Lake Titicaca is a high mountain lake located at an altitude of 3,812 meters in the Andes on the border of two South American states, Bolivia and Peru. It is the largest freshwater lake in South America, the second largest surface area lake in South America (after Lake Maracaibo, which is also sometimes considered a marine bay), and the highest navigable lake in the world. According to legends, at the bottom of the lake lie countless treasures of an ancient civilization that once inhabited the area. The body of water is surrounded by many myths and mysteries and has been popular with explorers and seekers of adventure and precious treasure for many hundreds of years.
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Video: Lake Titicaca
Titicaca is located between two Andean mountain ranges in the northern Altiplano on the border of Peru and Bolivia. The western side of the lake is in the Puno region of Peru, while the eastern side is in the department of La Paz, Bolivia. The snow-capped Cordillera Real, over 6,400 meters high on the northeastern (Bolivian) side of the lake, is one of the highest peaks of the Andes.
The lake consists of two, almost separate basins connected by the 800 m wide Tiquina Strait at its narrowest point. The average depth of the large basin is 135 m, the maximum depth is 284 m. The average depth of the shallow basin is 9 m and the maximum depth is 40 m. Overall, the average depth of the lake is 107 meters, but the bottom slopes sharply toward the eastern shore of Bolivia, reaching its greatest depth of 284 meters near Soto Island.
Titicaca has 41 islands, some of them densely populated. The largest of them, Isla del Sol, is near the city of Copacabana in Bolivia.
Water to Lake Titicaca comes from a combination of precipitation and meltwater. Glaciers in the mountains and throughout the high plateau feed some 27 rivers (five of which are large), which then drain into the lake. The Ramis River is the largest of all. Flowing into the northwestern part of the lake, it accounts for about 2/5 of the water of the entire Titicaca basin.
Titicaca is practically a closed lake. Many rivers flow into it, but only the small Desaguadero River serves as the only outlet. The Desaguadero drains about 10% of the water and then flows into Lake Poopo. The remaining 90% of the water is lost to evaporation under the hot sun and the strong dry winds of the Altiplano.
Titicaca levels fluctuate seasonally throughout the year. The lake level rises during the rainy season (summer, December to March) and drops during the dry winter months. It was formerly thought that Titicaca was drying up slowly, but modern research disproves this statement: the cycle of rising and falling water is more or less stable.
The Spaniards gave the lake its name, Titicaca. It consists of two words: “titi” (puma) and “caca” (rock), which means “mountain puma” in Quechua Indian language. The Aymara and Quechua peoples called the body of water “Mamacota. Prior to the arrival of these peoples on these lands, the reservoir was called Lake Pukina, in other words, it was located in the territory of the country of the Pukina people, which has now ceased to exist.
With only 10% of its water flow, Titicaca is effectively a closed lake. Millions of cubic meters of sewage are dumped into the lake each year. Waste discharged by industrial plants decomposes in the water, producing methane, which poses a significant threat to the lake’s ecosystem. Unless urgent action is taken to protect the environment, Peru and Bolivia may simply lose some of their unique treasure.
Lake Titicaca has a significant population of resident, migratory and rare bird species (over 60 species). For this reason, on August 26, 1998, the lake was included in the list of Wetlands of International Importance. The endangered Titicaca non-flying grebe is found here. Other birds include the cormorant, Chilean flamingo, slender-billed dove, Andean swallow, common grackle, and ducks.
There are 18 species of amphibians in Lake Titicaca, of which the Titicaca whistler is the most famous. These frogs live under rocks in the swampy and deep areas of the lake, rarely coming to the surface. Their large skin and small lungs indicate that the frogs breathe underwater.
As for mammals, because of the high altitude and extreme temperatures, there are only a few species in the Lake Titicaca area. These include the viscacha (a rodent similar to our rabbit), the wild guinea pig, the Andean wolf, llamas, alpacas, the Andean skunk, and the Andean fox.
In the 1930s and 1940s, non-native fish species were released into Lake Titicaca as economically more valuable than native species. Native fish species have since become rare and endangered. For example, one of them (oresttias cuvieri) became extinct, unable to compete with the Lake Chrystivomer chub released in the 1930s. The most common fish species today is trout (lake trout and rainbow trout). Trout have become so established in the lake that a cannery was opened in 1961, although it lasted only nine years.
Lake Titicaca is in the alpine belt, with cool and low temperatures for most of the year. The average annual rainfall is 610 mm. Winters are dry with very cold nights and warm weather in the afternoon.
The average temperature at the water surface ranges from +10 to +14 °C. During the winter (June-August), as a result of mixing with the deeper waters, the temperature stays between +10, +11 °C.
Legends of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is considered the cradle of the Inca civilization, Teotihuacan and other Andean peoples (Aymara, Quechua). According to Inca mythology, once upon a time from time immemorial, the world experienced terrible cataclysms that caused a flood. The earth was plunged into an abyss of darkness and cold, and the human race was on the brink of extinction. Some time after the flood the god Viracochi emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca. Traveling through the islands of Amantani, Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, Viracochi ordered the Sun (Inti) and the Moon (Mama-Kilya) to rise. Then, traveling to Tiahuanaco, he created anew man and woman and sent them to all four sides, beginning the repopulation of the world. Tiahuanaco remains to this day the sacred site of the Andes.
Believing that the Sun and the Moon first originated on Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca), the Incas built temples to worship the heavenly forces of nature, and the region itself became a popular pilgrimage destination long before Europeans arrived here. The islands were so important that Inca rulers themselves traveled to the lake to worship shrines. Archaeologists who have studied the islands have discovered sanctuaries dating as far back as 500 B.C., which means the islands were considered a sacred site of previous Inca civilizations. The lake area once served as the cradle of the Tiwanaku civilization, which reached its apogee around 600 B.C. but faded into obscurity around 1200 B.C. The Incas did not create anything new, they simply usurped the sacred sites of previous civilizations.
Lake Titicaca attractions
Isla del Sol
Located in the southern part of Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol (Isla del Sol) is one of Bolivia’s most famous sites. According to legend, it is the birthplace of Manco Capac, the founder of the Inca state, and his wife Mama Ocllo (Adam and Eve for the Incas). Geographically the area is a rocky and hilly island. There are no automobiles or paved roads. The population is about 5000 inhabitants, their main economic activities are based on agriculture, fishing, tourism and subsistence farming.
Isla del Sol has more than 80 archaeological ruins. Most of them date back to the Inca period (around the 15th century A.D.).
The main sights of Isla del Sol:
- The ruins of Chinkana, a huge complex of stone labyrinths that served as an educational center for Inca priests. Next to Chinkana is the sacred Inca stone, which is the source of their civilization.
- Yumani/the Inca Steps. If you arrive in Yumani village by boat, you must climb the 206 steps to reach the central part of the village. The steps are original Inca constructions and lead to the three sacred springs, which are called the source of youth.
- Pilko Kayna. From the top of the Inca steps, a path leads to Pilko Kayna (literally “the place where the birds sleep”). This 14-room complex may have been used as a fortress to protect the young girls who lived nearby on Isla de la Luna (Isla de la Luna). From here you can get a good view of the Isla de la Luna.
Most tourists visit Isla del Sol on a day visit, but you can stay in hotels here. Wait until all the day-trippers have left the island and you will feel the freedom here. Stay overnight and feel the magic of the beautiful island, the cradle of Inca civilization.
The Uros Islands
The thatched Uros Islands are located on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, a 30-minute boat ride from the coastal city of Puno. The Uros Islands are one of the popular attractions of Lake Titicaca. At the time of the arrival of the Incas in the 13th century, the Uros lived on the coast. They were forced to create artificial shelters for themselves in the middle of the lake and did not submit to the powerful Inca empire. The Uros were proud of their accomplishments, literally creating a land for themselves. The Inca civilization is long gone, but the Uros culture still exists.
Totora cane is a vital material for the Ouros. They live on it, sleep on it, use it for food, and make tea from the flower of the plant. Just as Andean highlanders rely on coca leaves to adapt to the harsh climate, the Uros rely on totora reeds in the same way. The Uros build their floating islands out of totora reeds. When the reeds dry out, they begin to break down under the weight of humans, absorbing water and rotting, so new stems must be added constantly. During the dry season this procedure is done every three months, during the rainy season the reeds are replaced more often. The life of the island is estimated at about 30 years. To date, there are 42 floating islands, woven from totora reeds.
The largest islands are inhabited by up to ten families, smaller ones by two or three. The Uros cook their food on a fire stacked on top of rocks. There are no doctors or hospitals on the islands, so people rely on themselves. Traditionally, men help their wives give birth in their huts. A missionary school operates on one of the larger islands. The Uros religion is a mixture of traditional Indian and Catholic faiths. It is customary for dead Indians to be buried on the mainland.
Traditionally, the islanders live off fishing in Lake Titicaca, hunting birds, and trading with the Aymara Indians, but today tourism has become a major source of income. A census in 1997 showed that of the 2,000 descendants of the Uros, only a few hundred remained on the floating islands. The rest have already moved to the mainland.
A few decades ago, the Uros Islands were cut off from the outside world. Today they are crowded with tourists. The development of tourism on Lake Titicaca in the last two decades has significantly changed the traditional way of life of the Uros. They have learned to make handicrafts and make a good living from it. Why work when you can take pictures with tourists and get tips for it? Or, without asking for tips, you can put tourists in your cane boats, sail around your floating island and get $10 for it.
There are many interesting and informative things to learn while visiting the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca, however, many tourists leave very disappointed. Yes, it is interesting to see and listen to stories about how the natives build their floating island, learn about their customs and culture, how they sleep, cook food, and so on, but the Uros Islands have long turned into a place where tourists are “milked” for money. As soon as you get off the boat, its inhabitants immediately pose for photos (for money, of course), try to put on traditional clothes, impose souvenirs at a clearly inflated cost. And to top it all off, they make you take a short voyage on their $10 cane boats. Now there is little authenticity left here, everything is built for tourists and it feels like you have only visited the islands to make their inhabitants a little richer.
Tacuile Island was one of the last places in Peru to be conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. It is located on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, 45 km from the coastal city of Puno. The island, which measures 5.5 km by 1.6 km, is home to about 2,200 locals.
Islanders are known for their high craftsmanship in high quality handmade textiles. Women only make yarn and weave. From the age of eight, knitting is done exclusively by men. All locals wear traditional clothes, making them is an important part of their daily life and can be used to determine a person’s social status. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the textile art of the inhabitants of Takuile Island as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In contrast to the Uros Islands, one can feel quite comfortable on Takuile Island. Local society, based on the principles of collectivism and the moral code of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy). There are no police or dogs on Takuila – no one breaks the laws here, and therefore police and dogs are not needed to protect property. All decisions are made at meetings held on Sunday in a small village in the north of the island. There is no electricity, no health clinic, and no roads on Takuila, only paths and steps. There are also no hotels – visiting tourists take turns sleeping in the homes of locals. Great food, kind people, and the atmosphere will make us feel welcome. The islanders live a subsistence lifestyle and use only what they have made or grown themselves, with the exception of some products (tea, sugar, rice). Their textile craftsmanship deserves the most flattering praise. A stay on this island usually ends with the purchase of these very handicrafts from local craftsmen. Receiving about 40,000 tourists annually, the welfare of the islanders is largely based on income from the tourism business.
Surikui Island is located in the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca. Surikui is considered to be the last place where the art of cane boat building is preserved. Surikui craftsmen helped build several boats for Thor Heyerdahl, the famous traveler. Built with the help of local craftsmen, the boat Ra II successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1970. The previous expedition of the famous Norwegian traveler, organized in 1959, failed due to design flaws in the boat, which caused the porous reeds to absorb water and the boat began to sink. After making the 5,000-mile voyage, the crew was forced to abandon it.
In 1970, to organize the expedition Ra II, Heyerdahl established contacts with specialists on the island of Surikui to build a boat out of reeds. They traveled to Morocco and participated in the construction of Ra II. In his book about the expedition, Heyerdahl emphasized: “Their knowledge of building large boats was so perfect that no engineer, shipbuilder, or archaeologist could compete with them.” The boat successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, thus proving that our ancestors could have made the voyage to the New World.
- There are many legends, including the underwater city of Vanacu at the bottom of Lake Titicaca, where the Incas allegedly hid gold from the Spanish conquistadors. The story of the lost treasure prompted the famous French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau to explore the lake by submarine in 1968, but he found only ancient pottery. The influential American magazine National Geographic undertook a scientific expedition in 1988, but also without much success.
- In 2000, archaeologists discovered the ruins of an ancient temple at the bottom of Lake Titicaca. The archaeological site dates from about 500-1000 A.D., which means that it existed before the Inca civilization began. It is associated with the Tiwanaku civilization, whose center was near the eastern shore of Titicaca on the Bolivian side. The size of the ancient temple is 200 m by 50 m, about the size of two average soccer fields.
- The highest cultivated land in the world is in the area of Lake Titicaca – barley is grown here at an altitude of 4,700 m above sea level. The grains never mature at this altitude, but the stalks are quite suitable fodder for llamas and alpacas. These pack animals are an important source of meat for the Indians and serve as pack animals.
- The Bolivian Navy has a total of 173 small vessels, mostly stationed on Lake Titicaca. During the Second Pacific War (1879-1883) Bolivia lost access to the sea, and is now thinking of regaining its status as a maritime power in the future.
- In 1862 the first steamboat, assembled in England and transported in parts by mule to the lake, began to run. Today ships make regular runs from Puno, on the Peruvian coast, to the small Bolivian port of Guaca. A narrow-gauge railroad connects Guaca with La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. One of the highest railroads in the world runs from Puno to Arequipa and the Pacific, linking landlocked Bolivia to the Pacific.
- June through September is the peak tourist season. The main cities to visit in the Lake Titicaca region are Puno in Peru and Copacabana in Bolivia.
Visiting Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side is slightly different than from the Peruvian side. Copacabana on the Bolivian side is a tourist town, full of hotels, restaurants and bars. It is much more pleasant to spend time here, there are some Inca ruins in the vicinity, and tours to the Isla del Sol depart from the marina of this town.
Puno is primarily a city and secondarily a tourist center, it is quite dirty and unattractive. There is nothing to interest tourists here. But next to Puno are the floating islands of Uros, one of the main attractions of Lake Titicaca.
Amazing nature: the highest lake in the world
Today TravelAsk invites you to walk around the most amazing lakes. And they are amazing because they are very high in the mountains and hidden from human eyes. This means that they have preserved a unique ecosystem, and few tourists have been able to enjoy their beauty. So, the top 5 most high-altitude lakes of our planet.
Top 5: Lakes Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca
These two lakes are located 4,300 meters above sea level at the foot of the volcano Licancabur, which is located in Bolivia. By the way, there is also a small lake in its crater.
The lakes are stunningly beautiful: the water in them is emerald in color.
The fact is that they have a lot of different sediments, including copper, arsenic, calcium and lead. But despite this, the water is inhabited by bacteria and plankton. Laguna Verde is a larger lake and always consistently emerald in color; Laguna Blanca is much smaller. The latter has its own peculiarities: it is capable of changing color. Usually its water is milky in color, but sometimes it also becomes emerald. The thing is that it has much less substances than the first, but it is worth a breeze, and the color changes, because at the bottom there are multiple deposits of copper.
In addition, the area near Lycancabur is one of the driest places on the planet; rainfall here is very rare, so there is no vegetation. This makes the views very impressive: clay-colored earth, emerald water and a majestically towering volcano surrounded by other no less picturesque mountains. And all this beauty is complemented by the flamingos that inhabit these places.
No wonder the lakes are popular with tourists.
Top 4: Chungara Lake
This amazing body of water is located in Chile at an altitude of 4,570 meters and its area is more than 21 square kilometers. It has preserved pristine nature with its rare inhabitants, many of which are almost impossible to find in the foothills of the Andes.
Besides, there are old buildings on the banks of the Chungara: people used to live here once. Therefore, the reservoirs attract not only climbers who want to conquer the local peaks, but also history buffs.
And look at Sahama, a snow-covered extinct volcano, next to which Chungara is located.
Top 3: Lake Gurudongmar
This body of water is located in India, in the state of Sikkim, 5,148 meters above sea level. It was named by Buddhists after the teacher Padmasambhava, better known as Guru Rinpoche. He is the founder of Buddhism in Tibet. The preacher visited the lake in the 8th century and since then it is considered sacred and thousands of pilgrims come here every year for ablutions. It is believed that the water here is curative.
The lake is unusual: in winter it freezes, but not all of it, a small part of the reservoir remains untouched by ice and frost. Buddhists believe that during the pilgrimage, the teacher Padmasambhava put his hands on this place, and therefore it is not covered with ice.
By the way, it is not so easy for ordinary tourists to get here: you need a special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs of Delhi.
Top 2: Panch Pokhari Lakes
These are five lakes with crystal water, surrounded by mountains. They are located in the highest mountainous country, Nepal. The reservoirs are located at an altitude of 5,494 meters above world ocean level. Hindu pilgrims regularly come here.
In general, these places are mysterious and fabulous: Nepal is Nepal. For example, so high unprepared person will be hard to breathe, but despite this, not far from the lake is quite a lot of villages. People here live a secluded and peaceful life in harmony with the wildlife. If you ever manage to visit these amazing places, pay attention to these settlements, they are wonderful with their colorful life and special history.
Top 1: Ojos del Salado
The record-breaker of our top list can be seen while climbing the highest volcano on the planet – Ojos del Salado. The volcano is located near the border between Chile and Argentina. By the way, we already told you about it here .
The lake is “sheltered” at an altitude of 6,390 meters above sea level. The reservoir is only 100 meters in diameter and 10 meters deep, but it is the highest-lying source of fresh water on Earth.
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