The 40-plus floating Uros Islands are perhaps the most photographed attraction on Lake Titicaca, famously constructed with springy totora reeds. The reeds are collected from around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and used to replenish the fragile islands every three months or so, as the bottom of the two-meter (6.5ft) totora mat slowly rots back into the lake. Thus, the islands change shape, size and even number as the centuries pass, anchored to the lake bottom but in many ways a completely separate world.
The Uros people are an ancient race, predating the Incas by millennia and, according to local legend, even the sun and stars. The “People of the Lake,” as they call themselves, once said that they did not feel the cold, thanks to their “black blood.”
Puno’s most enigmatic attraction lies 35km (21mi) from the port city, overlooking Lake Umayo with dignified mystery. Tours are easily arranged; consider coming around sunset, and staying to enjoy the starry skies.
The Chullpas of Sillustani are a collection of striking burial towers, among the finest examples of such architecture in the Andes. Though no one can be sure of their age, they appear to have been under construction just prior to the Inca conquest of the local Aymara-speaking Colla people, around 1300 AD. They most resemble, however, the neat stonework of the Tiwanaku people, who controlled the southern shore of the lake from about 500 AD to 1100 AD.
More advanced than even the Inca’s finest masonry, these towers reach with neatly squared geometric regularity toward the clear, high-desert sky. The tallest are 12 meters (40ft) high; others probably exceeded that, but have long since been dynamited by tomb robbers.
Sweet, clear and a deep diaphanous blue, Lake Titicaca shimmers above South America at 3,812 meters (12,507 feet), the highest navigable lake in the world. It is considered the spiritual homeland of the Andean peoples and its 41 starkly beautiful islands are topped with traditional villages and ancient stone ruins that echo with myths and legends. Beneath fiery streaked sunset skies reflected in these luminous waters, cradled by snowcapped mountains, it can be difficult to refute such tales completely.
Lake Titicaca is thought to be the birthplace of the Andean peoples, where the Creator God Viracocha first summoned the sun, moon and first human beings from what is now called Isla del Sol. The Incas, Aymaras, Uros, and countless other indigenous nations thus hold this lake sacred.
For those wishing to avoid heavily touristed Taquile Island, but still enjoy a smoothly operating system of homestays and a taste of traditional lake lifestyle, Isla Amantani is the perfect option. The 38km (26mi), four-hour trip and dearth of infrastructure (electricity, running water, automobiles) has kept the island of some 3,600 Quechua-speaking people somewhat isolated from Titicaca’s tourist industry.
Amantani has been communally owned since shortly after Peru’s independence from Spain, after which the indigenous residents—used as poorly paid labor by landlords of European descent—took a page from their oppressors’ own handbook and staged a revolution of their own. Ever since, the island has been run as something of a commune, a tradition that extends to today’s tourism.
Adventurers planning to voyage to well-known Lake Titicaca from the town of Cusco will likely find themselves traveling along the famed La Raya Pass. Nestled atop the Andres Mountains, the rugged terrain of La Raya is known for its picturesque sloping hillsides, purple peaks and calm fresh water pools. Popular passenger trains designated for tourists make a quick stop at 4,000 feet, where travelers can snap impressive photos of epic panoramic views that are certain to capture this rare natural beauty.
Luxury lovers eager to spend the night on one of Lake Titicaca’s magical islands may be put off by the prospect of the basic hotels and even simpler homestays that make up most of the lake’s lodging. There is, however, one private island that is home to a truly excellent hotel, part of the Casa Andina chain of five-star properties.
Suasi is lovely little (43 hectares, or 106 acres) isleta, the only private parcel on the lake. Its rocky outcroppings, stunning vistas and cascades of flowering bougainvillea are patrolled by wandering vicunas and alpacas, as well as guests of the hotel.
Though luxuriously appointed, the hotel’s rustic flagstone-and-adobe architecture, thatched roofs and commitment to eco-friendly amenities such as solar power and wood stoves, stay true to the Earth-conscious spirit of Titicaca tourism. Whitewashed rooms all enjoy panoramic views across the lake and Bolivian Andes.