Everyone knows about Lake Titicaca, even if just for its socially awkward name, but what puts this massive high-altitude lake on the map is its culturally significance for both Bolivia and Peru. The famous Uros Floating Islands and the Incan religious site Isla del Sol are two major draws to this 12,507-feet high lake and what brought us to its launchpad cities of Copacabana, Bolivia and Puno, Peru.
To get to the peninsula of Copacabana, Bolivia our minibus was floated across on a boat. This would be fine but when its pitch black at night and the driver unexpectedly tells you to get out and hop on a dingy while your luggage floats across on a barge, it sort of throws you for a loop. Nevertheless, we got to this beautiful lakeside town with ourselves and luggage intact.
A hike up the city’s Mount Calvario gave great perspective on the town and vastness of the lake. For locals its a weekend hotspot to pay homage to the 14 stations of the Cross and enjoy the outdoors. If you get a chance to take this hike, we suggest taking the more scenic and challenging back route up, then the stairs down.
Pilgrims travel from Bolivia to pay homage to Copacabana’s Virgin of Candeleria but more interesting us was its quirky bi-product: La Benedicion de Movilidades or “blessing of the vehicles.” Cars come fully decked out in streamers, carnations, stuffed animals and other accoutrements for the lord and priest performing the ceremony of safe travels. Here, we were lucky enough to see a car pastor perform the christening on this minivan and plenty of other gussied-up vehicles waiting in the wings.
The 16th-century Basilica of our Lady of Copacabana is in mint condition with spectacular domes and Spanish tilework. Vendors line its plaza selling votives, incense, rosary beads…the works.
The shore was packed with food vendors but this ceviche stand was calling our name. Fresh fish from the lake is cured in lime and topped with these corn-nut-style nuggets, this may have been the best dish we had in all of Bolivia.
Across the shore from Copacabana lies Isla del Sol, birthplace of the Incan Sun god and home to over 80 Incan ruins. The island is usually a day trip for tourists but it’s absolutely worth an overnight—for the unreal sunsets if nothing else.
Though most of the tour operators want to sell you a ticket to the north side of the island, we loved the quiet and calm of the south shore. Our cliff-side B&B, Jjacha Inti, had spectacular views and it was close enough to the shoreline that we could watch the boats come in and the mules get packed for their daily deliveries.
There are no cars or roads on this island, just an ancient system of walking trails. We rambled up and down through traditional towns, beach coves, and terraced farms, getting a look into this fascinatingly isolated culture.
The labyrinth-like Sacred Rock is the island’s main attraction. The stone structure is in good condition despite the abundance of cows and pigs making home of its corridors.
There is something magical about Isla del Sol, even if the roaming miniature llamas are swaying my vote.
Our journey across the Lake Titicaca continues to Uros, Peru’s floating Islands. Built entirely out of totora reeds and rope, these pre-Incan man-made islands were created as a defensive strategy to keep mobile in case of invasion. Today, this exceptional community still survives off fishing, trade, and now tourism. This small reed structure is the Uros toll booth for curious boats passing through.
Around 44 islands comprise Uros and with 2-10 people living on each. For every family to make a bit of money from tourism and not to have their daily lives totally disturbed, the island communities take turns hosting tourists a couple times a week. On our tour we visited two islands, learning about their homes, crafts, and life on the water.
Layers and layers of these reeds are bound together to form the buoyant floor. Constantly soaking in water, the the lower reeds start to rot away so new layers must be added every few months to keep the homes afloat. A major part of the men’s tasks is to simply maintain this vulnerable landmass, while ladies mostly tend to the crafts and cooking.