour operators offering the trip we did, but since it’s a bigger town, competition is not so obvious. We paid S/60 (£14.60) per person for all entrance fees, hotel pick up at 7am, transfer to the port, the boat to the Uros Island, on to Isla Taquile, back to Puno, transfer back to our hotel around 5pm and a bilingual guide.
Once on the first Floating Reed Island, the optional trip in the reed boat to the neighbouring island was S/10 (£2.40) extra per person. Lunch on Isla Taquile was also not included and cost S/20 (£4.85) per person for a soup, bread and main (trout or omelette with rice, chips and salad).
We stayed at Kusillo’s Posada, a slightly dark and cold place run by the very welcoming Jenny, who made us feel very at home and served made-to-order breakfasts. A double room with private bathroom (and enormous bed!) was S/100 (£24.30) per night. There was wifi, but it was often painfully slow.
Along Lima, a pedestrian street that begins at the northeast corner of the Plaza de Armas, there are plenty of options for eating, many with touts outside trying to persuade you to come in to their place.
We found one place offering an all day menu of starter (avocado and bread or soup), main (spaghetti, pizza, chicken, alpaca or beef), desert (pancake and ice cream or fruit salad), drink (lemonade or tea) and a pisco sour for S/18 (£4.40), which seemed like great value given the location.
There was a nice place for vegetarian lunch of soup, main and hot drink for S/7 (£1.70) called Natur Center on the corner of Tacna and Encinas just two blocks south of Kusillo’s Posada. We also found good pastries and coffee at Ricos Pan on Moquegua (between Deustua and Avenida del Puerto), and the best wifi was at Incabar, on Lima (between Libertad and Lambayeque).