Exploring Lake Titicaca

The Cradle of Incan Civilization

 Chris VR / TripSavvy

Lake Titicaca, the cradle of Incan civilization, and the origin of the Inca Empire is the largest lake on the South American continent. It is reputed to be the highest navigable lake in the world (about 3810 m/12,500 ft above sea level), extending from southeastern Peru to western Bolivia. The lake is 196 km (122 mi) long with an average width of 56 km (35 mi). The lake has waves, a testament to its size, and not surprising the waters are cold. At that altitude and fed from the snow-clad Andes the lake does not invite swimming. It is the remnant of an ancient inland sea and the blue waters make a beautiful contrast to the parched altiplano.

Getting There

You get to Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side from Puno, the capital of Peru's altiplano which is the folkloric center of Peru and gateway to Lake Titicaca. Puno itself is not attractive but the schedule of dances including the Devil Dance performed during the feast of the Virgen De Candelaria and other festivals attract visitors year round.

Check flights from your area to Lima or La Paz to make connections to the lake.


According to Incan mythology, Manco Capac and Mama 0cllo, also known as Mama Huaca, emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca on the sacred rock gate on Isla Del Sol to found the Inca Empire. The sister island Isla de la Luna is not as well visited but is also a holy place as it housed the convent of the virgins of the sun. The entire lake was a holy place. Also connected with the legend of Lake Titicaca is the Lemurian Solar Disc which governed the thousand year cycle of Incan time.

According to legend, when the Spanish forces reached Cuzco, the Incas took the two-ton gold chain of Inca Huascar from the temple at Koricancha and threw it into the lake. It has never been found although some years ago Jacques Cousteau mounted an expedition to explore the lake with a mini-submarine.

What to See and Do

The best-known islands on the lake are the floating reed islands which are maintained by adding fresh reeds to the surface even as the ones on the bottom decompose. The reeds are used for many things including the reed boats and sails in daily use on the lake and the totora rafts used in the voyages of Thor Heyerdahl, Ra I and Ra II, which crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1970s, were built on Suriqui Island.

From the Bolivian side of the lake, travelers can take the hydrofoil tour to see the Lake Titicaca Highlights and learn more about the cultural and archaeological significance of the lake. Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna lie in Bolivian waters and visitors who want a touch of Ancient Bolivia usually fit in a trip to Samapaita which was more than a mere outpost of Inca civilization.

An easy excursion is to the small village of Copacabana, famous for the miracles of the patron saint of Bolivia, the Dark Virgin of the Lake. The miracles began in the 16th century after the village became home to an image of the Virgen de Candelaria. Another image of the Virgin was taken to Brazil in the 1800's and established in what is now a very well known beach of the same name.

When to Visit

Lake Titicaca is the center for archaeological and cultural studies as well as a favored tourist destination. If you go, plan to visit in the summer months but take warm clothing. The days may be pleasantly sunny but the nights can be very cold. Remember, please, that the Lake is still sacred to the Aymara people who live there.

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