Legend has it that Lake Titicaca formed from the tears of the sun god, Inti. The Incas believed it was the source of all life. Today, Lake Titicaca is known as the highest navigable lake in the world, and the indigenous people who call it home are its caretakers. Tradition reigns supreme high in the Andes. From ancient tribal ceremonies to long hikes with panoramic views, a trip to this fabled mountain community promises unforgettable experiences.
At 12,500 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is one of the highest destinations in the Americas. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, so err on the side of caution and prepare for the worst. If you're traveling directly to a high-elevation access point, like Puno, Peru, or La Paz, Bolivia, allow yourself a day or two to adjust. Your body will be producing more red blood cells to transport oxygen, so be kind to yourself and go easy. Before leaving home, make sure you stay hydrated and load up on iron-rich foods or supplements.
Tea made from coca leaves is a traditional medicine for altitude sickness. The plant might be better known for its derivative, cocaine, but one cup of coca tea is only as stimulating as a strong cup of coffee. Peru is one of a handful of countries where coca is legal, and this is because of the plant's significance to the Andean indigenous culture. Muña tea is another old remedy for altitude sickness and also aids digestion.
Despite its location in the tropics, Lake Titicaca's high elevation makes for extreme conditions. Winters are usually dry with below-freezing temperatures overnight, while the summer months are consistently mild and rainy. Be sure to pack extra layers to stay warm, as well as comfortable shoes for miles of hiking. The high elevation also means that the sun's rays are more intense, so be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. If you forgot to pack a cap, peruse the shops in town for the signature bowler hat worn by the Andean women.
The colorful city of La Paz, Bolivia, is a beautiful town to spend the day exploring. Located about 100 miles from the lakeshore, La Paz has long been a cultural center in Bolivia. Wander the streets and admire the Colonial architecture, stopping at a few museums and historic sites. The head for the farmer's market, where vendors sell everything from produce to clothing to talismans for good luck. The Witches' Market, or Mercado de las Brujas, is the easiest place to find necessary ingredients for Aymara rituals. Walk away with some interesting photos and a soapstone carving to take home.
Puño is a charming city on the western bank of Lake Titicaca in Peru. Pressed up against the foothills of the Andes Mountains, there are several high points from which to admire the stunning landscape. Two famous lookouts are the Mirador Puma Uta and Mirador El Condor. With charming observation towers and panoramic views, the side trips are well worth the hike. If you're in town in early February, try to make it for the Virgen de la Candelaria Feast in honor of Puño's patron saint. The celebration honors her with music and dancing, and a parade on the final day.
Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, with impressive sights on both shores. Puño is the folkloric capital of Peru, while the Bolivian side has access to Isla del Sol, Isla de la Luna, and tourist hotspot, Copacabana. One day is not enough time to see everything, so you might want to book accommodations with a family on Lake Titicaca. Villagers on Amantani Island take turns hosting travelers and engaging them in the Quechuan culture. Check with local tour agencies for availability, and don't forget to tip your host family generously.
Lake Titicaca's top tourist attraction is the collection of Aymara communities known as the Floating Islands of Uros. These islands are made entirely of tightly compacted reeds, as are the houses, observation decks, and elaborate boats that shuttle locals and travelers from one isle to the next. The much larger Taquile Island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca is also home to the Quechua people and their UNESCO-recognized masterpiece of heritage. Taquileños are known for the colorful, handwoven textiles and embroidery sold in the open-air markets. The men are the artists in this community, so keep an eye out for them as you tour the city.
Located halfway between Puño and La Paz, Aramu Muru is a pit stop unlike any other. No one knows who carved the red sandstone structure, but scientists' best guess is that the Incans abandoned this construction site before it was completed. Legends link the mysterious structure to aliens while locals call it the Gateway of the Gods. The gateway refers to a large alcove resembling a doorway carved into the rockface, supposedly a portal to other dimensions.
The ancient Incan ruins at Tiahuanaco are the fascinating legacy of the accomplished civilization that once inhabited the area. Not much remains of the once-thriving city, but intricate masonry and a drainage and sewer system prove that the society was extremely advanced for its time. Tour the grounds and marvel at the terraced fields, sunken courts, and raised platforms, all decorated with elaborate carvings. Don't forget to take a couple of selfies at the Gateway of the Sun, a solid stone arch that scholars believe is part of an astrological observatory.
If you haven't booked your tour of the wondrous Lake Titicaca, consider extending your South American vacation to tour the Inca Trail. Once part of the most advanced and extensive road system in ancient South America, the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu is a challenging but unforgettable experience for hiking enthusiasts. Visitors can explore short segments of the trail with local guides or hike the distance to Lake Titicaca. If you prefer more luxurious accommodations, the PeruRail train crosses the Andes between Cusco and Puño in style. At just under 11 hours, the journey is perfect for once-in-a-lifetime experiences and celebrations.