Puno, Peru

Exploring the Sacred Lake

Right next door to heaven, Lake Titicaca and the surrounding areas offer an unforgettable journey of islands, towns, people and cultures that will leave you breathless.

Text: Marlén Castro |  photos: Rafael Cornejo



Immense. That’s the first word that comes to mind as you set out on the cold, deep waters of Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world – nearly 12,500 feet above sea level – and the second largest body of water in Latin America at more than 3,232 square miles. The lake is giant blue mirror that merges with the sky at the horizon. And at that majestic moment, you’ll understand why the Inca believed that Lake Titicaca was the origin point and center of the entire universe.

Visitors land in Juliaca to reach the Peruvian side of the lake – 44 percent belongs to Bolivia – the flight from Lima only takes an hour and 40 minutes. A bustling city with 225,000 inhabitants, Juliaca is ideally explored on motorized bicycles that zip and swerve through the city.


Puno: Culture Heritage


The towering ruins of the chullpas at Sullistani.


Before leaving Juliaca for the city of Puno, don’t miss the chance to visit Sillustani, a burial ground from the Kolla culture that developed between the years 1200 and 1450 on the shores of the Laguna Umayo. The chullpas – towering cylindrical tombs up to 40 feet tall – give an idea of the splendor and magnificence that this culture achieved.

Come back to the richness of the present by immersing yourself in the everyday life of the Quechua and Aymara peoples, who represent two of the most important pre-Columbian civilizations in South America. Several picturesque towns along the lakeshore, including Paucarcolla and Hatuncolla, make up the cultural circuit known as the “Corredor Cultural Quechua.”

The next stop on our itinerary is Puno. An hour drive from Juliaca, this small city is known as the folklore capital of Peru, thanks to the famous Fiesta de la Candelaria, which honors the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Candelaria. Celebrated every February, this festival is one of the largest artistic and cultural events in the country and has been recognized on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.



The Fiesta de la Candelaria in Puno.


With roughly 126,000 inhabitants, Puno moves at a less dizzying pace than Juliaca. Hard work is still a part of daily life, however, especially in the northeastern part of town, where boats leave the pier on their way to the 35 islands scattered between the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of the lake. Two highlights in Bolivian territory include the Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.

The “Aymara Corridor” is another highly recommended route. If you’ve already gotten a taste of life in the Quechua communities, this circuit will take you through another 12 small towns inhabited by the Aymara peoples, with highlights including Chucuito and Juli, known as the “Little Rome of the Americas” for the four churches built by Dominican and Jesuit priests who sought to make the area an evangelical hotspot in the Andean high plateau.


Islands next to heaven

Navegando por el Titicaca hacia las islas flotantes

Sailing on Lake Titicaca to the floating islands.

As we navigate these immense and profound waters – with depths of up to 1,000 feet – we hear legends about the lake whose waters are supposedly the tears of grief from the sun god Inti, who couldn’t stop the pumas from devouring the people who lived in these lands. It was a punishment sent by the apus (mountain gods) because humans had dared to make the forbidden trek to the top of the Andes. Inti cried for 40 days and 40 nights, finally petrifying the pumas, thus the origin of the name “Titicaca,” which means “the lake of the stone pumas.”

Today, there are many aspects to explore – without fear of avenging gods – like the floating islands, where the lives of the Urus people are intimately entwined with totora. This plant grows naturally in the lake, forming intensely green patches that shine like gold after they have dried in the sun.

The Urus islands consist of 87 man-made islets with one capital island, which Luis Carbajal Ayvar, the chief of the small territory, has named Hanan Pacha (Quechua for “God of Air”). This large floating island is home to a restaurant, a three-room hotel and vendors selling folk art made with totora. You can enjoy the unique experience of sleeping on a floating island either at Don Luis’s hotel or in the homes of the islets’ inhabitants.

If you prefer to visit the islands as a day trip, other quality lodging options include the 18 rooms of the Hotel Titikaka, which is situated on a private island near Puno. The well-trained staff offers visitors a wide variety of excursions and activities, including wilderness treks and visits to local markets.

Another option is Hotel Libertador Lago Titicaca on the private island of Isla Esteves. The 123-room establishment offers plenty of unforgettable activities, like sailboat trips to nearby beaches and islets.

All right next door to heaven. in


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