Lake in the sky: A journey to Lake Titicaca in Peru

I’d certainly be lying to you if I claimed that the silly name of this famous lake did not partially influence my decision to visit it on a recent trip through Peru.

Don’t get me wrong there are many humorously named places in the world. Aside from the really filthy ones that we can’t mention here, there are Euren, Wisconsin; Elephant Butte, New Mexico and Intercourse, Pennsylvania all located within the continental United States. And let’s completely avoid the many regrettable name choices in the United Kingdom for that’s a different article unto itself.

In any case, there had to be something else about Lake Titicaca that drew me towards it – something beyond the bizarre name.

Lake Titicaca: Beyond the name

Lake TiticacaAs a geography nerd, I was somewhat familiar with Lake Titicaca. I knew that it was the highest navigable lake on the planet. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I did have it in my brain just in case the question ever came up on Jeopardy.

I later found out that Lake Titicaca is also South America’s largest lake by volume, and that Peru’s landlocked neighbour Bolivia actually maintains a small navy with ships based almost entirely in the lake. Like most modern-day travellers, I typed Lake Titicaca into Google and the image results displayed a place where bright blue waters were set against arid yellow hillsides as if they were digitally-altered for maximum effect. It looked like an interesting spot and I figured that at the very worst, I could send a few funny postcards to friends and family.

So there I was in Cusco with some unstructured time on my hands. After a big Saturday night out on the town getting to know other backpackers from around the world, I found myself with a couple of days to fill before flying out to Lima. I needed an easy jaunt that was cheap, required little-to-no planning, and above all else, wouldn’t take any more of a toll on my aching, weary body.  After all, I had already trekked in the Andes Mountains and dragged myself around the many steps of Machu Picchu. I had seen almost every corner of the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Cusco, so why not Lake Titicaca, I thought? 

PunoTravelling to Lake Titicaca: Cusco to Puno

The first tip I would give to any would-be adventurer to Lake Titicaca is to ignore the transportation advice of the travel agents and tour operators in Cusco.

After asking in 3 separate agencies, I was informed that there were 2 buses daily between Cusco and Puno – Lake Titicaca’s principle port and tourist hub. I treated the schedule with suspicion and decided to tempt fate by showing up at Cusco’s dusty little bus station. When I arrived, I found a dozen bus lines offering passage to Puno on coaches of various levels of comfort. The most aggressive tout got my business as he swept past the pretenders and made arrangements for me in English. The experience was a little overwhelming, but certainly not intimidating. As I found throughout Peru, the panhandlers, street vendors, and anyone else who may want your money tend to be assertive, but certainly not aggressive or belligerent.

My little gamble had paid off and I was now on a comfortable coach with semi-reclining seats and a bathroom. The one-way ticket had only cost me $8 US and I had change left over to load up on snacks before settling in for a 6-hour ride. The bus bumped and thumped through the Altiplano, Peru’s high altitude plateau region of arid grasslands. I stared out the window as herds of grazing llamas and alpacas whizzed past. Long after darkness had fallen, I finally got to stretch my legs again as I was forced off the warm bus and into the near freezing temperatures of Puno – located some 3,860 m (12,421 ft) above sea level.

Lake Titicaca: Puno & the Uros Islands

Uros IslandsIt would be wrong to call the port city of Puno aptly-named, but it certainly does lack the colonial beauty of Centro Lima, Cusco or Arequipa. The corrugated tin roofs and concrete foundations of the city may not be aesthetically pleasing, but the city’s tourism infrastructure is solid. Travellers will find ample hotel rooms available in all price ranges, along with some excellent restaurants and bars along the pedestrianized Jiron Lima. The Plaza de Armas and the Baroque cathedral dating back to the 1750s are both worth a quick look if you happen to be nearby.

However, visitors don’t endure the long bus ride from Cusco or hop aboard a flight from a far off corner of Peru to simply sightsee around the city. The principle attraction of Puno lies in its location on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It is the departure point for day trips to the floating Uros Islands or to places like Bolivia that lie further afield.

Uros IslandsVisiting the villages on the man-made Uros Islands

Through reedy shallows, the Uros Islands sit only 5 kilometers from the port of Puno. These 42 man-made floating islands were built by the Uros people who sought refuge from the conquering Incas within the shallows of the lake several hundred years ago. Eventually they were conquered and assimilated and now speak a dialect of the Quechuan language spoken today’s descendants of the Inca.

Constructed of reeds and spongy, buoyant earth, the foundations of the islands are held together with ropes and large sticks. More dried reeds are placed on top of the foundation to provide a comfortable surface to walk on, as well as used to build houses, watchtowers, and even large elaborate fishing boats. Today the islands exist almost exclusively for the sake of tourism. Tourist dollars entice villagers to put up with soggy feet and decaying sidewalks when life could be much easier on shore in Puno. A typical day tour of the Uros Islands will take you to 2 or 3 different islands, including a larger spot that houses a Christian elementary school set up by missionaries.

The villages on the Uros islands are certainly one of the more unique and memorable places I have set foot on. Cynics may be put off by the commercial, tourist-trap feel of the islands, but a day trip is worth it alone, even if it’s just for the boat ride.

Discover culture & heritage on the island of Taquile

TaquilleIf you have more time in Puno, the island of Taquile lies further afield and is a must-visit spot for those looking for a more unadulterated taste of regional cultural distinction within the confines of Lake Titicaca. Situated 45 kilometers by boat from Puno, travellers must leave early in the morning if they wish to reach the island and return in one long day of sightseeing. The island is rocky and arid with only 1,500 residents calling it home.

The conquering Spanish forbade traditional Incan dress and the islanders of Taquile soon adopted a variation of Spanish peasant clothing along with finely-woven handicrafts that are still worn and sold today. UNESCO recognized the contribution that the inhabitants of Taquile have made to the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005.

Most of the travellers I met in Puno were there for the day before moving on to Bolivia. The town of Copacabana, Bolivia is just across the shores of Lake Titicaca and is a popular entry point into the country. The town lacked the scores of tourists that overran Cusco, but from talking to hotel operators and restaurateurs, the economic slowdown was to blame. Puno is still very much on the ‘gringo trail’ that caters to tourists in Peru.

Lady luck was not on my side in the bus station this time around, as I again decided to buy a ticket from the first vendor that approached me. Thinking that I was getting a great deal on my return journey I went for the $4 ticket that bought me passage on a very local, very slow bus. It was without washrooms, but stopped every 15 minutes to let men run outside and go pee, and allow local women to come onto the bus and sell snacks and treats that were completely unrecognizable to me.

After a trying 9 hour return leg, I learned a very important lesson about travelling in South America, and about life in general; you get what you pay for. Still I left Puno with a sense of accomplishment. I was happy that I decided to take a chance on a funny-sounding lake located half way up a mountain in the middle of barren plain.

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