A traditional reed boat floating on Lake Titicaca
Myths, legends and mystery – Lake Titicaca, which sits on the border of Bolivia and Peru, has it all. For many South American cultures, this lake is considered a sacred site and the location of legendary figures. With its serene beauty and peacefulness, Lake Titicaca is also a major tourist destination – but how can this fascinating place combine tradition and commerce? Read on and see for yourself.
The vast blue expanse of Lake Titicaca
At an elevation of 12,500 feet (3,811 m), Titicaca, in the Andes, is the highest navigable lake on Earth. This landlocked body of water is shared by two countries, with Peru claiming its western part, and Bolivia its eastern section.
Women congregate beside their wonderful reed constructions.
As if being the highest lake in the world that's able to be navigated weren’t enough of a record, Lake Titicaca is also the largest lake in South America, at least by water volume. Though Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo has a larger surface area, it is also connected to the Caribbean Sea via the Gulf of Venezuela and is therefore technically a bay rather than a lake.
A beautiful reed boat on Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca consists of two parts that almost look like two different lakes. However, they are connected, if only by a thin strip of water – 2,620 feet (800 m) at its narrowest – called the Strait of Tiquina.
Dramatic sky over Lake Titicaca
The larger of the two sub-basins is aptly called Lago Grande (“Big Lake”) and the smaller one Lago Pequeño (“Little Lake”); they're also known as Lago Chucuito and Lago Huinaymarka, respectively. At its deepest, Lago Grande reaches 932 feet (284 m) and Lago Pequeño 131 feet (40 m); taking all this into account, the mean depth of the lake overall is a rather impressive 351 feet (107 m).
Isla de la Luna in a sea of blue
Though the origin of the name Titicaca is unknown and the word’s meaning is unclear, it has been translated as “Rock Puma” or “Rock of the Puma”, drawing on the lake’s shape, which, with a bit of imagination, is reminiscent of a puma chasing a rabbit. Upside down, that is, with Lago Grande resembling the puma and Lago Pequeño the fleeing rabbit. Another translation that's been offered up is “Crag of Lead”.
A view of the Andes from Lake Titicaca
Owing to lower levels of rain and glacial meltwater running into Titicaca's tributaries, lake levels here have been shrinking since the year 2000. The melting of glaciers, in particular, decreases the amount of water fed into the lake by its five major tributaries, as well as around 20 other smaller rivers. It is currently at its lowest level since 1949.
The lake also contains 41 islands of varying sizes, some of them densely populated. One of the largest is Isla del Sol (“Island of the Sun”), which is accessible via a regular boat service from the town of Copacabana in Bolivia.
Isla del Sol with the Andes in the background
More than 180 ruins can be found on Isla del Sol – it being an important place in Incan mythology – and it is believed to be the birthplace of Inti, the Incan sun god. The ruins date back some 500 years – so the island certainly has its fair share of history!
Isla de la Luna with the Andes in the background
East of Isla del Sol is Isla de la Luna (“Island of the Moon”), the birthplace of Mama Quilla, the moon goddess, according to Incan mythology. Not to be outdone by its sunnier-named neighbor, Isla de la Luna is home to various ancient ruins, too.
View of Lake Titicaca from Taquille Island
The hilly island of Taquile is located about 28 miles (45 km) from Puno, a town in southeastern Peru. During the Spanish Colonization and up until the 20th century, the narrow island – now home to about 2,200 inhabitants – was used as a prison.
View over terraces at Taquile Island
Since 1970, Lake Titicaca's Taquile Island has been the property of the Taquile people. Their lifestyle is traditional and quite untouched by modern amenities: there are no cars on the island, no hotels, and hardly any electricity; candles, flashlights and hand-cranks are very much in use here, though some solar panels have recently been installed.
Women wearing traditional dresses during a festival on Taquile Island
The Taquileños are known for wearing beautiful traditional clothes and for their handicraft traditions, which have made them famous – not only in South America but also worldwide. In fact, so impressive are the skills demonstrated by the Taquileños that "Taquile and Its Textile Art" have been declared "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.
Three men knitting on Taquile Island
While many men in the rest of the world wouldn't dream of picking up knitting needles, knitting is firmly and exclusively a male pastime on Taquile, with boys initiated into the tradition at the tender age of eight. The women’s task is weaving and making yarn.
Man sitting on the shore of Lake Titicaca
Interestingly, despite Taquile’s traditional ways, about 40,000 tourists visit the island each year, with some staying overnight. Without hotels and modern amenities, you might wonder how that's even possible! Well, the answer lies in the Taquilean lifestyle, which provides community-controlled services like home stays, basic restaurants and guided tours.
Lake view with boats from Taquile Island
Community is key, and Taquilean society is run on the old Incan moral code of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, which basically means, “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. Certainly not a bad idea, and a way of life we'd definitely advocate following!
Women in traditional dresses on a reed island close to Puno
A traditional way of life can also be found among the Uru, another group of Lake Titicaca-dwelling people. Between them, the Uru live on 44 artificial floating islands made out of the reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of the lake. The larger islands are home to ten families or more, while the smaller ones – which are just under 100 feet (30 m) wide – are home to perhaps only two or three families.
Another beautiful reed boat on Lake Titicaca
The purpose behind the totora, or reed lifestyle, used to be a practical one: mobility. Being able to move with all your possessions – not to mention your house – at the first sign of danger was a pretty handy way to keep yourself and your loved ones in one piece!
Stunning views with reeds
Even though life has become more peaceful, many of the reed islands still boast watchtowers made almost entirely out of reeds. As you can imagine, the islands themselves need a lot of maintenance, as the reeds break and rot. New layers have to be added constantly. Tourists also take a keen interest in this alternative lifestyle, and, as much as their curiosity (and money) is welcome, it does distract from the traditional way of life, as well as making more work for the Uru in maintaining the reeds.
Colorful handmade merchandise on one of the reed islands of the Uros
Archaeologically, Lake Titicaca is an important site: various ruins on its shores indicate the existence of ancient societies that predate the Christian era, making them some of the oldest civilizations in the Americas.
A floating reed island in the lake
The southern end of Lake Titicaca is where the main finds have been made, especially in the Bolivian site of Tiahuanaco. Some of the locations tie in with important events in Incan mythology – for example, a temple ruin on Titicaca Island that is believed to stand in the spot where Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, Children of the Sun, were sent to Earth to found the Inca dynasty.
A stunning view from Taquile over Lake Titicaca
The Incas consider Lake Titicaca their birthplace, as it is here the god Viracocha is said to have arisen to create the world. According to Incan mythology, he even made the sun, moon and stars rise.
Boats add to the tranquility of this idyllic scene.
The creator Viracocha then went on to create the first human beings from stone – Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. The Incas believed that, upon death, the spirits of the deceased return to their origin, Lake Titicaca. Thus, the lake is considered one of the holiest places in the Andes.
Water and sky as far as the eye can see
In 2000, a team of international archaeologists found ancient temple ruins under the lake. Assumed to date back about 1,000 years, the ruins are believed to be from pre-Incan times and are possibly attributable to the indigenous Tiwanaku people.
The team of the Atahuallpa 2000 scientific expedition had followed a submerged road close to the town of Copacabana that led them to the spectacular findings.
An early morning cloud cover, beautifully reflected in Lake Titicaca
Apart from the large temple structure, measuring 660 by 160 feet (200 by 50 m), the scientists also found evidence of farming – a 2,600-foot (800 m) long wall and a paved road – in a series of more than 200 dives to the bottom of the lake.
The discovery again sparked scholarly debate about Wanaku – a legendary, underwater lost city, which the ruins may be part of – and stories of plundered Inca gold lost in Lake Titicaca by the Spanish.
View of Isla del Sol
The expedition and possible plans to raise the finds to the ground have met with criticism and concern from locals. They fear the expedition was too intrusive and may disturb the peace of the holy site, which could bring accidents and bad luck in the future.
For now, however, the mystery surrounding Lake Titicaca has only been heightened. Curious tourists continue to come in their droves, and the lake's status as Bolivia’s favorite tourist attraction is firmly sealed. With such a fascinating past and present, we're not in the least surprised.
To read more about the other highest lakes in the world, follow the link.