I remember learning about Lake Titicaca at geography class in primary school. I found the name sounded utterly funny and I let my imagination ran freely about it. So visiting it was kind of emblematic for me.

Upon reaching Lake Titicaca, my childhood curiosity about its name did get satisfied: according to the latest theory in the the Quechua language (one of the biggest indigenous groups that live on the territory of Bolivia) titi means ‘puma’ and caca ‘mount’. Locals say that if you turn the map upside down, the shape of the lake looks like a puma eating a hare.

Now, don’t be shy: open Google maps and turn your screen around (or trick it with ctrl+alt+down arrow)!

Where is Lake Titicaca

The highest navigable lake (and the largest by water volume in South America) lies at the altitude of 3812 m, and is shared by Bolivia and Peru. It was an important Inca site but pre-Inca cultures also lived here; a few years ago, archaeologists found an underwater temple that was built around 1000-15000 years ago by the Tiwanaku tribe.

Although this certainly unique archaeological site is not open to the public (yet!), there are many Inca ruins to be visited in the surrounding area.

Bolivia lake titicaca reed boats
Traditional Inca totora reed boats parked at Isla del Sol. Look at their front, there’s a head of a puma on their prows!

The lakeside town Copacabana is well geared for tourism. Even in the rainy (summer) season there are many tourists strolling on the main street where colourful Andean textile sellers and countless restaurants bite each other’s tail. The Bolivian charm we got used to everywhere else is not missing here and we find our cosy place in the comedor, near the market.

Tip: There are many Inca sites around town –some charge 5-10 BOB entrance– and they are marked on the free map from the tourist office. When visiting the area, remember that you are at high altitude, so prepare some remedy, like coca leaves.
 
Basilica Our Lady of Copacabana
Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana

What to see in Copacabana

One of my favourite sites in Copacabana is the huge Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana in front of a pretty, hilly background. In the back room, there’s a collection of Our Lady statues with her apparitions. The Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s patron saint, is depicted with a typical totora reed boat at her feet (of course, this one is made of silver – maybe from Potosí?).

Copacabana is famous in the Catholic community in Bolivia, thousands of believers take part in its procession every year. The basilica’s enormous size is an obvious counteract to the Inca religion.

Copacabana bolivia virgin
Virgin of Copacabana: the crowned queen of Bolivia, the patron of the national police and of the navy

Copacabana’s name rings a bell even to those who’ve never been to Bolivia (or to South America): Rio de Janeiro‘s famous beach carries the same name.

Copacabana derives from kota kahuana, which means ‘view of the lake’ in Aymara, the other biggest indigenous group in Bolivia. Rio’s beach got, in fact, renamed after the construction of a chapel holding a replica of the Virgen de Copacabana!

View on Titicaca Lake from the highest point of Copacabana
View from Cerro Calvario in Copacabana. Despite the strong evangelisation, local devotees still leave coca leaf offerings to Pachamama on the hilltop.

How to visit Isla del Sol

A popular day trip from Copacabana is to the gorgeous, hilly Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. According to the Inca religion, Inti the Sun God was born here. Although there is a regular boat connection to the island, we decided to stay there for a night.

If anyone is expecting a vibrant island life, they will be disappointed: there is no evening entertainment, nor roads – only paths to hike. Locals seem to be grown hard and grumpy by the constant climbing up the hills (no wonder, the climb from the port coupled with the altitude is a real killer!) and the hordes of half-day tourists. Their grumpiness left a bitter taste in our mouth…

Dirt path going down to the village on Isla del Sol

Sadly, the major part of the island (the northern part) is currently closed off from tourism by locals, apparently due to a disagreement between locals over touristic sites (=money, again). So when arriving to a little hut on our hike, a group of local men asked us politely not to pass.

It’s a real pity because from a hindsight the north of the island looks even more beautiful than the south, if that’s possible.

Tip: Finding accommodation won’t be a problem, because there is plenty. The standard guest house price is around 80-100 BOB for 2 people but we found a really grotty place for 50. Just ask around.

Getting to and from Lake Titicaca

Titicaca Lake is a popular gateway to Peru. There are a lot of buses going to Puno, the Titicaca town on the Peruvian side, but also to Arequipawhere the wind blew us next– and Cusco (almost) directly.

Read more: What to see in and around Cusco

Titicaca lake island sun potatoes
Flowering papas. Potato is one of the few crops that survive the harsh Andean conditions. Did you know that there used to be around 3000 varieties?

Did you also learn about Lake Titicaca at school? Where in the world is your favourite lake?
Share your story in the comments!


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Who am I?

Anna is a world citizen, an avid traveller, a passionate environmentalist and a digital nomad. Writing about her year backpacking through South America, she tries to encourage everyone to discover this beautiful continent as a traveller or a digital nomad and pass on her love for responsible travel.

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